LINDSBORG ‒ When members of the Schoenhut Collectors Club convene on Oct. 12 in Lindsborg for their annual national meeting, Marsha Rolander will be at the heart of it. She convinced them to come.
The Club is a membership passionate, even reverent, about a certain kind of doll that was made more than a century ago, and one that has not been made since 1935. They’re rare dolls, small people that can come to life, and a rare group that collects them. When scores of members meet for two days each year, they usually prefer their east-ern comfort zones – from Atlanta, Georgia, to Burlington, Vermont, Lancaster, Pennsylvania in-between (near enough to Philadelphia), and so forth.
Many among the five or six dozen who met in Lancaster a year ago looked on in amazement as Marsha invited them, seriously, to meet this year in Lindsborg.
“I asked the people in the room how many had been to Kansas,” she said in a recent interview. “Not one hand went up.”
She convinced enough of them to bring their convention west, to the middle of middle America. Lindsborg, a crown jewel among the region’s small cities, will offer the charm of Little Sweden, its color and grace, the lift of a culture grounded deeply in the arts.
It all should fit. For most of the collectors, dolls have been a passion that began in that brief, sweet moment in life known as childhood; Schoenhut dolls are at the top of their affection – small, wooden, so patiently crafted that in the mind of a child they come easily to life. Marsha Rolander understands this feeling, one that started long ago in Texas with more common dolls.
“I have loved dolls since I was a child. I always had a dolly,” she said. “Mother and Daddy never had much money, really, but every Christmas I got a doll, and it was always so special.”
She was the third of four children. Her father, J.Q. Woodard, was a minister of music and education for large Southern Baptist churches in Texas – Beaumont, Marshall, Midland and, by her 8th grade the Woodards had moved to Port Neches. She would graduate from high school there.
“Daddy had majored in voice, and as a director and music educator he planned the services, the music, instructed and directed the choirs, the children’s choirs, taught music. These were huge churches with hundreds of members,” she said.
Marsha’s mother, Alice, was an accomplished pianist and organist. She was reared in Kansas, in Durham (north of Hillsboro), studied music at several schools including Bethany, and came to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth looking for work in exchange for tuition and board, and to finish her education. She was hired as an accompanist.
“Daddy was a student there, too, and said he fell in love with mother the first time he saw her sitting at the piano.”
In time they married, and came the children: a daughter, Alice, named for her mother; then Joel, and Marsha, and Nate. All are Bethany College graduates. Alice, a celebrated violinist, was a longtime Freemont, Neb., music educator, and a master teacher at the University of Nebraska String Project; she died in 2016 after battling mesothelioma, a virulent form of cancer. (Alice’s siblings and their spouses all now live in or near Lindsborg, another story, perhaps another time.)
“Growing up in the 1940s and early ‘50s we never had a lot of things,” Marsha said. “But we had our imaginations and I had my dolls – later six or seven. I invented lives for them, with names, and dressed them; sometimes the boys brought their imagination, and a dolly would go missing, kidnapped!
“The boys joined, we had a sheriff looking for the bad guys who had my dolly.”
There were paper dolls, another way to pretend when there was little to pretend with. “I idolized my mother and so I was a mother to my dolls, and as a child I really liked littler children, the ones who came to visit with my mother’s friends.”
Years later, after marriage to Ron Rolander, settling in Lindsborg, starting a family and with an accumulation of more dolls, only then would Marsha learn the legacy of Schoenhut dolls. The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in 1973 featured an exposition, told the story; Jim Turner, the photographer, captured Ron and Marsha’s daughter, Kari, among the Schoenhuts at the Gallery. The photos and a story led the Christmas 1974 issue of Kansas! magazine.
“I’d never heard of them until that exhibit at the Sandzén,” Marsha said.
The dolls had been fashioned by Albert Schoenhut, a German immigrant who came to the United States in the late 1800s and had found work making keys for toy pianos. He created better keys, started his own business making more durable toy pianos and in the early 1900s created miniature living forms of a circus act. Soon came the dolls.
When Schoenhut dolls were made, they were made of wood, carved in a way that brought life to the flesh; spring joints gave vitality to their limbs. There were holes in their feet or shoes, so they could be mounted on special stand, joints and limbs flexed, to appear in motion. They were hand-painted with exquisite care, given hair that was real, or carved to look real, and clothes tailored to fit. Their faces held eyes that seemed ready to engage, to sing, to tell a story. To owners, collectors and even the casual observes, a Schoenhut doll seemed as real as anything alive.
That is what a doll is about, and for collectors, a Schoenhut enhances something started with that first special doll.
The Schoenhut Collectors will be at the Sundstrom Conference Center for meetings, but Marsha plans to offer them a sampling of community life and culture with help from the Lindsborg Convention and Visitors Bureau and many volunteers. The experience will include performances by the Swedish Dancers and Fiddlers, and a visit to the Raymer Society and Red Barn Studio, where many of Lester Raymer’s figures bear striking resemblance to Schoenhut creations, especially his circus figures. There will be a smorgasbord, wine and cheese reception at Hands of Time; relatives of Albert Schoenhut, including great-grandson Bill, plan to attend; there will be time to stroll about Lindsborg, its shops and galleries, even to visit the Sandzén Gallery. For many, Kansas and Lindsborg will be a first.
“We want to open their eyes to our beautiful place,” Marsha said. “We’ll have a great time.”
Plans for this meeting were started a year ago at a meeting of collectors, of those rare people with a certain, lifelong interest that has kept the child in them alive. People with such passion should find the Smoky Valley, its devotion to art, its tradition and heritage, an agreeable and generous place.