Never Outgrowing the Cabbage Patch

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on December 3, 2000

Most small towns boast a successful son or daughter committed to civic service, but few places can claim a benefactor as fanciful as Xavier Roberts, creator of the famous Cabbage Patch Kids.

Roberts, whose childhood was marked by poverty in Cleveland, Ga., now throws the most lavish Christmas party in town, and everyone is invited.

Appalachian Christmas, a festival of toys, caroling, dancing, and games at BabyLand General Hospital, home of the Cabbage Patch Kids, marks its 21st anniversary this year. The party always is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and its tree-lighting ceremony launches north Georgias holiday season with an explosion of candy colors. The 66-foot tree in Cleveland, a town of about 1,900, is one of the natural pines that still looms over Main Street.

Of course, no one expects understatement from Roberts. Known for his generosity and cynicism-defying imagination, he is not a man of halfhearted gestures. Roberts wears the role of charmingly eccentric homeboy-who-made-good as easily as he doffs his trademark Stetson hat. He believes his two-stoplight hometown, like the rest of the world, needs more wonder, and he obliges in grand style.

Peace on Earth, good will to all men is a sentiment we hope to encourage through our tradition of offering a place for the community to come together in celebration of the season, says Roberts, who now lives nearby on Lake Lanier. From free performances by local groups and individuals to contributions collected for worthwhile charities, BabyLand has become the backdrop for a little holiday magic in Cleveland, Georgia.

The youngest of six children, Roberts was five when his father died in a car accident. His family struggled with bills, and Roberts did carpentry and textile mill work to save money for college. At Truett-McConnell College, he discovered the old German craft of soft sculpture and began designing cloth dolls that resembled his nieces and nephews. After his creations won awards at art shows, he formed Original Appalachian Artworks Inc. in 1978. The company was started with a budget of $700.

Roberts converted an old doctors clinic in Cleveland into BabyLand General Hospital, a fantasy-filled zone with its own rules for his Little People, who spring from an enchanted cabbage patch. They are called babies rather than dolls, and they never bear price tags. Prospective parents discuss adoption fees with official-looking LPNs (Licensed Patch Nurses) who deliver the babies when a mammoth Mother Cabbage goes into labor. An urgent voice over the intercom announces something like, Nurse Brown to delivery, stat, code green. Mother Cabbage dilated eight leaves. An LPN then preps the cabbage and administers bubbling IVs of Imagicillin and TLC. Soon, the new baby is born.

The surreal whimsy of the place and the irresistible mugs of the babies caught on. Roberts sold the licensing rights, and by Christmas 1983, parents were racing each other in toy store aisles to get the Cabbage Patch Kids. His creation became a cuddly icon of the 80s, and BabyLand still draws visitors by the busload while parents wait in long lines to adopt a baby.

Roberts since has channeled much of his fortune into philanthropy, especially childrens causes and land preservation. The state of Georgia has named him an Official Ambassador of Goodwill. In addition to its role as tourist attraction, BabyLand has become the countys kid-friendly community center and a quirky job base.

What satisfies me is seeing the kids faces, says Jerry London, a BabyLand doctor. They see things here theyll never forget, and sometimes, when they adopt one of our babies, its their first experience of having to take care of something. They learn the value of nurturing.

Neva Pruitt, 64, had worked at Dairy Queen for 12 years when Roberts, impressed with her friendliness at the ordering window, offered her a job in the Cabbage Patch. She will retire next year as a doctor after 21 years at the hospital.

The reason hes had big success is that he gives so much back and goes all out for the needy, always donating lots of babies to childrens hospitals and wherever theyre needed, Pruitt says of Roberts.

Plus, adds London, All of that Imagicillin and TLC keep us going.