“Oh, that was my mother’s thing,” Leona said. “I wanted to do something else.”
Leona Stone Salyer’s mother had spent her adult years collecting dolls, especially antique dolls. She started in Hollywood while her husband was a stuntman in silent movies. Using her seamstress skills, she made extra money sewing for the studios.
After her husband’s short movie career came to an end, she became more interested in collecting and displaying her collection of dolls in her California antiques shop and doll museum.
Trying to get her daughter’s interest in her dolls was fruitless.
“All the time she would take me to doll places,” Leona said, “and try to tell me things about them, but I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t my bag, so I would say, ‘Oh, Mother, go play with your dolls. I gotta go feed my horse.’”
Even after her mother died in 1949, Leona had no interest and continued riding the show horse circuit throughout California, while her father maintained the doll collection.
Leona had been married for only six years when her husband got sick. They decided it was time to hang up the horse saddles and try the doll business. They moved to Jacksonville in 1960.
Inheriting the collection of over 300 dolls, they quickly found the perfect location to display them — the historic McCully House on East California Street. The house had been built almost exactly 100 years before the day Leona opened her doll museum.
“I did it mostly for my mother’s sake,” Leona said. “Then I had to sit down and learn all this stuff. I studied each of the dolls and attached the history on each one.”
Entering the McCully House and Doll Museum, the visitor entered a large Victorian era room furnished with antique furniture, and displays of pioneer dolls made by local residents. These dolls were meant to reproduce those that a child might have played with in Jacksonville 100 years earlier.
Leona’s historic collection filled three rooms in the house, two upstairs and one downstairs.
Dating back to the early 1800s, one of the oldest dolls in the collection had lived in the White House with the children of President John Quincy Adams. It still wore its original polka dot dress. A servant who had worked at the White House during the Adams’ administration gave the doll to Leona’s mother.
Uncle Sam, another doll, had also been a gift to her mother. It had belonged to the daughter of Thomas Allan Barnes, commissioned in 1849 as the first postmaster of Monterey, California.
Both Leona and her mother had made period dress for the dolls when needed; however, some of them were still wearing their original costumes.
Leona rarely sold any of her dolls and refused to sell any that were part of her mother’s original collection until later in life. By then she had collected well over 1,000 antique dolls.
By 1974, Leona had kept her doll museum open for 13 years. Her husband had died just a few weeks after the museum opened and, financially and physically, it was becoming just too much for her to handle. Leona sold out and moved to Medford.
The original doll collection was commissioned out to museums around the country, while Leona continued to travel on tours with the dolls she acquired later. She was always willing to share her knowledge and the history of dolls with anyone interested.
Leona left Southern Oregon for Arizona in 2000 and died the day after her 92nd birthday in 2005.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.