Hometown of Raggedy Ann

Americana, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on December 17, 2000
Raggedy Ann and Andy

Nancy Malek came to Arcola, Ill., to rediscover a happy memory involving her children and two flaming red-haired dolls.

“If I cant find it in Arcola, I cant find it anywhere,” said the Chicago mother of four, searching for The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy, a movie her children enjoyed more than 20 years ago. “It was a happy influence on my kids. It was the cutest movie.”

In May 1999, the Johnny Gruelle Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum opened in the east-central Illinois community of 2,700. Since then, thousands of people have passed through the museum looking for the cheerful times they associate with the soft, cuddly red-haired dolls.

“They’re very unglamorous and very huggable,” says Joni Gruelle Wannamaker, who along with her husband, Tom, opened the museum to honor her grandfather, Johnny Gruelle, an Arcola native and creator of the legendary characters.

“My grandfather always taught lessons in their stories–lessons of unconditional love and morals,” Gruelle Wannamaker explains while giving a museum tour. “Many people have told me Raggedy Ann has been their best friend through the years. She’s always there for a hug or a smile.”

The Wannamakers’ decision to move to Arcola from Georgia and open the museum helped strengthen the town’s ties to Raggedy Ann, and the community celebrates a Raggedy Ann and Andy Festival each May. Gruelle Wannamaker says the museum has had about 40,000 visitors since it opened, most of them during the festival.

The museum honors Johnny Gruelle, in his day a well-known political cartoonist, illustrator, and artist, who was born in Arcola in 1880 and lived in Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Connecticut during his lifetime.

One of the museum’s top attractions features several large murals of the Raggedy Ann and Andy characters, which Gruelle painted in the 1920s for a candy shop owner in Oregon. The murals, long thought destroyed, recently were located inside the wall of a house in Vermont, apparently being used as insulation.

“That was magical,” says Gruelle Wannamaker, who stumbled across the murals being offered for sale on the Internet. She is having the murals restored.

The Raggedy Ann doll, which has brought so much happiness to children over its 85 years, actually was born out of the deepest kind of grief. Johnny Gruelle originally created the character and made up the accompanying stories to entertain his fatally ill 13-year-old daughter, Marcella. He created the Raggedy Ann doll in 1915 and published the first stories in 1918.

The doll’s popularity has risen and waned over the years. But it still has a firm hold on the heartstrings of many children–and adults. “I think people want to get back to old-fashioned values, and the dolls represent that,” Gruelle Wannamaker says.

The Wannamakers created a permanent home for Raggedy Ann when they bought a historic, two-story building in downtown Arcola in 1997 and turned it into a museum. Antique shops and restaurants surround the museum on the city’s brick-paved Main Street.

Across the street, Ron and Beth Vyverberg continue to run their namesake general store. “It’s a very friendly city, and of course, I know about everyone who comes in,” Ron Vyverberg says.

The town’s charm was enough to lure Jantha Rollings when she decided to retire from her job as a librarian in Indianapolis. As a child, Rollings, 62, spent vacations with her grandmother in Arcola and has many fond memories of that time. She now runs the Arcola Public Library.

“I always loved this town as a girl,” Rollings says. “I don’t think it’s changed much.”

Just like Arcola’s fondness for Raggedy Ann.