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Agnes Poor Beach: She's a living doll

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By Camille McClanahan

She is a small woman, with an appearance almost as fragile as one of her porcelain dolls. Her gray hair is neatly styled, her earrings always match her clothes and her fingers are adorned with rings. Since 1988, she has taken dolls that were tossed out by others and turned them back into objects of love for needy children. In fact, many Grant Countians know her simply as “The Doll Lady.”

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Agnes Poor Beach, leads the way to a shiny mahogany table. She explains that it’s not a new piece, but that she and her late husband Earnest started housekeeping with it in 1940. Now she lives alone in the house they shared. “We were married 34 years, and he’ll soon be gone 40. And I’m sorry you missed him,” she adds, as if he’d just gone to the corner store.

Beach, who celebrated her 95th birthday on April 22, holds notes prepared for the interview close to her face and looks through a magnifying glass with squinting eyes.

It all started more than 20 years ago, when Beach, working as a secretary at Dry Ridge Baptist Church, became exasperated with the many phones calls requesting gifts for needy children, after the church had already concluded its holiday efforts.  

“I didn’t have anything to fall back on,” Beach said in her thin-pitched voice. “I bought little undressed dolls, and I always had plenty of fabric. I’d make a gown and wrap it in a blanket, and put it in a little plastic box that I bought at the10-cent-store—that made a doll, with a bed.”

Beach said it became a habit to keep a half dozen, or so, dolls on hand for families who lost their possessions in a fire, or if she heard of a sick child in the community that just needed an emotional boost.  
Then in 1989, she saw a story in the Kentucky Post about Southside Baptist Church Inner-city Mission in Covington. They were asking for contributions of dolls for one of their missionaries.

“I knew the missionary,” she said, “She was originally from Grant County. I called her immediately and told her I would have her some dolls.”

That year Beach donated 35 dolls to Southside, and, she said smiling, “I thought I had done well at that point.”

In 1997, Beach, who is a member of the Dry Ridge Homemakers, was honored by the Kentucky State Extension Homemakers with the Scattering Kindness Award. “They referred to me as The Doll Lady,” she said, “and it stuck.”

She was born in 1916, in Pendleton County, the first of five children to Jabez Clay Poor and Della Wilson Poor. Only Beach and her sister, Helen Ammerman of Williamstown survive. She graduated from Littleford-Nelson Business College in Cincinnati, and used her typewriter until her eyesight forced her to put it away a few years ago. She and Earnest had only one daughter, Agnes, called “Aggie.”
Her love for sewing began even before she entered school, when her grandmother gave her a “tiny little thimble,” that she still has. And along with the thimble came her grandmother’s and her mother’s instruction.

“My mother sewed and I couldn’t wait until she got finished to give me the scrap material to make my doll dresses,” she said.
She not only supports Southside, but over the years has also partnered with Grant County Helping Hands, a local organization that provides aid to needy families. Mary Johnson, who worked as client intake manager for the center, said that tattered dolls are were put aside for Beach to restore.

“Of course, we get some that are completely bald,” Johnson said, “arms and legs just hanging on, and she does all that repair work.”
According to Johnson, Beach got the dolls back to the center in time for Christmas and the dolls were hardly recognizable as the misfit toys that were dropped off.

“We have no one else who does what she does,” Johnson said.
Beach tags each doll’s wrist with a card from the American Bible Society that is printed with a Bible verse. She also handwrites a name on each card. Every doll has a first and middle name taken from the prayer calendar for missionaries listed in the “Missions Mosaic,” a magazine published by the Southern Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union.

Beach has enlisted help from some of the community’s most prominent citizens, to load up the dolls, and take them to Southside. Former Dry Ridge mayor Bill Cull was one of her designated drivers.
“She had them in an upstairs bedroom,” he recalled. “There were probably 110 boxes. I thought how in the world are we going to get all of them down the stairs? But, she said that she would stand at the top and just send them down. So, she just gave the boxes a little soccer kick, and bumpity, bump, bump, down the stairs they’d go.”
Almost daily, she would make the climb up the steep stairs to her workshop. There, using her  magnifying glass, she picked through tiny buttons, scraps of material and bits of lace to use in sewing little dresses, shirts and overalls for the cast-off dolls.

However, her increasingly failing eyesight has prevented her from continuing to sew doll clothes as she once did.  A magnifying glass that she received from the Institute for the Blind and Visually Handicapped in Cincinnati has helped her some, but not enough to continue to sew the small garments. Her daughter found a treasure-trove of doll clothes from flea markets and yard sales, which she now uses to dress the dolls.

She also has other projects, like making dresses for children in India, which she sent with a group going on a mission trip led by the Rev. Bobby Barnes.

“I had four sizes of the patterns and I made 10 of each,” she said. “The pattern made a reversible dress that can be flipped and used as two dresses.”

Barnes also asked for dolls, and she sent the 32 she had on hand, and added another hundred that she purchased at her own expense.
Beach has also shared her knowledge of sewing with many girls, working one-on-one to pass along heritage skills to another generation. She currently has an on-going task, making quilts to send to Sunrise Children’s Services, a non-profit agency that cares for children and youth who are victims of abuse or neglect. Once Beach assembles the squares of material, she is helped by the members of Dry Ridge Baptist Church’s Women on Mission to make them into tied or knotted comforters.

She has faced many challenges, but instead of giving up, she just alters the way she does things. Last year, she gave a hundred Barbie dolls to Southside, putting her doll donations to more than 5,000, yet hands that have earned a rest continue to find work to do.

“I don’t believe in just sitting down, folding your hands and feeling sorry for yourself,” she said. “As long as I can, I’ll continue with it.”