A smiling Jackie Miley cradles a "Singing Elvis" bear in her arms as she surveys thousands of cuddly teddy bears in her collection on display in Hill City, S.D. (pop. 780).
"Every bear I get is special to me," says Miley, 60, of her more than 6,500 teddy bears, including the furry Elvis impersonatorone of her newestthat sports a white jump suit, slick black hair and a shiny guitar.
Ironically, the woman who holds the Guinness World Record for the largest teddy bear collection never owned a teddy bear as a child. "I don't have a lot of childhood memorabilia," says Miley, who grew up in foster homes in St. Paul, Minn.
Clearly, Miley has filled that void since she began collecting the furry stuffed toys a decade ago. For the first nine years, her cuddly caboodle was housed in her one-bedroom apartment at the Super 8 Motel where she works as a front desk clerk in Hill City, not far from Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills National Forest. She happily invited guests to take a peek at her "bear den" and the reactions often were surprising.
"I remember showing the bears to a hunter once," she says, recalling how he scanned the vast assemblage and became fixated on one bear. "'I had a bear like that when I was young,'" he told her, his voice quivering with emotion.
"That's when I knew I had something special," says Miley of the heart-warming collection, which drew about 5,000 guests from 35 states and eight countries to her cozy apartment exhibit.
Last May, however, she and motel owner Vic Alexander moved the menagerie to a small gingerbread-style house across the street from the motel for viewing by the general public. The free attraction has drawn both locals and tourists, mostly families with children.
Miley's collection began with little fanfare while assembling a "Grandma Jackie" bearcomplete with reading glasses, robe and slippersat a Build-A-Bear Workshop in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she was vacationing with one of her four grown children. After that, Miley gradually sought out new or "previously loved" teddy bears in thrift shops and department stores. Word spread about her growing collection, and people began donating bearssometimes treasured childhood possessionsto the "bear lady."
A couple from Minnesota, for instance, surprised Miley with a bear from her elementary school in St. Paul with her second-grade photo pinned to its chest; a German tour guide sent a prized Steiff bear; and a woman from Colorado shared a beloved bear that her mother, who had passed away years earlier, had made for her.
"I didn't plan to set a world record," Miley says, noting that she contacted Guinness World Records in 2005 at a friend's suggestion after her collection grew to 3,000 bears. She sent photos, newspaper articles about her collection and descriptions of each beara process accelerated by the detailed record she's maintained since acquiring her first teddy bear.
Later that year, Guinness notified her that she had established a world record for the largest teddy bear collection3,610 at the time.
From the start, her boss served as an unofficial partner in Miley's hobby, allowing her to display bears in the motel lobby and to give impromptu tours to travelers passing through. But the collection grew too large for the spacekind of like an overstuffed teddy bear bursting at the seams.
"We had to get Jackie her apartment back," jokes Alexander, 54, who became an official partner in 2006 when he purchased her collection for $10,000 and named Miley as its curator. Together, they moved the bears last spring to the small house, dubbed Teddy Bear Town.
Miley says the new location makes the collection more accessible, especially for handicapped people. For Miley, the more people who can view her furry friends, the better.
"The smiles on people's faces after they've seen the collection, the fact that it's given them something to remember fondly, well it just gives me a good feeling," she says.