I don’t have to tell my fellow New Englanders that this spring has been one of the wettest on record. What to do on these dreary days? Just read the title of this post and you’ll know we found the perfect outing. From our starting point in Appleton Maine, we drove through Liberty and then Freedom to get to tiny Thorndike. As we pulled into Stove Pipe Alley (yup, that’s the listed address) and parked the car, it was pretty obvious we had arrived at our destination, The Bryant Stove Works and Doll Circus:This forlorn assemblage of stoves and dolls which flanked our parking space did nothing to prepare me for glories of what lay inside the Stove Works and Museum. We opened an unassuming door with a plastic-covered welcome sign, and entered a darkened structure that we could see, at the very least, was packed to the gills with dolls. Impressive!
But wait! My friend, intrepid fellow traveler, and on this occasion, my guide, Abbie, asked “Are you ready?” She flipped on the light (and sound) switch and here’s what presented itself:
We entered the wondrous world of Joe and Bea Bryant’s Doll Circus.
In every nook and cranny there’s more spinning and clatter:
Dancing and merriment:
And dolls coming oh-so-creepily to life:
Somehow I garnered great satisfaction in seeing that Ken is the wallflower here–despite his well-developed pecs: (Hello, Ken–that’s not the only thing the gals are interested in… could you please button up your jacket–geez!)
In a rare departure from dancing dolls is this lovely ode to the Slinky:
All of this was assembled, designed and engineered by Joe (who sadly passed away in 2018) and Bea Bryant, owners of the Bryant Stove Works (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the Stove Works).
The Bryants very sensibly fled to Florida every winter to escape the harsher climes of northern New England. (I am not kidding, they lived in the town of Zephyrhills. What I really want to know is whether they chose the town for its name or whether the town chose them. By the way, if you click on the link for Zephyrhills, THE Official town website, you will note that one of the three things “happening” in Zephyrhills this year is a traffic light relocation.) Anyway, the Bryants settled in nicely to winters in Zephyrhills and they just needed a little project to while away their hours. (I mean, really what’s there to do when there’s no snow shoveling?) Then they met Henry Stark…
Joe Bryant found a kindred spirit and fellow engineering wizard in Zephyrhills resident, Henry Stark, who became a good friend. I can picture Hank and Joe brainstorming the mechanisms for the Doll Circus in their Florida basements.
Stark’s mini mechanical marvels are now housed in Room Two of the Bryant Museum:
Here is Joe Bryant’s lovely write up and portrait of his friend, Hank:
As we were taking in the whirls and twirls of the Doll Museum and testing every one of Stark’s little engines, in walked Bea Bryant!
Bea said, there’s more! Oh so much more! And she led the way through the next door into a humongous Quonset hut which housed the stove (!), antique car (!!), and music machine (!!!) museum.
First of all, I was so overwhelmed by the stoves I hardly took any pictures of them, but here’s enough to clue you in to what I had not known before: Back in the day, stoves were gorgeous pieces of sculptures:
Bea was very rightly proud of the fact that one of their stoves was borrowed and used as a stage prop in the 2012 Spielberg film, “Lincoln“.
And yes, antique cars are tucked in here and there, comfortably cohabitating with whatever creatures roam about.
We could see that Bea’s pride and joy were the music machines which she both demonstrated:
and invited us to try our hand with the cranking.
The Bryants bought this magnificent Wurlitzer from a 98 year old gentleman in Connecticut. They towed it themselves back to Maine, completely restored it to working order, added a bubble machine and entered it in many a parade.
The Wurlitzer in action:
There are player pianos:
with rolls and rolls of tunes. Multiply this image by ten and know that you are not going to have to repeat a tune no matter how dark and dreary your winter is.
And adorable toy pianos. (really, you MUST click on this toy piano link–it’s a YouTube video of a VIRTUOSO toy pianist!) Plink, plank, plunk:
Not enough stuff for ya? Luckily for us, Bea had too much time on her hands while Joe and Hank were working out the complicated mechanics of carousels. So she took up button carding. (how did you and I not know that was a thing?)
If you’re wondering where Bea got her work and fun ethic read the fine print above her father’s portrait:
I don’t want to make you worry and fret, but Bea made it clear she is worrying and fretting about the fate of the Bryant Stove Works and Doll Circus now that Joe is gone. I just know some of you are heading up to Maine this summer, you might want to turn up Stove Pipe Alley and have a look around.
A sad post script to this post. Bea Bryant passed away at the age of 89 just three month after this visit. I learned in her obituary that she had been the twelfth of 16 children. She and her husband raised eight children of their own while they started and ran the Bryant Stove business. Besides all this Bea was named the Outstanding Person in the Wood Stove Industry in 1981 and a few years later was named the Most Outstanding Woman of the Year of Northern and Eastern Maine by the Bangor Daily news. I feel so lucky to have met her and am so sad that she is gone.
Last I heard the Bryants’ children are planning to keep the Stove Works and Doll Museum open. Check their website before planning your visit. They are closed during the cold months.