impromptu history lesson

So yesterday, I was in Roanoke, just randomly. I’ve been there before. But yesterday, I looked a little harder.

Wiki says :

  • Roanoke is a city in Randolph County, which is in the Piedmont region of eastern Alabama, United States. As of the 2010 census, the population of the city is 6,074, down from 6,563 in 2000. This was an area of historic occupation by the Creek before treaties to persuade the Native Americans to cede their land, followed by forced migration under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The area was part of a broad part of upland developed as cotton plantations worked by enslaved African Americans. The area is still quite rural.
  • Initially called High Pine in the 1830s after a nearby creek, it was allegedly burned during an Indian uprising in 1836. Renamed Chulafinee in 1840, it was later renamed again for the hometown of one of the early settlers, Roanoke, Virginia. The city was officially incorporated in December 1890.
  • Roanoke is located at 33°8′56″N 85°22′11″W (33.148830, -85.369784

Also from wiki, Notable People from Roanoke:

  • Admiral Edward A. Burkhalter, Chief of Naval Intelligence; Director of Intelligence Community, CIA
  • Wilkie Clark, African-American entrepreneur and civil rights activist
  • Jake Daniel, former Major League Baseball player
  • Horace Gillom, former Cleveland Browns football player, who contributed to the evolution of punting by standing farther back from the center than was normal at the time
  • William Anderson Handley, former congressman
  • Fred Hyatt, former Auburn University and professional football wide receiver
  • Odell McLeod, country-gospel singer, radio entertainer, and songwriter
  • Stanley O’Neal, former chairman and chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch
  • Clare Purcell, former bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Church
  • Ella Gaunt Smith, doll manufacturer
  • David Vann, mayor of Birmingham, Alabama

Now, back to me and the day before today.

I’ve been through the area countless times. It’s about 45 minutes south east of where I live currently. But I hadn’t ever studied up on the town’s history, at all. So when I was driving around in the cemetery, I saw a plot of ‘Smiths’ and this one in particular (the one in the photo at the top), caught my attention. The plate reads, inventor, manufacturer of the Alabama Indestructible Doll 1899-1932. Since I hadn’t ever heard of Ella Smith or the Alabama Indestructible Doll, I decided to do some quick research, mostly because I wanted to see the doll. 😉

doll on display at the Randolph County Historical Museum (kkazek@al.com)

I found Ella Gauntt Smith has a Wiki page, here. It says:

  • Ella Gauntt Smith (née Gauntt, Ella Louise, April 12, 1868 – April 2, 1932 in Roanoke, Alabama) was an innovative American doll manufacturer.
  • After graduating from LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, and marrying Samuel Swainswright Smith, Ella began working as a seamstress. She spent years repairing broken bisque dolls brought in by her neighbors and experimenting with ways to produce sturdier dolls. She eventually turned to doll manufacturing full-time, selling mostly to friends and neighbors. After experiencing early success, she exhibited her dolls at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, winning a Grand Prize for Innovation and helping establish a nationwide market for her product, and later displayed dolls at the Southeastern Fair in Atlanta, Ga. and at Jamestown Exposition. She received a patent for her design in 1905, in which she described her doll as follows:

“I made the body or trunk, the arms, legs and feet of stuffed fabric and apply over the feet and hands and as high up on the legs and arms as desirable one or more coats of flesh-coloured and preferably water-proof paint. The head, face, neck and bust are also fabric-covered, and the neck or bust is secured to the drunk by suitable stitching. The outer fabric of the face covers and conforms to the curvature of a backing moulded to conform to the contour of the human face. The fabric of the head is stitched up and stretched over a stuffed body, and as a means for making the head rigid a rod or stick may be inserted for making the head and passed down a suitable distance into the trunk or body…if desired, the doll may be provided with a wig. I prefer, however, to produce the appearance of hair by paint applied directly to the fabric of the head, since the paint acts both to stiffen the fabric, and … to render the head waterproof. The ears are preferably made of stuffed fabric and sewed to the side o the head, after which they are painted.”

  • From 1899 to 1932 her back-yard factory employed 12 women and produced 8,000-10,000 dolls per year. The dolls, known as Ella Smith dolls or Alabama Babies were also sometimes called “Roanoke Indestructible Dolls” or “Alabama Indestructible Dolls” because of their heavy cotton frame and stout plaster of Paris heads. It was often said that a truck could drive over one of these dolls without damaging it. The price at the time for an Ella Smith doll ranged from $1.15 to $12.15 depending on size, clothing and hair. A tenth of her dolls were painted black to resemble African American girls. She was likely the first manufacturer to market dolls based on people of African descent in the Southern United States.
  • Smith was known for working with a hymn-singing parrot perched on her shoulder. At a time when she was planning to expand her operation, a train wreck caused the disastrous loss of many orders. At the same time, a lawsuit arising from a bad business deal cost her a large settlement. Mrs. Smith, who suffered from diabetes and kidney disease, died in 1932 and is buried in Cedarwood Cemetery (Roanoke, AL).

Then, I found this post Tale of Alabama Indestructible Doll  which told me everything I wanted to know about Ella Smith’s doll (photos from The Randolph County historical Museum) and also led me to learn about the author of the post Kelly Kazek who has an amazing amazon author biography here.

Now, all because I took a Sunday drive, I’ve learned loads about the history of my corner of the state, AND I’ve got a new (new to me, at least) author to start collecting. Not bad for an unplanned Sunday afternoon adventure. Not bad at all.