10,000 dolls find a home in Fryeburg

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Hazel Currier’s passion for collecting, fixing and dressing dolls of all kinds is on display at this one-of-a-kind museum.

When Owen Currier gave his bride, Hazel a beautiful doll shortly after they married in 1942, she was quite taken with it. There were others that followed, but it wasn’t until 1970 when Hazel bought her own doll at an antique store in North Conway that she took to “fixing up” dolls. “She needed some tender loving care,” Hazel said. “So I took her home.”

Little did Hazel know that taking in one “baby” would lead to another. And another. With plenty of encouragement from her husband, collecting dolls soon became more than just a hobby. “Owen liked the dolls as much as I did. The whole thing took on a life of its own,” Hazel said with a laugh. “It became an obsession; one I have really enjoyed.”

Now Hazel Currier’s passion for dolls has become a part of her legacy. In 2015, the twinkly-eyed 93-year-old donated approximately 10,000 of the dolls that shared her modest Yarmouth home, along with some start-up money, to the Fryeburg Historical Society. This led to the founding of the Hazel & Owen Currier Doll Museum, believed to be the only doll museum in New England.

Hazel was never a mere collector. Although she has been given or purchased modern dolls or distinctive antique dolls in mint condition over the decades, it seems the dolls Hazel really has a heart for are the orphans and cast-offs she has found at flea markets, in yard sale bins and at thrift stores. Some were broken and dirty, dressed in tatters . . . or had no clothes at all.

In her collection you will find hundreds and hundreds of Barbies, as well as Raggedy Annes, Kewpie dolls, porcelain baby dolls, Cabbage Patch dolls, vintage composite dolls, American Girl dolls, Shirley Temple dolls, action figures, international dolls. She has taken them all in and given them new life.

A talented, prolific painter and crafter, Hazel seems to view these dolls as an artist would a blank canvas. First, if possible, they are bathed and shampooed. Then each doll is coiffed, dressed (including undergarments and sometimes hats) and accessorized.

It’s plain to see that upcycling the dolls has brought much joy to Hazel’s life. “We never had any children of our own so these dolls became my babies,” she explained. “They have kept me entertained all these years. And when Owen died (in 1992), this really became my life.”

As Hazel got older, she often wondered what would happen to the dolls she had put so much work into. She had given many dolls away over the years but had never sold any, nor did she want to. She only desired to share her “family,” so she began the quest to find a new home for them.

Because she had been a long-time resident of Fryeburg, residing there with Owen from 1945 to 1992, Hazel approached the town’s historical society. She simply called and said, “I have a houseful of dolls and want to know if you’re interested in them.” After meeting Hazel and her dolls, the historical society members were excited about the possibilities, but uncertain where they were going to put them all. The town generously offered the historic Fryeburg Town House, circa 1847, located near the Fairgrounds to house the acquisition, and all went full-speed ahead.

Hazel officially donated most of her vast collection, along with start-up funding, to the historical society, keeping back “just a few” of her favorites. With about 2,000 dolls still with her, Hazel’s home could very well be considered the “Yarmouth Annex ”of the museum. Dolls line the perimeter of every room, posing in petite chairs, filling display cases, tables and shelves, and sit on quilt-covered beds. There’s even a welcoming contingent in the garage. It’s difficult to imagine how Hazel managed to fit five times that many dolls in the space she has, but she did.

The transformation of Fryeburg’s old town house into a “doll house” began in March 2016 with help from Hazel’s family members and friends. Almost the whole kit and caboodle was packed up and transported to Fryeburg. There, a group of volunteers, including Sally Whitaker and June O’Donal, now co-directors of the museum, waited with open arms and big plans.

Unpacking the dolls and creating the displays  — which included placard holders handmade by Hazel’s nephew, as well as doll houses, furniture and tea sets also belonging to Hazel — took up most of that spring and summer. With the collective talent of the historical society members, Hazel’s legacy took shape.

Now, within the high-ceilinged space where townsfolk used to vote, dolls “Ezra and Maude” are the official greeters who preside over the guest book. They were part of a 50-member collection Hazel purchased in Norway (Maine) for a song about 15 years ago.

A good portion of the 8,000 dolls on display in the museum are in historical dress and paired with vintage photographs and local memorabilia to depict Fryeburg’s history. Approximately 2,000 more dolls wait “backstage” for their turn in the limelight while others are grouped together in meaningful ways. Most of the U.S. presidents are represented, as are many famous celebrities and nearly every nationality. There are also more than a few surprises.

Currently, a large winter scene featuring dolls dressed in Victorian-era winter attire are displayed on and around an antique sleigh. Another display includes a picture of one of the very first schools in Fryeburg in the 1700s surrounded by dolls dressed as school children.

The largest, most ornate display is entitled “Tea at the Oxford House.” It highlights dolls in Victorian attire as well as several tea sets and photographs to illustrate that time period. The Oxford House, where Daniel Webster boarded while living in Fryeburg, was once a very grand structure.

Several Shirley Temple dolls and other antique dolls, many made in the United States decades ago, are nestled together in a commanding exhibit on tiered shelves at the back of the room. These historical scenes and other displays are occasionally tweaked, with small touches added and more dolls incorporated. For instance, Whitaker remarked that they hope to enlarge the Shirley Temple collection.

The plethora of Barbie dolls, displayed in tall glass cases, is particularly impressive. Many of the Barbies are in their original packaging, while others have been dressed and accessorized to the hilt. Hazel designed every single ensemble, no two alike, then crocheted or sewed the outfits, which even include tiny crocheted shoes. Oftentimes recycled fabric, as well as thread and yarn from thrift shops and the Dollar Store, was used. Jewelry, tiny buttons, sequins, pearls and trappings of all sorts provide the finishing touches. Hazel even placed a penny in each handmade Barbie purse.

Upon entering the museum for the first time, Hazel recalled, “I was overjoyed! I just couldn’t believe it. I just hope everyone enjoys my dolls as much as I do. I’ve had so much fun doing this.”

According to Sally Whitaker, Hazel’s generous donation has been received well so far. For the future, she is working with the the historical society’s board to assure that the museum becomes a destination. She’s especially excited about showing the exhibits to organizations such as the Girl Scouts, 4-H, The Red Hat Society and groups from assisted-living facilities.

Other than those who are doll collectors, the museum could have a special appeal to historians and crafters. Whitaker points out, “The details of the dolls’ clothing are amazing examples of very intricate handiwork.”

Hazel remains completely unflustered by the attention. She just goes about her business in Yarmouth; shopping for dolls or sitting in her favorite chair with a Barbie and a basketful of colorful yarn close at hand, crocheting yet another one-of-a-kind outfit.

She sums up her odyssey by saying, “I always had to have something to do when I sat down. I’ve always said, as long as I live I want to be able to accomplish something.”

Come springtime, be sure to set aside a day to go to Fryeburg and view exactly what Hazel, with the help of the historical society, has achieved. At present, the museum, located at 103 Lovell Road (Route 5 South) will be open May through October from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, in conjunction with the hours of the Colonel Samuel Osgood House and the Ham Research Library.

The Currier Doll Museum is also open at other times throughout the year if arranged by appointment. Special accommodations can be made for groups that would like to schedule private showings. There is a $5 suggested donation. Plans are in the works to develop a package where a visit to the museum will be paired with a tour of the Osgood House and the research library. For more information or to plan a visit, go to www.currierdollmuseum.org or contact Sally Whitaker at [email protected]

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor, and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for 20 years. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Sally Whitaker, left, and Terri Tomlin help run The Hazel & Owen Currier Doll Museum in Fryeburg, with its 10,000 dolls collected over Hazel’s long and active life. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Ezra and Maude greet people as they enter The Hazel & Owen Currier Doll Museum in Fryeburg. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Hazel Currier holds the doll that has a place of honor in her bedroom. The doll is very similar to the one her husband, Owen, gave to her when the couple were first married, starting a lifelong pursuit. (Karen Schneider photo)

Jester and clown dolls.  (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Sally Whitaker removes composition dolls from The Hazel & Owen Currier Doll Museum in Fryeburg. Whitaker took the dolls home for the winter to prevent damage because the museum has no heat. The museum is generally open during the warm months, but special arrangements can be made at other times by contacting the museum. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

The museum has international dolls that represent cultures and countries from all over the world. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A photograph of Hazel and Owen Currier hangs on the wall of The Hazel & Owen Currier Doll Museum. Hazel Currier received her first doll from her husband in 1942 and ultimately collected, fixed and outfitted thousands. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Hazel Currier made each outfit for her collection of Barbie Dolls. Currier also put a penny in each Barbie Doll’s pocketbook. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Hazel Currier proudly shows off a Christmas display in her Yarmouth home. (Karen Schneider photo)

Sally Whitaker removes composition dolls from The Hazel & Owen Currier Doll Museum in Fryeburg. Whitaker took the dolls home for the winter to prevent damage because the museum has no heat.  (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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