Upstate NY visit sparks memories of granddaughters’ doll obsessions
reprinted with permission from Lillie Suburban Newspapers
Dolls and lakeside mansions
As I leaned back in a rocking chair on the wide veranda of the historic Rowland Inn watching the waves and the sunset over Cayuga Lake in upstate New York, my mind wandered back to a trip to Chicago with my two school-age granddaughters several years ago.
They were obsessed with going to the American Girl doll store, which I had never even heard of. I was thinking about museums.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Pleasant Rowland, the owner of the renovated inn on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, was also the founder of the wildly popular American Girl dolls.
At the time, this Chicago native seemed a marketing genius to me. The American Girl doll store on Michigan Avenue not only sold the dolls but also different outfits for each one and matching clothing for the child owners. The busy three-story shop had a doll hair salon, a theater and a dining room for girls and their dolls.
There were books about the history of the times the dolls lived in and books about how to be a strong young woman, how to stand up for yourself, deal with bullies, develop friendships and not feel left out. While I thought the store was excessive, it was not at all Barbie-like and the books seemed to convey good messages.
I got sucked in and bought each granddaughter one of the expensive dolls and the matching book. I think they got an extra doll outfit with birthday money. They were so excited — it was a dream coming true for young girls.
Then we headed to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and toured the World War II submarine which tied into the fictional war experiences of the Molly doll which my granddaughter Belle chose as her favorite. Molly, an American, had a friend, Emily, who was sent to live in the safety of the U.S. during the war.
We talked about war experiences and how my father served in the Army in World War II. My daughter told me Belle loved the books as much as her doll.
Her cousin chose the Julie doll whose story took place in the 1970s in San Francisco. I think the Julie doll’s parents were getting divorced, so readers learned about the city and the struggles of relationships.
The Christmas before last, I was browsing through children’s books at the store and found boxed sets of American Girl books with little dolls to match.
I couldn’t resist buying a couple for my younger granddaughters, who are quite aware of these popular dolls. One daughter said that recently they’ve been reading the books together and enjoying them. Then I found several more books at a secondhand children’s shop.
So with my interest in American Girl dolls and books, I was intrigued to learn that Rowland grew up in a Chicago suburb like I did but then attended Wells College in the small town of Aurora, New York. It was a private women’s college at the time. She went on to become a schoolteacher, a newspaper writer, TV anchor and a textbook author. Then with her interest in history, she created the dolls and the books to go with them, all still popular today. She also developed a phonics system that is still in use.
Fast forward to Finger Lakes
It was a coincidence that I ended up at the inn owned and decorated by the inventor of the American Girl dolls. I was on my way to a writers’ conference this spring in the Finger Lakes region of New York, but arrived early for some sightseeing in the area.
In Aurora, we drove though the campus of Wells College and that’s where I learned that Rowland, a Wells College alum, sold her American Girl business to Mattel for over $700 million and bought up about 16 Wells properties. She rehabbed many that were in a state of disrepair because the now-coed college couldn’t afford to keep them up.
This included three lakeside inns – collectively called Inns of Aurora – whose renovations Rowland directed. We toured all three and then we crossed the street for a casual dinner at the Fargo Bar & Grill, which was another of Rowland’s restorations. Rowland was quite the entrepreneur.
Not everyone in the village, with a population of about 750, was happy with her takeover, which they claimed changed the character of the village, but I thought it was all very attractive.
The 1902 Rowland Inn had a large lawn that sloped down to a scenic pier and two-story boathouse. Inside the inn, the old woodwork, high ceilings and fireplaces were refurbished and then the inn was redecorated with splashes of bright colors and modern paintings from Rowland’s own collection.
To me, blending the old and new worked beautifully, and I loved the bright colors. The 10 guest rooms all have different themes, some decorated with hand-crafted ceramics and furnishings from the high-end MacKenzie-Childs home accessories company that Rowland rescued from the brink of bankruptcy and brought back to profitability.
The restorations were impressive, and it was obvious that Rowland truly embraced the themes of her American Girl books — a can-do attitude, not getting discouraged when facing enormous challenges and civic responsibility.
Seeing all these sights in the rolling hills of the bucolic villages of the Finger Lakes area before the conference was a pleasure.
Afterwards, I told my two oldest granddaughters about the amazing coincidence of staying in the Rowland Inn, which was restored by the founder of the doll company. We had fun reminiscing about our trip to Chicago and our visit to the American Girl doll store.
Pamela O’Meara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 651-748-7818.