In Cheyenne, a collection of 30 dolls recognizes Wyoming's first ladies

In Cheyenne, a collection of 30 dolls recognizes Wyoming's first ladies

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It's important to note that the dolls look exactly like their real-life counterparts.

The porcelain version of former first lady Winifred Hickey maintains the same head of tightly cropped, coiffed gray hair as the real Win Hickey did.

Former first lady Bobby Hathaway's eyes shine the same blue, only they're made of glass in miniature.

The nation memorializes its presidents in oil and tempera paintings that hang together in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The presidential first ladies are remembered by their inaugural dresses, on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institute under dim lighting.

The Wyoming State Museum, too, has its own collection of nine gubernatorial first lady gowns.

And then there are the dolls.

Thirty in all, Wyoming' first lady dolls are made in each woman's likeness. Pint-sized, yet identical inaugural ball gowns have been fashioned for them to wear. Each earring and streak of gray hair is accounted for.

In a single year in the early 1990s, 27 were completed. When former Gov. Jim Geringer took office, a Sherri Geringer doll followed. Then there was a porcelain Nancy Freudenthal, and now, a Carol Mead.

This is where a miniature Mrs. Mead gets her start: the Cheyenne home of doll maker Carol Green.

***

The first lady's arms, legs, torso and head were poured from liquid porcelain, already the shade of her skin, into separate plaster molds.

It took five to ten minutes for her parts to solidify.

Mrs. Mead's delicate porcelain body was let to dry, cleaned and hot-fired in a kiln at 2,269 degrees. Her skin was then buffed smooth, and elastic was later strung through her body to attach her limbs.

Green has poured all of the first ladies. She made her first doll nearly 30 years ago, and when the first lady doll project began in 1993, Green submitted sample dolls and a proposal and won the contract.

Officially called Tribute to Wyoming's First Ladies, the project started as a way to promote the Wyoming Capitol.

Madeline Kaphengst, then the capitol's volunteer coordinator, received a phone call one day from her counterpart in Colorado. The woman wanted to meet and share ideas on how to boost visitation. Kaphengst and a few of her volunteers toured the capitol building in Denver and saw a display there: dolls made to look like Colorado's first ladies, dressed in inaugural gowns.

If Colorado could do it, why not try it in Wyoming?

The project ran on donations, and Kaphengst fundraised. A committee of volunteers built dossiers on the first ladies, gathering everything one could possibly note about a woman's physical appearance.

Was she slender, plump? Did she have freckles?

As for her inaugural ball gown, what could be said about the material and its texture? Did she wear gloves? A hat? Coat or cloak?

Often all the volunteers had to start with were antique black-and-white photos.

Each first lady doll has the same body, and if you look -- really look -- you will notice some of the heads are the same, too. It is Green's painting and detailing that make each woman her own. She can shade the cheeks to give a woman high cheekbones or make her face appear more round.

On miniature Mrs. Mead, Green painted the fingernails a flesh tone. She detailed creases in the fingers and joint areas on the legs and arms.

Green examined a close-up photograph of the first lady's face to cut holes for the eyes and illustrate eyebrows, eyelashes, beauty marks and makeup with a glycerin-based dry paint.

She fired Mrs. Mead's face in a kiln after each step, so her fingerprints wouldn't stick.

Green orders glass eyes through specialty catalogues. Same goes for the hair. She buys styles and colors as close to the first lady's hair as she can find. When the wig arrives at her house, she cuts it to her liking and uses a clothes steamer to style.

"I can get this straight as a pin if I wanted to," Green said.

She's had her hairdresser work on some of the first ladies' up-dos.

To curl the hair, Green uses straws to form ringlets.

No part of the first lady's body is overlooked.

***

From the beginning, it was important to those involved with the project that each first lady doll be dressed by a seamstress in the home county of each first lady's respective governor.

So Kaphengst and her husband, Hank, drove each first lady's body to the dresser, no matter how far away.

"If it was in the northeast part of Wyoming, we always went on to Deadwood and gambled for a night and then came home," Kaphengst said. "We made a vacation out of it."

Then, when the doll was dressed, they'd drive all the way back to pick it up.

In a state nearly 98,000 square miles in size, that's a lot of driving.

So once, they sent a first lady in the mail.

Kaphengst wrapped Martha Hansen in packing material and sent her 360 miles to Pinedale with the U.S. Postal Service.

The husband of one of Kaphengst's friends worked for the highway patrol.

"He said, ‘We'll bring your doll home for you,'" she said.

When Mrs. Hansen was clothed, he put her in his patrol car and started driving. When he reached the end of his jurisdiction, he handed her to another patrolman, and Mrs. Hansen got an official escort all the way to Cheyenne.

***

To Gov. Matt Mead's inauguration in January 2011, Carol Mead wore a floor-length, form-fitting gown.

The ruffle at the top of the dress was made of seven layers of fabric. Kaphengst struggled to duplicate it on a small scale. It took 17 tries to get the ruffle just right.

Kaphengst has sewn for years, mostly shirts for her husband and clothes for the kids. Maybe even some Barbie doll outfits, too.

"But you could whip those out and it didn't matter," she said.

The first ladies require much closer attention to detail.

The Mead doll is the second first lady Kaphengst has dressed. She sewed the high-collared gown worn by the Jane Metzler Sullivan doll, cut-out flower details on the hem.

To make sure she was getting the fabric and stitching right, Kaphengst borrowed Mead's gown from the first lady's assistant and kept it in her house. The dress had photographed an iridescent turquoise, but its true color was a dark green.

That's the key, Kaphengst said. Matching the material's color, texture and detail perfectly.

For each first lady doll, Kaphengst and Green selected the fabric. If Kaphengst got a gown back from the seamstress that wasn't done precisely, she re-beaded and re-stitched.

Some fabrics were easier than others to find. Take Leona "Buddy" Gage's gown. In the early 1960s, the petite first lady with blue eyes and gray hair selected an inaugural gown only to find another woman wearing that same dress at an event. Not wanting to wear something another woman had already worn, Gage instead picked a simple black cocktail dress for the inauguration.

Then there's Sherri Geringer's dress.

"Mrs. Geringer told us herself that when she was looking for her dress, she bought a dress that would look good on the doll," Kaphengst said.

"That doll looked just like her," Green said.

At special request of first lady Mead, Kaphengst and Green made an extra Mead doll, and one of the Meads' daughter, Mary. Mead and her daughter were at the library one day when they saw a display of the first lady dolls. Mead thought it would be a great way for her daughter to remember that special inauguration night, the first time Mary had worn a formal dress.

Kaphengst and Green finished the two dolls before Christmas, when Mead gave the dolls to her daughter as a gift. From the holidays until early February, Kaphengst sewed the dress for the doll that will go into the collection with all the others.

At 80, Kaphengst has lost much of the feeling in her fingertips from neuropathy. It makes sewing more difficult, since she can't feel the thread. For close to 20 years, Kaphengst has had cancer. Lately, she's been feeling so-so, she said.

Kaphengst could have said no to dressing the Mead doll. The other volunteers would have understood.

"I wanted to make sure that we got it done," she said.

***

At a formal luncheon Feb. 17, the legislative spouses of the 61st session presented the porcelain Mead to the real one.

"It is lovely," she said. "Thank you, all."

Much of the time, the miniature Mrs. Mead will not be on display. The Wyoming State Museum manages 80,000 to 90,000 artifacts, from buttons to wagons. Only one to two percent of the collection is out for public viewing at a time, the collections managers said.

When the newest first lady doll arrives at the museum Wednesday, all of her clothing and accessories will be catalogued, so no earring or shoe ever goes missing.

The curators will always handle her with two gloved hands.

And when Mrs. Mead isn't on display, she will be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in a blue textile box, stored either in the archives above the museum or at an off-site storage facility. She will rest next to the other first ladies before her, in a room kept at 35 percent humidity and 65 degrees.

What stories they must have to share when the archivists aren't listening, if only the first ladies could speak.

Reach features reporter Margaret Matray at 307-266-0535 or margaret.matray@trib.com.

 

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