Meet Ms. Morene on the McDonough Square
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On Saturday June 13 a Raggedy Anne doll sat outside 7 Keys Ferry Street with sign on her lap, “Open Saturdays.” From one to four her chair faced the center of the square where art was exhibited, made, and sold as part of the McDonough Arts “Art in the Park” event. It seemed like a prime time for business, as 7 Keys Ferry Street, or as the big letters on the awning read “Ms. Morene’s,” has its own artistic appeal. Throughout the week, when the store is closed, its window display attracts people walking around the square to take a closer look. On either side of the glass door the windows contain their own little crowds. Sometimes a Native American grandmother hunches against her tomahawk adjacent to a porcelain bride, or Shirley Temple sends a rosy-cheeked smile to Barbie. It looks like a picture out of an “I Spy” book or the perfect spot to hide Waldo and it’s only a taste of what lies inside. According to its Facebook page it has thousands of dolls making Ms. Morene’s one of the largest doll collections in the Southeast.
Morene Massengill has owned her shop since 1984. Before then it was Gasses, a department store where at one point, according to Wade Massengill, most people in Henry County bought their clothes and shoes. Wade Massengill, Morene Massengill’s son, is the maintenance man, roof repairman (though he admits that he slacks a little there), window dresser, merchandiser, and lightbulb changer. He says that the building, which he claims was built around the thirties
or forties, is a piece of Henry County history. “All of this is a part… There’s a historical district that has all of this under its jurisdiction and they regulate what the signs look like and what the awnings look like and that’s what gives it the quaint homogenous small town kind of look to it. It’s a really neat place to own a building.” He pointed out that the original bank building stands against three other buildings, including Ms. Morene’s, built up against each other with a black tile theme. He stood back on the sidewalk to see the way the shop fits in against its neighbors. “Architecturally, this is the best storefront on the square I think.” He said. He gestured to the windowed storefront which creates shadow boxes with two sides of glass for each display, “In the daytime it seems kind of dark back here.” He referred to the deepest part of each window. “Because the sun is so bright right here. In the evenings like Ladies Night Out it really looks neat with all the dolls lit up in there.” Lamps sit among the dolls in consideration of the small daytime flaw. The store’s logo is printed in dark green above the dolls to the incoming customer’s left, “Yesterday’s friends, again,” and the door advertises repairs. Inside the shop dolls line the walls in glass boxes and on shelves. Then the middle of the store is almost a maze of cases. From the outside it can be hard to believe so many dolls fit in one place. Out-of-the-box Madame Alexanders stand casually in a glass-fronted box with wooden shelves. Cabbage Patch Kids sit with their feet dangling over ledges. Barbies on sale dabble in a myriad of professions.
Like Morene Massengill, both of the oldest dolls in the store are still on their feet. Unlike her, however, they are posing in the window. Wade
Massengill picks out each by face and ensemble. One wears cubby, rosy features, a shiny, blue and lace dress, and tiny, white boots. Her general appearance of well-being may be deceiving. Wade Massengill says she is German and either 110 or 115 years old. The other most senior member of the collection faces her from the other window. She comes with a well-kempt, brunette bob, small, red lips, and a fair, pink dress. She is a little harder to see, cornered behind a giant ballerina Barbie doll and a pink-clad girl with strawberry blonde hair, but she keeps a pleasant expression all the same and doesn’t look a day over nine.
Wade Massengill brings attention to another doll just behind the glass in a pink dress with a sunburned complexion. She is special because, unlike most of her comrades, her head is made of tin. The tin woman, with or without her brain, waits for a new friend not in a corn patch, but in a small-town storefront. Wade Masengill estimates the doll was made in the thirties, when manufacturers started to find more ways to make goods with tin. Clearly the idea did not catch on. “Takes a lot of abuse.” He jokes of its advantages.
Wade Masengill’s wife, Cathy Massengill is at the shop with the woman she calls, “Grandma” almost every Saturday. She said the dolls remind her of her childhood, “I enjoyed them when I was a little girl and now I get to enjoy them again, hanging with her.” She said. Her favorite doll as a child was the Chatty Cathy. “When Chatty Cathy dolls came out I thought, ‘There’s a doll with my name, I’ve got to have one,’ and I did. I got one for Christmas so, and she’s given me one to keep so it’s nice to go back and remember being a little girl.”
Morene Massengill grew up in North Georgia and went to Unity Elementary School. She described her childhood, “My childhood was like working in the cotton patch. I was six years old and my dad would pick cotton and my brother and I would pick cotton alongside him as we were kids and I grew up in the cotton patch.”
She said she began collecting dolls at eight or nine. “Back then there was nothing to play with except maybe dolls and a few things like that.” She explained. Her favorite was Bettie Lou, a doll with a cloth body and a composition face and neck. She also said she enjoyed reading (books like Little Women and Gone with the Wind), drawing, and quilting (which she did with her mother).
She went on to Franklin High School and graduated valedictorian. After high school she continued her education at Piedmont College. Her junior year she transferred to Oglethorpe in Atlanta and finished with a Bachelor of Science and a Masters in Elementary Education. While in Atlanta she stayed in a house for working girls in Atlanta on Piedmont 14th Street. During that time one of Masegill’s friends broke up with a boyfriend who soon after called Masengill while Masengill was busy. She told him to call again. “He did.” She remembers.
Two years before he had been discharged from Fort Mac after a long period of hospitalization that landed him in the 48th General Hospital in Atlanta. Originally, he was drafted in San Antonio Texas and sent overseas to Fort Benning where he participated in the Second World War. Upon re-entering civilian life, in 1945 he started working for Delta. They met in 1946 and married in 1947.
Massengill moved to Clayton County and taught kindergarten through sixth grade for 36 years, or until 1999. She said, “Second
grade was my favorite grade. They were over the newness of school and crying for Mama and you know, being baby and all that kind of stuff and they were interested in what was going on in the classroom and in the books. They showed an interest in learning at that age. My second grade always scored higher than any other second grades in the school.”
In 1984 she opened her shop on the square. During the time that she taught, the store was open on Friday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays. She has three children, Mary, Wade, and Wayne. She said that Mary never married. Eleven or twelve years ago Mary had a brain stem surgery that renders her disabled. Massengill commented she raised her children in a Christian home and now her grandchildren are being raised Christian as well.
Now, because her eyesight is failing her, she needs someone else to drive her on the expressway, often her son or her daughter-in-law. At 93, Massengill still opens her shop on Saturdays. “I’m not going to sit at home and become dependent as long as I can get up and get around and do what I want to do.” She said. On June 13 she wore a white dress with purple flowers on it and good waking shoes. She still has a favorite doll, actually a quintet of favorite dolls. Across from her desk, behind a glass panel she keeps a basket of baby dolls in the uniform likeness of the Dionne Quintuplets, the first set of quintuplets born on medical record. She said, “I thought it was interesting that there were five babies born at one time. So I kept up with them and years later when I was still teaching we had relatives in California who were visiting out there one week and a cousin of mine, her friend, gave me that set of quintuplets.”
After all these years Massengill still enjoys collecting dolls. Just recently she added 400 new ones to her collection. She explained why dolls are special to her, “I guess having been a teacher they’re special because they remind me of the kids I used to teach in my classrooms.”