Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Doll Story: Telling a White Mountain Family History

By LewEllyn Hallett
Reprinted with permission from Heart of NH

I was strolling through the craft tent at Manchester’s Mill City Festival when I spotted Sara Boothman Glines, sitting behind her table weaving a tiny basket with nimble fingers. From the shelves surrounding her, a dozen craggy, wooden faces stared back at me from under felt caps, knit hats, and straw brims. These miniature, rustic figures looked as if they’d stepped out of the old photographs displayed as their backdrop. The dolls sat in rockers or on tree stumps, stepped up a mountain trail or kneeled to stack firewood, and a printed story card stood beside each one. A sign said, “SaraSally Dolls,” which I learned was a combination of Sara’s given name and her family nickname.

I pointed to a photograph of a woman hanging clothes in the sun on an open hilltop and Sara told me the story of her Grammie Boothman doll. Among family papers, Sara had found instructions for her grandmother Edith Watson Boothman’s 1890's detergent recipe, entitled "Washing Made Easy." Along with her photograph of Grammie Boothman doing laundry, this discovery seemed reason enough to immortalize Grammie as a doll folding wash with a detergent recipe tucked inside her basket. The basket that sits in the grass at Grammie Boothman’s feet in the photograph is another family heirloom still in Sara’s possession.
Basket weaver by craft, Sara has developed patterns for a variety of miniature baskets used by her dolls. Sara’s doll-making started as a crafting hobby, but has become a way to preserve history not just for her family but for anyone who longs for such roots to the past. It’s Grammie Boothman marketing laundry detergent to turn-of-the-century homemakers; Aunt Marion knitting socks for World War II soldiers; Great Grandmother Sarah Ann laboring in Manchester’s ribbon factories. It’s a mountaineering guide, a logger, a fly fisher, a cross country skier, a wood carrier, even a North Country Santa. SaraSally dolls record and preserve not only generations of family history and tradition, but a way of life in the mountains of New Hampshire.

For at least seven generations, Sara’s family has lived on holdings in the foothills and valley near Mount Adams, Mount Madison, and the town of Randolph in Coos County. When a family remains for that long in a community, they accumulate some history, including prominent figures to commemorate and important stories to tell. Sara (aka Sally) and her sisters, Rebecca Boothman Parker (Becky) and Susan Boothman Hawkins (Sue, 1950-2004), worked together to develop two series of doll figures. One series represents family members and their stories; the other depicts favorite White Mountain activities and vocations.

Sara invited me to her hillside home in Randolph to spend an afternoon with her and sister Becky. The three of us sat in her bright dining room, the wooden table top crowded with dolls, and a huge, antique map of Coos County on the wall behind us. With Sara’s cat in my lap, I picked up each doll and examined details like a tiny wood ax, a fly fishing pole, snowshoes, and hand-knit scarves. Sara and Becky spun out stories until they wove together and tangled in my brain. They were patient with me, laughing and backtracking down the trails of time and events, using the map to tie storylines to geography.

Growing up in the 1950's and 60's, they knew a rugged mountain lifestyle that was generations old but is now pretty much history. Families were self-sufficient and geared their work to the seasons. Spring was maple sugaring, summer was planting, growing, and harvesting, and winter was trapping, logging, and cutting firewood. They often sat down to meals where everything but salt and pepper came from the farm or the woods by their own labor.
"It’s hard going in New England. My ancestors worked this land and eked out a living," Sara says. "All three of us sisters were encouraged by our mother to do things with our hands, so I’ve always done some kind of craft. I started making dolls eight to ten years ago."
Her first dolls were simple schoolgirls with round, featureless wooden heads, two black dots for eyes, and print dresses like the ones they wore growing up. It was Sue’s idea for Sara to pattern other dolls after family members and pastimes. Sara compiled a catalog of ancestral characters and aspects of mountain life, and developed a more intricate style. The hardwood ball was replaced by a pine egg, which is softer for carving faces full of character and personality.
Sara’s doll making process is a slow one. It takes approximately thirty hours to complete each doll. For the fly fisherman, patterned after her father, the rod itself requires about three hours and is made from the stem of a certain iris that grows in her garden. Sara also ties the tiny flies herself, like she watched her father do. The clothing is patterned after old photographs and historical research. Each doll is a limited edition, and most are made to order or completed for display at a specific event. Prices range from $45 to $75.

Sara uses authentic, local products as much as possible. There are many items she could buy ready-made to use as doll accessories, but the fun is in figuring out how to craft the miniatures herself. She is constantly on the lookout for materials. A weaver of full-size baskets, Sara makes doll-sized knitting, tramping (hiking), ribbon, and laundry baskets patterned after the originals. She makes the hair on most of her dolls from the fleece of local sheep. Becky knits the sweaters, scarves, and socks from hand spun yarn, which is thinner so that she can knit items more to scale.

Some of Sara’s doll figures carry snowshoes. Her father, Jack Boothman, was an outdoorsman and trapper and invented a snowshoe binding that would allow him to get out of the shoes quickly if he fell through the ice while checking traps. He stretched a circular piece of tire innertube over his foot and snowshoe that would come off with a few kicks if necessary. The girls grew up using these bindings and Sara replicates them for her dolls, using bicycle tire inner tubes. In her basement workshop, she demonstrated for me the intricate lacing procedure, and shared that as recently as the 1960's most area roads were not plowed and snowshoes and skis were a primary method of transportation.

This family has thrown almost nothing away, so there is a wealth of memorabilia for the sisters to draw on. They handle the tools their great-great grandparents used, sleep under blankets made of wool grown, sheared, carded, spun, and woven by their great grandmother, study a wealth of photographs and family papers that tell generations of stories, and raid the trousseaus of their great-aunts.

These trousseaus are still intact because the great-aunts promised never to marry. Their mother, Sarah Ann Boothman, was widowed with four young children during the industrial revolution of the 1870's and forced by economic necessity to work in Manchester’s ribbon mills. (The Sarah Ann Doll is dressed as a mill worker and holds a basket of ribbons and scissors.) Sarah Ann thought her daughters could avoid such a plight if they remained single and independent, so they promised. But in case good prospects tempted them to reconsider, they made the beautiful trousseaus.

These other Boothman sisters–Becky, Isabelle, and May–were known locally as “The Aunts.” In the 1890's, The Aunts opened and ran an inn, the Mountain View House, on their grandparents’ farm overlooking a spectacular view of the valley and mountains beyond. Tourism has long been an industry of the area, and there were innkeepers on both sides of the family. In 1923, John H. Boothman, brother to The Aunts and grandfather to the present day sisters, bought the Mt. Crescent House further up the hill. His father-in-law, Laban Watson, was the first proprietor of another well known inn in the valley, The Ravine House. This inn was a base for early Randolph mountaineers and pathmakers and hosted hikers for generations until closing in the1960's.
Like the generations before them, the Boothman sisters grew up spending winters in the valley and summers up the hill in the Mt. Crescent House, taking care of vacationers. There was plenty of work to do both places. There was wood to gather for winter heat, for summer cottages (mountain nights can be chilly even in July), and about 20 cords each year for the wood evaporator that boiled maple sap from 4,000 taps.

"At first, Dad bemoaned the fact that he had only girls," Sara remembers. "But he soon realized that we could do all the chores that boys did and then clean up pretty good to wait on tables at supper." The Boothman girls filled the wood boxes, did laundry, gardened, helped prepare and serve food, cleaned rooms, cared for livestock, fished, logged, and processed maple syrup.
The Maple Sugarer Doll gathers sap the old fashioned way with buckets carried on a handmade yoke. This doll tells the story of a family endeavor that goes back five generations and continues today with Boothman Orchard 100% pure New Hampshire maple syrup produced by Becky’s family. Their orchard is on the same northern slope of the Presidential Range where generations ago the family tapped the trees and boiled the sap in the open over an uncovered fire. In a 1940's photograph, the Boothman parents stand beside the original sugar house. When Jack Boothman went overseas in World War II, his wife Gwen decided to keep sugaring. As she labored in the open, her father-in-law built a sugar house around her.

One source of the family’s rich photographic archives is Sara’s maternal grandfather, well known and prolific White Mountain photographer Guy Shorey. Shorey recorded much of the history and local culture of his day. Sister Sue co-authored a book, Among the White Hills, the Life and Times of Guy L. Shorey, including over 200 of his photographs, a biography of the photographer, and cultural history of the area.

Sara's craft also tells stories of mountain life and records the clothing, equipment, and activities of another era. Appropriately, Sara and her dolls were included in the New Hampshire delegation to the Smithsonian’s Folk Life Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1999. Her sisters also participated, Becky as a Yankee cook and Sue as an interviewer and narrator on stage. Sara remembers, "I took fifty doll bodies because I thought I’d be making dolls for two weeks, but I only completed two. I spent the majority of time talking with people about New Hampshire. They were so interested and had so many questions."

Sara promotes doll making as a good way for everyone–children, adults, whole families–to discover and commemorate their heritage, and teaches workshops to school-age children, 4-H leaders, historical society members, and anyone else with an interest. Students have made dolls from cloth, Masonite patterns, spoons, and even tried their hand at carving wooden faces like Sara’s. Whether they record a family trade or occupation, a favorite hobby, a beloved grandparent, or a hero immortalized in stories repeated from one generation to the next, the result is an exciting discovery and a treasured heirloom.

Each SaraSally doll comes with a tag describing the character or the activity it represents and a larger card telling the doll’s story. "My premise is that the first thing you need to do before making the figure is to write the story, whether researched or remembered," Sara explains. When she teaches her workshops, her students start by writing down a story of their own. “The kids can come up with some unbelievable stories!” she says. The type of doll, the materials, and the skill of the crafter are all secondary to the story the doll will tell.

Whether you love New Hampshire as a native, a newcomer, or a regular visitor, SaraSally Dolls tell a chapter of its story and are a fun, charming way to display a favorite aspect of Granite State heritage. To order dolls, or for information on classes and other products, contact Sara Glines at or visit online at

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