By Ron VandenBoom
Gerry Dolven has become a familiar face at local rummage sales. So much so that vendors will tell her, "This is broke, but if you hide this end you can still use it for one of your bears."
Dolven appreciates the help and is not really concerned if people start to recognize her and increase the price of the little knickknacks she adds to her bears' costumes.
The fuzzy bears and cuddly moose have become familiar items at Wooden Heart Gift and Photo in Havre's Atrium Mall.
"It's absolutely amazing to me to see how she's grown," said Teresa Miller, owner of Wooden Heart, comparing some of Dolven's early animals with the sophisticated creations she produces today. "You stare at them in the store for a while and you become attached to them."
"She has a definite following here," Miller said.
Dolven, who has been selling her work in Miller's shop since 1995, is about to lose that venue. After 11 years in business, Miller said, there's just not enough business to keep her doors open.
But Miller made sure Dolven met Dean Stone, a north Havre farmer who also works as a sales representative for various companies that do business with Montana resorts, tourist attractions and gift shops. Stone agreed to take on her line of creations and market them in other venues.
"It's accelerating very rapidly," Dolven said, adding that the only thing she is waiting for are the "Made in Montana" stickers she has ordered to attach to each animal.
The prospect of serving a statewide slate of customers and increasing production causes concern for Dolven, who intends to keep making the toys herself.
She began her doll-making career as a kind of personal therapy after Doug, her 23-year-old son, died in April 1995 after fighting cancer. She continued to produce the dolls as a hobby and partly because they still serve as therapy.
"A person can survive something like that, but you have to find a path to go forward with," she said. "This was the path for me."
She's nervous about the prospect of her enterprise growing. She doesn't want to lose the satisfaction and enjoyment she gets from creating her bears and moose. She still wants to have hands-on control of the creative process.
"It's what I do," she said. "It's what I have to do."
Dolven said she has already asked Stone not to make her "insane" with requests for orders.
Locally Dolven has arranged to sell her creations at the Crazy Quilters in downtown Havre.
Debbie Baker, owner of the Crazy Quilters, said she will have bears in her store but also is considering creating a Internet site for on-line shopping and would want to include Dolven's bears there.
In addition to the Crazy Quilters, Dolven expects to have a table set up at the Hill County Fairgrounds during Festival Days in September, and she will still take the occasional special order from friends and acquaintances around Havre. But it is a service she will only be offering within the community.
Dolven said she has no real training in sewing even though her mother did "a really good job" teaching her. But it wasn't an art she chose to pursue when younger, deciding instead to earn degrees in constructive engineering and drafting. Despite her education and her ability to read blueprints, Dolven said she is incapable of reading a sewing pattern.
Dolven will sketch out what it is she wants her animal to look like and then designs her own pattern. She will then cut out and sew eight or nine of that style of bear at a time. It takes her 10 days to two weeks to complete the task.
The basic animal is not what makes Dolven's critters so unique. The secret of her success, in addition to her creativity, is found in a small basement bedroom that has come to be know as "that room."
"That room" is cluttered from floor to ceiling with yards of fabric, knickknacks, odds-and-ends and doodads. Several chests of drawers are filled with everything from bow ties to dozens of old eyeglasses. Boxes of baby shoes also stand against the wall, as do a nice assortment of lady's hats. Just outside of the room is a pile of old, used and broken fishing poles.
The entire room is dedicated to adorning Dolven's characters with just the right costume to give charm and personality to an inanimate stuffed object. One may be dressed as a student and another as a fisherman. Another will sit in a little red wagon while the other carries a guitar and looks like a hippy.
Several dozen of the characters sit on tables waiting for new owners to take them home, but a few are too precious for Dolven to sell.
"Each one seems to hold a personality," she said.
Most of Dolven's ideas for the bears come to her in her sleep, she said.
"I wake up in the morning and go, hey, cool,'" she said.
Most of the bears sold at Wooden Heart ranged between $75 and $150, she said. She has already been warned to expect the retail price in the resort stores and tourist attractions to be higher.
Dolven credits her family for supporting her in the project, noting that her husband, Greg, has been offered the position of "stuffer and fluffer" if he wants it. But so far, she said, he has been "a non-taker."
Mostly she praises him for encouraging her and for being able to tell when she has been working on the bears for too long.
"He'll come downstairs and say, Why don't we take a week and go visit our daughter,'" she said. "That's a signal to me that maybe I've been down here (in the basement) a little too long and maybe I'd better pay attention to the family for a time."
She also hasn't forgotten something her folks taught her: "If you do a job do it well."
"I added a bit of my own philosophy to that," she said. "Find a job that you like to do, because if you enjoy it, then the doing it well just follows."