This Missouri museum celebrates Kewpie doll creator Rose O'Neill's legacy in art, toys

Greta Cross
Springfield News-Leader
Kewpie dolls at the Bonniebrook Art Gallery where their creator, Rose O'Neill, live in the early 1900's.

Driving south on U.S. Highway 65, one can almost miss the small, blue billboard settled among the trees for the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum. After turning onto Rose O'Neill Road, drivers travel through a wooded mile before coming out at the museum's parking lot.

Tucked away in Walnut Shade, the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum highlights the life of Rose O'Neill, an artist, writer and activist who gained international attention in the early 1900s. Settled on the 15.58-acre property, a museum and art gallery recount O'Neill's life, from growing up in rural Pennsylvania to her success as the renowned creator of the Kewpie, a cherub-like character doll. O'Neill's family home, garden and cemetery are also on the homestead.

Opened to the public in 1993, the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum is maintained entirely by a team of dedicated volunteers — eight, to be exact. Women like Gayle Green, who grew up hearing of O'Neill, and others like Susan Scott, who just happened to stumble across Bonniebrook, are among those dedicated to preserving O'Neill's legacy.

Scott has been a volunteer at Bonniebrook for more than 20 years. Day-to-day, she gives tours around the grounds, but she's also been instrumental in getting O'Neill into

 the spotlight.

In 2019, O'Neill was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame for her efforts during the Suffrage Movement. O'Neill helped illustrate posters for the National Woman Suffrage Association (often depicting Kewpies), held NWSA meetings in her home, and participated in various marches and speeches.

O'Neill's induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame didn't come easy. Scott said the Bonniebrook Historical Society, which maintains the museum and art gallery, nominated O'Neill at least twice over a three-year period before she was selected. The induction appears to have been a catalyst for future recognition.

In 2022, O'Neill was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Industry Hall of Fame, and most recently, she was inducted into the 2023 Toy Industry Hall of Fame.

The spirit of Rose

Originally from Oklahoma City, Scott first visited Bonniebrook with her mother, per a recommendation, after moving to Branson with her husband. Upon that initial visit, neither of the women was familiar with O'Neill.

"We walk in the door and I see all these dolls," Scott said about seeing the Kewpie dolls on display at the museum. "Then I saw the art and I'm going, 'Oh my goodness,' and what I tell people is, the spirit of Rose, she reaches out and gets me. And boom, that was it."

Scott was the one who pulled Green into a volunteering role at Bonniebrook about 13 years ago.

Bonniebrook Art Gallery volunteer Susan Scott talks about the life and work of artist Rose O'Neill on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023.

A Springfield native, Green grew up hearing about Bonniebrook and O'Neill, but she never made the drive out. It wasn't until she learned that the Bonniebrook home was rebuilt — the house caught fire in January 1947 — that she made her first visit.

"I came down here and the very first day she (Susan Scott) was there," Green said, pointing to Scott during a tour in the museum. "I go on the tour, pay for that and she introduces me to another volunteer like, 'Shelly, I want you to meet Gayle. She's our newest volunteer.'"

Scott burst into laughter at this account.

"I didn't know this woman," Green said of Scott, "but I had no choice."

Attention to detail, even the flowers

The reconstructed home of artist Rose O'Neill at the Bonniebrook homestead on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. The original home burnt down in 1947 after O'Neill's death in 1944.

Scott and Green's stories are similar to those of many women who volunteer at the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum, including Gloria Cowper-Jen and Becky Arnoldy.

Cowper-Jen and Arnoldy were introduced to Bonniebrook through their volunteerism with Master Gardeners of the Ozarks. Established through the University of Missouri Extension, Master Gardeners of the Ozarks volunteers work with nonprofits in Stone and Taney counties to erect and maintain gardens.

Master Gardeners of the Ozarks began working with the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum about 10 years ago, Cowper-Jen said.

The gardening volunteers helped transform the former front yard of the Bonniebrook homestead — an empty lawn of grass when they arrived — to a lush garden. Today, the garden features O'Neill's most popular sculptures, "Embrace of the Tree" and "The Fauness," along with countless native plants. But not just any plants.

Volunteers like Arnoldy read through O'Neill's many journals to learn what specific plants were in the family's garden when they were still around, to recreate it accurately. Violets, bloodroots, peach blossoms, dogwoods, lilacs, day lilies and zinnias are just a few of those O'Neill mentioned, according to journal entries provided to the News-Leader.

An undated photo of artist and Kewpie creator Rose O'Neill from the collections of the Rose O'Neill and Bonniebrook Museum.

Also from Oklahoma, Arnoldy said that when she and her husband moved to Saddlebrook several years ago they stumbled across Bonniebrook.

"We were just driving around one time and we came down this road and I said, 'Let's go see what that is,' and they were closed," Arnoldy said. The Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum is only open April 1 through Oct. 31. However, the grounds are open year-round.

"I just never came back; I just thought, 'It's just those Kewpie dolls,'" Arnoldy said with a laugh. "Then when I went to my Master Gardener training ... my friend recruited me to work here and that's how I found out about Rose O'Neill, but I wasn't aware of her, but so many people are not."

A humble upbringing that was never forgotten

Volunteers like Scott, Green, Cowper-Jen and Arnoldy may have connected with O'Neill's story for different reasons, but all four women seem to admire O'Neill most for her compassion and generosity.

At the height of her career, O'Neill was worth about $1.5 million ($40 million today), Cowper-Jen said, but O'Neill wasn't raised around this kind of money.

At a young age, O'Neill's family moved from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where she was born in 1874, to rural Nebraska. The family moved to the Midwest to begin homesteading because O'Neill's father, a bookseller, was looking to avoid the bill collectors he could not pay, Green said.

Growing up in rural parts of the country, O'Neill spent plenty of time reading her father's classical books and teaching herself to draw. At around age 14, O'Neill won her first art contest, hosted by the Omaha World-Herald.

Initially, the contest's judges were skeptical of the legitimacy of O'Neill's drawing, titled, "Temptation Leading Down Into An Abyss." The ink drawing depicts a figure descending across the page.

A photo of Rose O'Neill's ink drawing, "Temptation Leading Down Into An Abyss" at the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. O'Neill completed the drawing when she was around 14 years old for an art contest.

The judges of the art contest believed O'Neill cheated because she was from the poor O'Neill family, Scott said. But after drawing for the judges in person, proving her talents, it didn't take much deliberating to deem her work the first prize, worth a $5 gold coin. They also offered to help connect her with new publications looking for illustrators.

By age 19, O'Neill had moved to New York City and before long was illustrating for publications like Ladies' Home Journal, the women's magazine which first featured O'Neill's Kewpie drawings in 1909. The cherub-like characters sprawled across an entire page, accompanied by a story written by O'Neill, "The Kewpies Christmas Frolic."

From there, O'Neill's career began to take off and folks were hungry for more Kewpies.

Per advice from her second husband, Harry Leon Wilson, O'Neill copyrighted and patented the Kewpie and began to sell the rights for commercial use. Soon, Kewpies were seen enjoying ice cream cones on billboards or bites of Jell-O in magazines.

Just three years after introducing Kewpies to the world, O'Neill traveled to Germany to seek out doll production with Kestner & Co. At the production site, O'Neill was assigned three artists who helped her create a product she was happy with.

"They said, 'Before we go any farther with this, we need to know, do you have anything that has to be a certain way or not?'" Scott told the News-Leader. "She (O'Neill) said, 'Well, I do have one thing ... I'm just asking that the tiniest Kewpies will be the best.'"

The German artists didn't understand: "'No, that doesn't make sense. We hate to tell you, but they sell for the least,'" Scott said. "She (O'Neill) said, 'I know ... We need to price it so poor children can afford them and we need them to be really good.'"

The artists still didn't understand, until O'Neill explained her upbringing.

"'I was raised in poverty,' she tells them. She had those three artists crying," Scott said. "She was telling the truth: 'Do you know how hard it is for a child who's poor to even have a little Kewpie or to have a doll?'"

This deep sense of empathy lasted with O'Neill until her last days at her family's homestead in Bonniebrook, where she is buried alongside her mother and a few of her siblings. Despite her wealth in young adulthood, O'Neill died quite poor.

Rose O'Neill is buried on the land at Bonniebrook where she lived.

The Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum volunteers cited national events like the Great Depression and O'Neill's more personal habits, like opening up her home to others and giving money to artists in need, as for why she lost her fortune.

In the early 1920s, O'Neill purchased Castle Carabas in Westport, Connecticut, which she opened as a space for artists in need. Although the majority of these artists did not go on to be as successful as O'Neill, one pair did: Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, founders of the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. The school was the first in the country to produce a professional dance company.

Before her death in 1944, O'Neill pursued one last creative endeavor at Bonniebrook, the creation of the Ho-Ho doll, a laughing Buddha character. With the help of her younger sister Callista, O'Neill manufactured the Ho-Ho dolls at Bonniebrook, in a shed that once sat where the parking lot does today. Unfortunately for O'Neill, the Ho-Hos never took off.

Best work at Bonniebrook

As an internationally recognized artist, O'Neill created art, whether it was Kewpies, sculptures or other illustrations, across the globe, but one place remained her favorite over the years.

"She says, over and over, 'I did my best work at Bonniebrook,'" Scott said on behalf of O'Neill. "However, she never comes back and says, 'And my best work was ...'"

But recently, the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum volunteers found a clue that may answer this question.

"The Kewpies and Liberty’s Birthday" was made by Rose O'Neill in 1918. The pen-and-ink drawing on paper is part of the collection of Susan Wilson and was published in Good Housekeeping magazine.

O'Neill was good friends with Ozarks folklorist Vance Randolph, who even had his own bedroom at the Bonniebrook homestead, according to Scott.

"He (Randolph) asked her what she considered her best work and according to him, is was the 'Sweet Monsters,'" Green said.

Different from much of O'Neill's most recognized work, her "Sweet Monsters" series depicts mythological characters, often human-life figures meshed with animal bodies. O'Neill's sculptures "Embrace of the Tree" and "The Fauness" are good representations of this era of work.

Many of O'Neill's "Sweet Monsters" illustrations are on display at the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum.

Visiting Bonniebrook

A painted Kewpie character pinned to a tree along Rose O'Neill Road, visible when driving to the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum, on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023.

Between April 1 and Oct. 31, the Bonniebrook Art Gallery and Kewpie Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bonniebrook is located at 485 Rose O'Neill Road in Walnut Shade. Visitors will know they are heading the right way when they spot painted wooden Kewpies pinned to trees on Rose O'Neill Road.