Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My Grandmother and Popeye

When they asked me to write my grandmother's obituary this weekend, both my father and his sister insisted that I mention her time working in the "Popeye shop."

The chief industry in our hometown for the past 140 years has been wood turning—first spools, and later dowels and handles for kitchen utensils. But for a time in the 1920s and '30s, the mill produced as a sideline wooden dolls of characters like Popeye and Little Orphan Annie.

These toys are easy to spot today at flea markets and on eBay. Although the pieces were rarely stamped with any identifying mark, it's hard to miss the particular body which, when detached from its limbs and stripped of paint, looks exactly like a spool. The arms, legs, and heads, all made of turned wood, are attached to the hollow spool with an elastic, making the joints strong enough to stand on their own, but also flexible enough to fix in a variety of poses. [Link]
My grandmother had the job of threading elastic through and assembling the body parts. The finished dolls were packed in large sacks and carted over to the depot for shipping. She left her job when pregnant with my father in 1940, which was around the time the Popeye shop shut down.

Making novelty toys was indeed a novelty in our part of the world, and one of our town's few claims to fame (we can also claim L. L. Bean as a native son, but my grandmother was in no way involved in his creation). I'm proud to say that my Grammie played a part in the enterprise, and that possible examples of her handiwork now command such high prices on eBay that I can't afford to buy a single one.


My condolences on the loss of your grandmother. You have honored her life in a very fitting way.



Thanks, Janice. Her departure was peaceful and attended by her family, which is exactly what we all wanted.

Charley "Apple" Grabowski

I'm sorry for your loss but reassured that her passing was peaceful. This was a nice little glimpse into her life.


Please know that you and your family have been in my prayers since your column about your 94-year old grandmother "leaving her home for perhaps the last time."

You've chosen a wonderful way to memorialize your grandmother. I never knew about the Popeye factory, so it was very interesting for you to share this with your faithful readers.

We honor our ancestors by continuing to tell their stories. This Popeye story is certainly something the younger generations of your will enjoy hearing about.

Myrt :)


Thank you both for keeping us in your thoughts.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

What a fitting tribute, although I would have expected nothing less from her grandson. So sorry to hear about your loss, Chris. She must have been quite a woman to have contributed to your gene pool. My condolences to you and your entire family.


Thanks for taking the time to stop in, Megan.

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