Olmsted County's creepy dolls are back — and they know what you did last summer

A video of a doll opening its eyes when sat up.
The History Center of Olmsted County posted this beauty in 2019. It's still staring at us.
Courtesy of the Olmsted History Center

Sifting through old boxes in their collection a few years ago, curators at the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester, Minn., wondered what to do with the dozens of old, slightly off dolls in their possession.

Their answer? Scare the stuffing out of us — and have a little fun too.

Launched in 2019, the creepy doll contest and exhibit has transmogrified into a Halloween tradition that’s taken off on social media. The polls are open now on which doll should be named creepiest of them all for 2022.

Each doll has a story, and while they may be creepy to us now in the 21st century they weren’t to their original owners, Wayne Gannaway, the history center’s executive director, told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer on Wednesday.

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“They are really hallmarks of their particular time period,” said Gannaway. “We want to educate people that besides being creepy, they inform us about our own national history both in terms of the commercial world and marketing world.”

A baby doll
Frida Hitchcock poses for a photo, hoping to win creepiest doll of 2022.
Courtesy of Caleb Baumgartner

The contest helps the history center connect with more residents, especially people they don’t usually reach, he added.

With more than 100 dolls in the collection, it’ll be a while before they exhaust their supply for the yearly contest. Gannaway said people are sending the center more dolls.

The theme for this year’s contest is cult classics. Each doll is named in accordance with the theme. This year there is Samantha Raimis, Chuck E., Carrie Torrence, Pamela Crumb, Frida Hitchcock, Blair Hanscom, Sally Strode, Rosie Romero and Wendy Craven.

Online voting will close at noon on Saturday but in-person voting will still be available until 7 p.m. at the Creepy Doll Cocktail Party at the Rochester Art Center where the 2022 winner will be announced and of course, crowned in creepy glory.

Nine dolls in a collage
Samantha Raimis, Chuck E., Carrie Torrence, Pamela Crumb, Frida Hitchcock, Blair Hanscom, Sally Strode, Rosie Romero and Wendy Craven pose for a close-up, each hoping to win creepiest doll of 2022.
Courtesy of Caleb Baumgartner

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.  

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here. 

Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Halloween you know is coming up. There are lots of houses all decked out in gory glory. It's the time of the year we ask ourselves, what really creeps us out? Moonlit graveyards, basements, clowns, that thing under the bed maybe. Wayne Gannaway is Executive Director of the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester, where since 2019 they have been celebrating Halloween with the Creepy Doll Contest and Exhibit. Wayne, welcome to Minnesota Now. How are you?

WAYNE GANNAWAY: I'm good, Cathy. Thank you so much.

CATHY WURZER: Good. I don't know who had the idea for the Creepy Doll Contest, but it is a winner. Tell us how it started.

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Yeah, I had just started in the position as executive director and one of our volunteers and a board member was going through the collections to share stuff on social media on Facebook. And she came across a box of dolls that are part of our collections and it started to occur to her, as it does to most people who see dolls like this, that there's something off about these particular figures. And from there she thought, hey, let's take pictures of these, post them on Facebook and let people decide which one's the creepiest.

CATHY WURZER: It's simple. It's simple but it's effective and it really took off.

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Yeah, and it is really interesting because it really just put its finger on this really interesting intersection between pop culture, deeper cultural studies and museum practice. And that's, sort of, our sweet spot. Plus, it helps us to connect to people that we normally don't reach. So it was a really awesome happenstance.

CATHY WURZER: Should I be concerned that the History Center of Olmsted County has a fair number of weird, creepy old dolls in your collection?

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Yes, you should be. You should be very concerned, Cathy. Actually, we have more than 100 dolls so we've got a long ways to go before we exhaust our supply. And then we've got even more doll accessories so for some time to come now. Plus, people keep sending us more dolls so who knows where it'll end?

CATHY WURZER: Where do they-- where have they come from in the past?

WAYNE GANNAWAY: In the past and even today, we only accept objects and archival material from Olmsted County. So nearly every doll that we have, maybe it was made elsewhere but it journeyed to Olmsted County and the donor gave it to us is from Olmsted County as well. But we get them now people know that they've heard of our contests are sending them to us from like New Orleans and Florida. And you know Florida, who knows what you're going to get?

CATHY WURZER: Right. So the dolls up for consideration this year are all very interesting. I have to ask you about one of them in the contest, Frida, Frida the doll. She looks haunted. That poor soul has got the strangest look on her little face.

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Let's see. Frida, oh yes.


WAYNE GANNAWAY: She's wearing the bonnet, right?

CATHY WURZER: Yes, she is. Do you know anything about her at all?

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Yeah, actually, she was manufactured by the Schoenhut Piano Company in Philadelphia. And she would have made her way likely in the early 1900s.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, she looks like she might be of that era. Do you use the dolls to teach history at all?

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Well, this is our one opportunity to do that. And really, there's two parts to the-- actually, three parts to what we want to get across. Number one is the materials. And what's really fascinating, whether it's with Frida or some of the other dolls, the materials that they're made of really speaks to the industrial or commercial history of the United States, like whether it was a China doll, a bisque doll, or a plastic one. All of them really are hallmarks of their particular time period.

And then you bring in, especially later on, the marketing of the dolls. And that is a whole 'nother dimension of it. And so we definitely want to educate people about, not just that they're creepy, but they inform us about our own national history both in terms of the commercial world and the marketing world. And then the specific donors, so there's some really terrific stories about the donors who gave them to us some many, many years ago. And we can learn about, you know, what the donors their background was.

And you might have a donor, one of them in particular went on to pretty significant acclaim in the medical field and yet had this really awesome doll. So we all use dolls, right?

CATHY WURZER: Right. I'm wondering here, I know you have a theme every year. What's the theme this year?

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Well, you know we decided that creepy dolls inhabit the imagination, especially in cinema. And so we decided, you know what, why don't we take a cult classic movie kind of angle on this? Because they just seem to work so well together.

We can also talk about theater history here in Rochester and then also just have lots of fun with scary movies. And one of our newest employees is just a pop culture guru. And I just said, Caleb, run with it, man.

CATHY WURZER: It's yours. I bet he's pretty excited about that too. So can I vote for Frida? Do I have a deadline on this?

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Yes, the deadline for online is Saturday at noon.


WAYNE GANNAWAY: And we will announce the winners at our Creepy Doll Cocktail Party.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, this is right up my alley, OK. Talk about this.

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Yeah, so this is the second year we're having a live Creepy Doll Cocktail Party. It's Saturday the 29th from 6:00 to 9:00 PM and it's at the Rochester Arts Center or the Civic Center in Rochester. And all the dolls will be there.

We are going to crown or what do you call it? Put a tiara on the winning doll. And we will also have a themed drink that we think the dolls might very well enjoy if they were alive. And so it's a good time.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, no kidding. So each doll has its own creepy drink named after it, perfect.

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Well, we have-- they voted and they came up with one drink.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, OK, OK, OK, yeah. I was going to say that's a lot of strange drinks to make. Wow, it sounds like a lot of fun. And again, brilliant marketing for the History Center. So I appreciate you running it down for us and I'll have to hurry up and vote here for my little doll Frida. Wayne, thanks for the conversation.

WAYNE GANNAWAY: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Talk to you later. Wayne Gannaway has been with us, Executive Director of the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester, where you can visit this year's Creepy Doll contestants in person or online. Olmstedhistory.com is where you'll find that. Don't forget to vote for the creepiest doll. You can do that through this Friday, October 28 and then go down to the Creepy Doll Cocktail Party on the 29th. Again, I'm sure details on that website.

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