doll museum 109

COOKEVILLE — Welcome to Tennessee’s biggest dollhouse, a place that might just be heaven on earth for little girls of all ages.

Nobody knows the exact number, but here at the Velma Thompson Doll Collection in the Patton House Museum, aka the Cookeville Doll Museum, reside approximately 1,400 to 2,000 dolls, some dating back to the 1880s.

Don’t try to count them. It’s nigh impossible.

Basking here in their retirement years are vintage porcelain, bisque and china head dolls as well as contemporary figurines and even McDonald’s Happy Meal dolls. These diminutive creatures who cannot talk range from Victorian Era dolls, bridal dolls, Madame Alexander dolls and kewpie dolls to Mother Goose characters and “Gone With the Wind” personalities.

Among the more recognizable inhabitants would be Strawberry Shortcake, Betsy McCall, Annie Oakley, Queen Elizabeth, Shirley Temple, Barbie, the Dionne quintuplets, Chatty Cathy,  Laurel & Hardy, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Pollyanna, Winnie the Pooh,  Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Cinderella, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  

The museum consists of five rooms and two halls spilling over with dolls, and the Doll House Room, which features a giant doll house, may be the star attraction with a dozen miniature scenes, tiny rooms, filled with furniture and dollies wearing hand-sewn clothes.

Everything seen here is the legacy of Velma Thompson, who collected dolls for more than 50 years and donated them to Putnam County before her death in 2011. Thompson knew the history of each doll, sewed their clothes, repaired them and loved them. Each one bears a tag numbered and dated by their caretaker.

The museum is open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays, and admission is free. Volunteer hosts will greet visitors and help them get started on a self-guided tour that can take from 15 minutes to an hour or so.

How the collection grew

According to Thompson’s niece, Molly Taylor of Murfreesboro, Thompson began acquiring figures in the mid-1950s after a Cookeville antique dealer sold her a clutch of dolls.  

Taylor spent many afternoons after school at her aunt’s house where Thompson kept a few dolls downstairs, but the vast majority resided in a couple of upstairs rooms.

“She gave most of her dolls to the museum, but I have some, and I’ve given some to my grandchildren,” Taylor said, “but they all will go back to museum pretty soon. My grandchildren are getting too old for them.”

Doll museum host Hill Carlen said of the menagerie, “These were her children. That’s how she looked at it. The county owns them, but her heirs can get them back if they are not taken care of.”

The dolls inhabit a house that was a gift from Putnam County historian Maurine Patton, who died in 2009. A home economics teacher at Cookeville High School for 34 years and a genealogist, Patton was a close friend to Thompson.

“Both women were institutions,” Carlen said. “These two women were feared. The boys were scared of Velma because she was the county’s selective service agent, and the girls were scared of Mrs. Patton because she was the home ec teacher.”

Carlen noted that Thompson never threw anything away. She used wooden orange crates to create interior dollhouse scenes. When the museum was going up, Putnam County archivist Glenn Jones, who created the displays, used those interior scenes to construct the giant doll house and set the vignettes down low so they could be ogled from a child’s point of view.

Sewing part of the job

Host Kathie Chapman knew Thompson before there was a museum and observed many of these dolls when they were in Thompson’s home.

“She had a tiny little house. She would collect any kind of doll,” said Chapman, noting that Thompson, who never married, “was very unassuming, quiet and loved to play bridge.”

Touching on Thompson’s skills with a needle, she said Thompson knitted tiny sweaters that can be seen on several Barbie dolls converted into Tennessee Tech and University of Tennessee cheerleaders.

“The museum hosts birthday parties and parties for Girl Scouts, Brownies and American Girl doll collectors, maybe eight or nine times a year,” Chapman said. “None of the girls can believe one lady had all these dolls. It’s amazing to me how many little girls are interested in the First Lady dresses. I think they were one of her pride and joys.”

Host Melinda Swann also knew Thompson as a friend and used to visit her on Sunday afternoons when Thompson taught her how to quilt.

“She had such a great outlook on life and was a positive person, always planning ahead,” Swann said. “She was a great resourceful person. She used what she had. She never drove but walked wherever she needed to go. She was a wonderful seamstress.”

Thompson was also a wonderful doll doctor, as Swann remembered how she repaired one of her broken dolls. Thompson’s doll repair kit came in a little tackle box with a red cross on it. 

As for how Thompson’s collection swelled to more than 1,000, Swann said, “Everybody loved her, and once you are known to have a collection … All of a sudden it was more than a personal collection, as many people in the community gave her dolls that belonged to their relatives.”

Swann recalled that every year, Thompson would set out a different group or family of dolls in her living room to celebrate the holidays. Swann was hesitant about bringing her three young sons to see them.

“The dolls would be under the Christmas tree beside a toy piano that would actually play. All of the First Lady dolls were in a cabinet in a closet off the living room, and she had different ones scattered around, but most of them were upstairs on shelving she made with bricks and plywood.

“She ended up with so many that for a time she couldn’t get to all of them because there were just too many. So when we went to see them, I was afraid my sons would break something. I was so thrilled with getting the museum.

“So now you can get close and see them, and they are safe. She loved them. Every one was important. My first time to go in the museum, I felt such a presence, a happy place and the spirit of Velma was somehow there. She was a sweet, sweet person.”

Thompson’s niece, Molly Taylor, said that if the hundreds and hundreds of dolls in the museum could share their thoughts they would say, “We had a good time and were always surrounded by people having a good time, and we like where we are now.”

COOKEVILLE — Welcome to Tennessee’s biggest dollhouse, a place that might just be heaven on earth for little girls of all ages.

Nobody knows the exact number, but here at the Velma Thompson Doll Collection in the Patton House Museum, aka the Cookeville Doll Museum, reside approximately 1,400 to 2,000 dolls, some dating back to the 1880s.

Don’t try to count them. It’s nigh impossible.

Basking here in their retirement years are vintage porcelain, bisque and china head dolls as well as contemporary figurines and even McDonald’s Happy Meal dolls. These diminutive creatures who cannot talk range from Victorian Era dolls, bridal dolls, Madame Alexander dolls and kewpie dolls to Mother Goose characters and “Gone With the Wind” personalities.

Among the more recognizable inhabitants would be Strawberry Shortcake, Betsy McCall, Annie Oakley, Queen Elizabeth, Shirley Temple, Barbie, the Dionne quintuplets, Chatty Cathy,  Laurel & Hardy, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Pollyanna, Winnie the Pooh,  Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Cinderella, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  

The museum consists of five rooms and two halls spilling over with dolls, and the Doll House Room, which features a giant doll house, may be the star attraction with a dozen miniature scenes, tiny rooms, filled with furniture and dollies wearing hand-sewn clothes.

Everything seen here is the legacy of Velma Thompson, who collected dolls for more than 50 years and donated them to Putnam County before her death in 2011. Thompson knew the history of each doll, sewed their clothes, repaired them and loved them. Each one bears a tag numbered and dated by their caretaker.

The museum is open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays, and admission is free. Volunteer hosts will greet visitors and help them get started on a self-guided tour that can take from 15 minutes to an hour or so.

How the collection grew

According to Thompson’s niece, Molly Taylor of Murfreesboro, Thompson began acquiring figures in the mid-1950s after a Cookeville antique dealer sold her a clutch of dolls.  

Taylor spent many afternoons after school at her aunt’s house where Thompson kept a few dolls downstairs, but the vast majority resided in a couple of upstairs rooms.

“She gave most of her dolls to the museum, but I have some, and I’ve given some to my grandchildren,” Taylor said, “but they all will go back to museum pretty soon. My grandchildren are getting too old for them.”

Doll museum host Hill Carlen said of the menagerie, “These were her children. That’s how she looked at it. The county owns them, but her heirs can get them back if they are not taken care of.”

The dolls inhabit a house that was a gift from Putnam County historian Maurine Patton, who died in 2009. A home economics teacher at Cookeville High School for 34 years and a genealogist, Patton was a close friend to Thompson.

“Both women were institutions,” Carlen said. “These two women were feared. The boys were scared of Velma because she was the county’s selective service agent, and the girls were scared of Mrs. Patton because she was the home ec teacher.”

Carlen noted that Thompson never threw anything away. She used wooden orange crates to create interior dollhouse scenes. When the museum was going up, Putnam County archivist Glenn Jones, who created the displays, used those interior scenes to construct the giant doll house and set the vignettes down low so they could be ogled from a child’s point of view.

Sewing part of the job

Host Kathie Chapman knew Thompson before there was a museum and observed many of these dolls when they were in Thompson’s home.

“She had a tiny little house. She would collect any kind of doll,” said Chapman, noting that Thompson, who never married, “was very unassuming, quiet and loved to play bridge.”

Touching on Thompson’s skills with a needle, she said Thompson knitted tiny sweaters that can be seen on several Barbie dolls converted into Tennessee Tech and University of Tennessee cheerleaders.

“The museum hosts birthday parties and parties for Girl Scouts, Brownies and American Girl doll collectors, maybe eight or nine times a year,” Chapman said. “None of the girls can believe one lady had all these dolls. It’s amazing to me how many little girls are interested in the First Lady dresses. I think they were one of her pride and joys.”

Host Melinda Swann also knew Thompson as a friend and used to visit her on Sunday afternoons when Thompson taught her how to quilt.

“She had such a great outlook on life and was a positive person, always planning ahead,” Swann said. “She was a great resourceful person. She used what she had. She never drove but walked wherever she needed to go. She was a wonderful seamstress.”

Thompson was also a wonderful doll doctor, as Swann remembered how she repaired one of her broken dolls. Thompson’s doll repair kit came in a little tackle box with a red cross on it. 

As for how Thompson’s collection swelled to more than 1,000, Swann said, “Everybody loved her, and once you are known to have a collection … All of a sudden it was more than a personal collection, as many people in the community gave her dolls that belonged to their relatives.”

Swann recalled that every year, Thompson would set out a different group or family of dolls in her living room to celebrate the holidays. Swann was hesitant about bringing her three young sons to see them.

“The dolls would be under the Christmas tree beside a toy piano that would actually play. All of the First Lady dolls were in a cabinet in a closet off the living room, and she had different ones scattered around, but most of them were upstairs on shelving she made with bricks and plywood.

“She ended up with so many that for a time she couldn’t get to all of them because there were just too many. So when we went to see them, I was afraid my sons would break something. I was so thrilled with getting the museum.

“So now you can get close and see them, and they are safe. She loved them. Every one was important. My first time to go in the museum, I felt such a presence, a happy place and the spirit of Velma was somehow there. She was a sweet, sweet person.”

Thompson’s niece, Molly Taylor, said that if the hundreds and hundreds of dolls in the museum could share their thoughts they would say, “We had a good time and were always surrounded by people having a good time, and we like where we are now.”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Velma Thompson Doll Collection

in the Patton House Museum,

aka the Cookeville Doll Museum

Located at 1656 W. Broad Street (Highway 70 North) in Cookeville, this unique museum is set in a small house with five rooms flush with more than 1,400 dolls. Admission is free. Hours are 1-4 p.m. Saturdays. Also open by appointment to groups. A host will be on site to help visitors start self-guided tour. Phone: (931) 252-2755, (931) 261-9645. Facebook page: facebook.com/Cookeville-Doll-Museum-141315886029236/ 

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