By Sarah Shiver
GSMA Summer Intern
With a history as rich as Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s, small remnants of the past often become lost or forgotten. Inspired by a childhood memory, GSMA staffer and volunteer hike leader Charlene Shiver set about recreating a piece of her own past and revived a bit of park history in the process.
When Shiver heard that one of her coworkers at Great Smoky Mountains Association was expecting a baby, she decided to make a gift for the child, something she routinely does for friends and family with children on the way. In the past Shiver had sewn bibs and small blankets for children, but recent conversations with family members led her to draw inspiration from a childhood memory to create something new.
As a young girl, Shiver often spent summers with her grandmother in Virginia. With little to occupy her time in rural Appalachia, Shiver usually spent her days learning crafts from her grandmother, including sewing. Her grandmother Sarah Alice Viers was skilled at turning old garments into wonderful new creations. This was partially out of necessity: with a family of eight, Viers worked hard to provide her children with the things they needed. Viers had years of experience making shirts, socks, dresses and even toys for her family.
“I can remember her telling me about unraveling torn socks just to repurpose the thread and yarn they were made with,” Shiver said. “With scrap material she sometimes made faceless dolls for the kids and grandkids to play with, and one day she taught me how to make my own.”
Shiver recalled these simple dolls when she began to brainstorm about a gift for her coworker. Inspired and determined, she found some cotton fabric and began to sew. Creating the perfect pattern took a few tries.
“The first dolls were bulky and awkward, and I wanted to make a dainty, feminine doll that closely resembled my grandmother’s creations,” Shiver said.
The doll that won Shiver’s approval is simple in design: a small ball of stuffing forming a faceless head and two smaller bits of cotton creating arms. To add more charm to the doll, Shiver carefully selected ribbon to match the fabric, tying it into a bow at the doll’s neck. She then used a bit of lace to mimic a bonnet, perfecting the design.
Shiver brought the gift to her coworker at GSMA who loved the doll’s traditional design. As Shiver explained the history behind it, she began to wonder if the doll would make a good product for GSMA to offer for sale in the park’s visitor center stores. She showed the doll to Retail Director Dawn Roark, who loved the design and decided to help Shiver get her dolls into park stores.
“I thought the dolls would be a good fit because they tell a story about the life of the people who lived in the area before it became a national park,” said Roark. “It reflects how they lived and how they had to make much of what they wore and played with. We already sell handmade wooden toys from this time period, so I thought the dolls would round out the story.”
Roark asked Shiver for some samples of the dolls and presented them to National Park Service personnel for review. The first step was to determine if Shiver’s dolls accurately represented the toys made by families who lived in the Smoky Mountains during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Beth Bramhall, acting supervisory park ranger for Cades Cove, conducted research to determine what type of doll families living here then would have made.
“[I didn’t find] any definitive historical text about dolls in the Smokies,” said Bramhall. “Unlike other cultural resources, like cabins or spear points, confirming types of dolls created in the past required checking several sources for comparison. Oral histories, journals, the park’s cultural collections, and texts about Appalachian home crafts were consulted.”
While checking park archives, two artifacts were found that greatly resembled Shiver’s doll. Although these dolls lacked the lace and ribbon embellishments Shiver included in her design, the pattern was almost identical.
With this evidence, members of the park service, including resource education staff, began discussions to determine if the doll was suitable for sale in park stores. According to Roark, the discussions went rather well. Dolls made by early settlers and those living here through the early 20th century were generally made from recycled materials, while Shiver’s dolls are assembled with new fabric. Despite this small discrepancy, the team ultimately decided that the dolls were similar enough to be of historical and cultural value. Final approval was given for Shiver’s dolls to be sold in park stores.
With an initial order to fill for 100 dolls, Shiver spent weeks searching for vintage lace and cotton fabric to give the dolls a more rustic and authentic feel. “I bought a lot of the materials from friends and family,” she said. “I was even able to get fabric and lace that had been passed down from my grandmother.”
Supplies in hand, Shiver spent the next several weeks cutting out patterns and sewing up the dolls. She used lace to add hems and bonnets to the dolls, carefully choosing the color and style of lace to best match each pattern.
“I worked on the dolls every chance I could get—while watching TV, waiting on laundry to finish, even while talking on the phone.” After a month of cutting, stitching, stuffing and tying, Shiver had a batch of 100 unique dolls. Once she tagged them, her dolls were ready for delivery to GSMA’s Gatlinburg, TN-based warehouse, their final stop before being distributed to each visitor center store.
Shiver feels immense pride seeing her creations on store shelves. “I’m glad that children today will be able to play with toys like the ones their grandparents and great-grandparents once had. It’s important that we have these connections to the past.”
Of Special Note: Sarah Shiver, a student at Flagler University in St. Augustine, FL., is the daughter of Charlene and Lloyd Shiver, both of whom lead Branch Out hikes for GSMA members and reside in Blount County.