In 1982, Faline Jones of Wooster, Ohio (pop. 25,605), saw some tiny wooden houses in a gift shop and thought, "I can do better than that." Unemployed at the time, she used her last $39 to buy several pieces of pine and went to work cutting out and painting a dozen two-dimensional miniature wooden houses.
She called her creations The Cat’s Meow Village, taking the name from a previous business venture for which she made cat-shaped fabric doorstops. "I didn’t want to throw away those business cards and letterheads," says Jones, 47. Following on her feline theme, Jones stamped a black cat on the front of the 4-by-5-inch wooden architectural facades and peddled her creations to several area gift shops.
"They are more than miniature houses," says Rosann Burger, then owner of the Country Traditions gift shop. "It’s the moments and memories people associate with them."
The simple style of the handmade country cottages gave the designs a down-home feel. When a salesman noticed them in January 1983, he began taking orders and, within a year, 800 outlets were selling Jones’ houses.
She soon began receiving letters telling her how the houses brought back warm memories of growing up on a farm or visiting grandparents in the country. "Stories in their own lives created a connection to the collectible," she says. "That sparked their interest in finding more."
With help from family and friends, Jones filled orders while working part time as a secretary and waitress. In 1984, she plunged into the business full time.
Based on customers’ requests, she started replicating actual buildings and historic landmarks such as lighthouses, barns and churches. "Collectors are attracted to the history of each piece," Jones says. "I find ideas by reading travel and historic magazines, visiting national parks and special celebrations." About 100 new designs are added annually while others are retired.
As business boomed, Jones expanded. In 1989, she built a 24,000-square-foot building just outside Wooster, which today has 70 employees. Although millions of products have been made, the company hasn’t lost its personal touch. Each piece travels through seven sets of hands that cut, screen-print and hand finish it.
At any one time, 2,000 different designs are available at 1,000 retailers nationwide, at the factory gift shop near Wooster and on the company’s website.
Jones’ favorite creations appear in her "America’s Back Roads" series. "I get the most enjoyment from it because I’m just a country girl," she says. She often travels down dirt roads seeking new ideas for the series, such as covered bridges, train depots and antique and woodworking shops.
Retailers also may request made-to-order designs of buildings from collectors’ hometowns. Ann Mattson, owner of All Things Country in Pasadena, Md. (pop. 12,093), has commissioned 16 local landmarks, including the 3 B’s Bakery, which has been family-owned and operated in Pasadena for nearly 50 years. "There are lots of memories and historic significance associated with that bakery," Mattson says.
The miniature replica is precious to Sally Bossert, 54. "My mom’s family has owned that bakery ever since I can remember," she says. After receiving her own 3 B’s Bakery piece, Bossert bought one for her mother. "My mom was so excited, she cried," she says.
Jones’ creations are so popular that they inspired the formation of the Cat’s Meow Collectors Club, which boasts more than 3,000 members. Dorothy Berman of Macedonia, Ohio (pop. 10,147), a member since 1991, has about 500 pieces. She displays a Christmas set inherited from her mother that she keeps on a ledge over her front door. "I continue to buy the Christmas series each year in her memory," she says.
Jones, who donates proceeds from a collectible to a different charity each year, says she’s proud that Cat’s Meow Village helps her customers recall such fond memories. "I think the village gives us something to identify with and feel good about," she says.
Visit www.catsmeow.com for more information.