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'Bully Good Skookum' Dolls and Mary McAboy

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(Bully Good) Skookum Dolls and Mary McAboy

Mrs. Mary McAboy turned a hobby into what became a nationwide collecting obsession for some people. If you Google Skookum dolls, you’ll get the idea.

Mary McAboy’s doll making hobby started in Missoula, but it was her beloved mother who laid the foundation for what would become a very successful enterprise. A 1912 Missoulian article, quoted below, memorialized Mary McAboy’s mother, Mary Dwyer, and sheds some light on the genesis of the Skookum dolls and their fascinating history. The mother and daughter shared an inventive trait and both became certified patent owners.

The Missoulian article also shares a poem written in tribute to Mary Dwyer by the famous Montana pioneer, Mrs. Peter Ronan.

In Memoriam

The recent passing of Mrs. Mary D. Dwyer from her circle of devoted friends has meant so much of sorrow and loss, that a few words in appreciation of her character are due. She was really a remarkable woman, not only in sweet, rich maturity of character, but in mental attainments.

Born in Fairfield, Me., October 23, 1853, she was married to John A. Dwyer at Richmond, Md., April 15, 1873. Seven years later she with her husband moved to Minneapolis at Red Lake Falls. In 1902 they moved to Missoula where they made their home until death claimed the devoted wife and mother early in the morning of April 19, 1912. It would have been hard for her to say goodbye and so it was planned by a loving Father that she should pass peacefully while sleeping.

Mrs. Dwyer was always of a mechanical turn of mind. When but a girl of 14, she used sometimes to take her brother’s place in a broom factory in Maine. Part of her work was to feed the machine that rounds off the end of the broom handle and in order to make the task of holding the handle straight less difficult, she made a clamp of leather and rubber which was afterwards patented by the owner of the factory. She took out a patent on a pan lifter of her own invention which has proved a great success. She also invented a wheel-bearing trolley whose advantage is to prevent friction of the trolley on the shaft and to save oiling. This device has been used on the Missoula street railway and it is now placed with an eastern firm for manufacture. One of the most interesting of Mrs. Dwyer’s inventions was a method of making Indian dolls from apples. These dolls must be seen to be appreciated, they are so unique and effective. Mrs. Dwyer had obtained a copyright to supply them for the Montana building at the Panama exposition.

The chief characteristic of this unusual woman was her far-reaching charity. The money that she earned by her mechanical devices was used to help the needy and sorrowful. She kept none of it for her own selfish purposes. She was a devoted wife and mother, a devout member of the church of St. Francis Xavier and an active member of St. Anne’s society, the League of Sacred Heart, the Catholic Lady Foresters and the Married Ladies’ Sodality. Eleven brothers and sisters survive her of a family of 14, and five of her six children survive to mourn her death. Mrs. Peter Ronan has sent the following verses:

For Mrs. Dwyer,

“She knew in whom she trusted;

She counted all things loss;

And clung with the arms of faith and


To the Christ and to His cross.

“Her sun went down in the morning,

While all was fair and bright;

But it shines today in the far-away

hills –

In the land that know no night.”

Born in Maine in 1876, daughter Mary Dwyer McAboy grew up in Minnesota and attended schools there. She received a teaching certificate in Winona, Minnesota and taught in Minnesota before coming to Missoula in 1902. She met Frank McAboy in Missoula and married him 1909. Frank was originally from Minnesota, grew up in Washington, and was employed as a deputy Missoula County assessor. Seven years younger than Mary, Frank was suffering from tuberculosis by 1912. Though they moved to Arizona in 1912, hoping that the climate would improve Frank’s health, he passed away there the following year. Mary moved back to Missoula the following year.

Not long after her return a friend of Mary’s queried her about the dolls that her mother had made and encouraged her to continue making them. According to an article by Alice M. Chalmers that appeared in Sunset Magazine in 1919[1], a local Missoula gentleman owned a store where he displayed Mary’s dolls and they were purchased quickly. The dried apple likenesses drew so much attention that Mary soon hired several people to assist in making them. She then filed for a patent on the ‘Skookums’ and began manufacturing more of the dolls posthaste.

The dolls originally represented Flathead women but they were modeled on women from 13 tribes by the time the Chalmers article was written in 1919. Chalmers noted that famed Missoula artist Edgar Paxson paid tribute to the ‘Skookum’ dolls, describing them as works of art, and that Montana artist Charlie Russell was known to purchase them.

Mary had moved the doll production to Denver three years prior to the publication of the Crane article in 1919. By this time, she had engaged the services of a large “curio” company and was selling her dolls all over the country, while she continued to manage their production.

Chalmers’ description of the dolls gave her readers a glimpse of the fascination:

“Each was different from every other in dress and personality, and the brown, wrinkled faces seemed so human that I could not help speaking of them to a fellow window-shopper. . .

“Although these ‘Skookums’ are now sold all over the country they belong peculiarly to the West, for Mrs. McAboy’s mother, who conceived the idea of making a doll’s head from a dried apple, lived up near the Flathead Indians and the first doll was a Flathead [lady]. This doll was only a dried apple put on the end of a pointed stick and wrapped in a gay bit of blanket. Mrs. McAboy has so developed and perfected this idea that if the first [Indian lady] could see her great-great-grandson she would probably find but a slight family resemblance.

“Mrs. McAboy buys her apples in the winter when they are firm, cuts them in half, uses a die for making the eyebrows, mouth and nose, then dries them in a specially constructed evaporator. Later, when she is ready to dress the dolls, she puts in the eyes and nostrils and gives the little individual touches around the mouth and nose which make for distinct personality. She dresses the dolls in clothes made entirely by hand, for, as she says, Indians never sew on machines and her plan is to make her dolls true to life. . .

“From a financial point of view the dolls have paid Mrs. McAboy well. ‘Skookum’ is the Indian name for bully or good.”

Financially, some of today’s possessors of these dolls are shocked by their value. A place setting of several of them was purportedly sold for several thousand dollars.

Later versions of ‘Skookum’ dolls were manufactured using a fabricated “composition mask[2]” material and eventually plastic.

The dolls are even the subject for an unusual website - the Skookum News, an online newsletter.

Last Updated on Monday, 16 January 2017 19:13