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Highland Lakes Helpers: Sharon Spencer’s cornhusk dolls add to history lessons at Marble Falls museum

Sharon Spencer and her cornhusk dolls

Cornhusk artist Sharon Spencer holds a traditional and completely unadorned cornhusk doll. On the table next to her in the library at The Falls on the Colorado Museum in Marble Falls are some of the many display dolls she has created for different exhibits, including Marble Falls school athletes and students for the Madelyn Frazier Room. Staff photos by Suzanne Freeman

Shaping wet cornhusks into small dolls started out as a fun history lesson for kids when The Falls on the Colorado Museum set up booths at community events. Horseshoe Bay resident Sharon Spencer enlisted the help of fellow museum board member Frances McSpadden to tie up the husks with string and hand out the dolls to kids, explaining how the Native American art dates back thousands of years. 

“The first time, we made about 30 dolls, all for girls,” Spencer said. “The next time, we went to a Boy Scout event and we realized we needed to make boys.” 

They also soon discovered that boys became more interested if their cornhusk dolls had long, ninja ponytails spouting from the tops of their heads or were dressed in superhero capes. 

A retired high school teacher of physiology and anatomy, Spencer developed new techniques and learned how to power shop for accessories. A memorable find still paying off happened after Halloween one year when Walmart marked down its holiday wigs 75 percent. She grabbed them all, and clips sprigs of hair from them when needed.

As the variety of dolls grew, so did the interest in having one.

“One year, we made 300 dolls,” Spencer said. “We had 10 to 12 women volunteer so that we could make as many as possible. Everyone wanted a cornhusk doll.” 

The women spread out a selection of ribbons, hats, heads with different hair, capes, and other accessories on a table for the children to look through. The kids bring their choices over to the volunteer table, where the dolls are assembled to order, right before their eyes.

To create that many that quickly required a transition from tying the husks with twine to securing the arms, necks, and legs with rubber bands. 

“The rubber bands made a big difference,” Spencer said. “That was one of my most brilliant inspirations: to go with rubber bands instead of tying.”

At one pre-pandemic museum event, the cornhusk table churned out 22 dolls every 15 minutes, which was the number of kids per group and the amount of time each group had to visit different stations throughout the museum. 

Another big event was Children’s Day, which was last celebrated in Marble Falls in 2019. About 3,000 children from across the Highland Lakes attended the event, although not all of them made it to the cornhusk doll tables. 

While the big events are exciting, small groups have two major advantages: more choices for dressing dolls and stories. 

“When the groups are small enough, I have a history of the cornhusk dolls I tell,” Spencer said. “And there’s a story about the face, the reason they don’t have a face.” 

An Oneida tribal legend tells of the Corn Spirit, who made cornhusk dolls that came to life to play with the Native American children. One of the dolls was so beautiful that she spent more time admiring her reflection in pools of water than playing. She was warned to stop, but when her vanity continued to grow, the Corn Spirit took away her face as a reminder that she was no better than anyone else.

At The Falls on the Colorado Museum, larger versions of traditional cornhusk dolls also help to entertain and enlighten. Beyond their value in teaching children about Native American traditions, the dolls act as silent docents, catching visitors’ eyes and highlighting different exhibits. That particular function developed as Spencer continued to expand cornhusk-building techniques and fashion choices. When she learned to dye the husks different colors, she opened up a whole new world of uses. 

“We were mostly doing the old timey versions to give away. Then, Darleene Oostermeyer came in one day and said to me, ‘Sharon, we need cowboys. We need bison. We need suffragettes!’” (Oostermeyer was chairman of the museum board at the time.)

Spencer quickly learned some new tricks, creating a taller doll that could stand on its own. She also researched the clothing for each request, especially when it came to the suffragettes. 

“I found out that Black women were part of the push for women’s voting rights, even though it didn’t give them the right to vote, too, so I included them,” Spencer said. “I researched their dresses and their banners.” 

A set of athletes, including baseball, football, and soccer, are all dressed in the Marble Falls Mustang colors of purple and gold. A referee in black and white stripes completes the group, which is proudly displayed in the Madelyn Frazier room at the museum, where old yearbooks and a set of purple school lockers line the walls.

A lifelong Marble Falls resident and MFHS graduate, Frazier made it her life’s work to collect and curate her hometown history. After she died, the museum dedicated a room to her and filled it with the memorabilia she left behind. The room also houses traveling exhibits and a variety of cornhusk dolls, depending on the subject matter. 

Spencer’s cornhusk dolls can be found throughout the museum. A geologist with a basket of rocks stands watch over the museum’s geology display. Cowboys, Native Americans, and even a bison can be found in the room where the bones of a 700-year-old bison dubbed Rockie resides. 

Some of the dolls are tucked away in plastic containers, only brought out to decorate the front desk during holidays, including St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and July Fourth. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas dolls come in sets of creepy creatures and jolly old elves.

“I would have never thought about doing all these different dolls,” Spencer said, “but I really enjoy it. It’s my hobby now.” 

The Falls on the Colorado Museum, 2001 Broadway in Marble Falls, is open 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Admission is free; donations are appreciated. Visit the website at fallsmuseum.org or call 830-798-2157 for more information. 

suzanne@thepicayune.com