A Cabbage Patch Dream-Come-True: Babyland General Hospital – Cleveland, Georgia

This is a story about how five-year-old Alyssa’s dream finally came true…26 years late.

Every kid has a favorite toy, whether it’s a teddy bear, Lego blocks, or a plastic truck. As an only child, I was somewhat spoiled with toys, but hands down, my favorites were Cabbage Patch dolls.

Babyland General Hospital is a Cabbage Patch museum/factory/showroom of sorts, and I finally got to see it for myself…with my parents in tow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My grandma bought my first (of six) Cabbage Dolls back in 1983, when they were the hot ticket item on everyone’s shopping list. Her name was Isabelle, and oddly enough, I’ve taken Isabelle to live with me every time I’ve moved. She’s quite the well-traveled lil’ thing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo when my parents planned a road trip from Illinois to Georgia to visit me in my current home, a trip to Babyland General Hospital was a MUST.

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It’s located in the tiny town of Cleveland, Georgia…northeast of Atlanta at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the huge, white plantation-style home surrounded by 650 acres of green space.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike any decent kitschy attraction, a fair number of famous people have walked through these doors and/or collected Cabbage Patches themselves. You’ll be greeted by their signed photos as you make your way inside to the admission desk past the bathrooms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore there were Cabbage Patches, there were Little People, plush dolls that date back to 1977 and that were Xavier Roberts’ first creations. This is the oldest one of them all…valued at a whopping $37,000!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There were plenty of good photo ops for Isabelle and me as we toured Babyland General Hospital. To me growing up, Cabbage Patches were more than just silly dolls. They were my siblings. Weird, huh?

Being an only child can get lonely, so Isabelle, Netta, Jerry, Martha, Henrietta, and Lara kept me company by playing school, pretend cooking, going on road trips, and hosting birthday parties. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow it’s important to note that my parents were just as much into this whole experience as I was. They’ve finally accepted me for who I am, and they don’t (outwardly) judge me for playing with creatures and dolls instead of my own unborn offspring. Thanks, Mom & Dad 🙂
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne thing that caught me slightly off-guard was that everyone working at Babyland General Hospital was dressed like a nurse and totally in character. I really think some of these old women believed they were delivering actual babies in a real hospital. But I can support that.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I expected a bit more of a “museum” aspect to this place, but it ended up being more of a sales room than anything else. Practically everything inside was for sale! I would have loved a few more informational plaques, factory photos, and maybe a little video presentation to add to the experience though. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADolls were carefully positioned in “nurseries” and play areas, and even separated by girls’ rooms and boy’s rooms. I’m sure this was to avoid the dreaded case of the cooties.
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Apparently even Andy Warhol got in on the Cabbage Patch craze at one point because a few of his paintings lined the “hospital” walls. 
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut by far, the most interesting thing that happened at Babyland General Hospital was the BIRTHING.

I’m not even kidding…a head of cabbage gave birth to a doll while a “nurse” delivered it….and I saw it all. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks to a little audience participation, this head of cabbage turned out a baby girl and all the gross parts about birthing were edited out of the show. WHEW!

When the nurse asked the audience to name the new baby girl, my dad called out, “Alyssa!” And thus, a new baby me was born this day.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThroughout the course of the morning, I learned that there are many different types of Cabbage Patches and they don’t all look like Isabelle. However, she still had to wear a visitor pass so that she wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the residents.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor a Cabbage Patch fan, this was total sensory overload.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI could have probably spent all day hanging out with these little buggas, but alas it was a work day, and there’s only SO much time that “free admission” will buy you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was an onsite birthday party room that I would have absolutely died for when I was a kid. Aw what the hell…maybe I’ll see if it’s available in late August for the big 3-2.
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My parents made it known that they were bound and determined to buy me a brand new Cabbage Patch doll to celebrate this magical day. But with hundreds upon hundreds of glistening, adoptable painted eyes staring at me, how was I to choose just one?!
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After a requisite bout of indecision, I settled on a little brown baby boy wearing monkey pajamas and smelled of talcum powder. But this was no ordinary store purchase…this was a full-fledged adoption!

And you questioned my motherly instincts….heh!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith one look into those abnormally large brown eyes, I signed my life away…with Isabelle as my witness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the adoption process didn’t end there! I was required to raise my right hand and repeat after the nurse that I would be a kind adoptive mother to the little guy for as long as I shall live.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd with that it was done! I was too ecstatic at the moment to focus hard enough on choosing a name for my new little guy. So he’s still nameless…any suggestions? I need to write it on his birth certificate (yes, there IS actually a birth certificate) before he realizes that his adoptive mom is a flake.
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And just so Isabelle didn’t feel left out with all this new baby madness, I got her a little “candy striper” dress as a souvenir. They seem to be getting along pretty well so far.

And both 5-year-old Alyssa and 31-year-old Alyssa deem this latest Georgia adventure an overwhelming success! If you could belatedly fulfill one childhood dream trip right now, where would you go?

My First Hike as a Georgian: Sweetwater Creek Trail

Over the past month, I’ve totally fallen off the blogging bandwagon. But don’t worry; I have plenty of excuses lined up to justify the absence of personal musings!

After six years of calling Chicago my home, I have relocated to Atlanta. I also got engaged (yes, the to-be-married kind), the holidays were squeezed in there somewhere, and I vaguely remember having a fever. Boo hoo and such.

But excuses aside, I’ve found the transition to southern living remarkably easy and have been out and about exploring what Atlanta and the surrounding nature areas have to offer. Which brings me to my first hike as a newly licensed Georgian – Sweetwater Creek State Park.

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This is one of the closest state parks to metro Atlanta, so it was a logical pick for a first point of outdoor exploration. The park spans 2,549 acres, including a 215-acre lake, visitor center with gift shop, picnic shelters, fishing docks, and a bait shop. There are nine miles of trails here: the red, trail, yellow trail, and white trail.

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There are three parking lots, but we settled on the third one for better access to the white trail. There’s a nice little visitor center and gift shop up front with a little museum about the wildlife inside and the old mill. We sprung for a Georgia State Parks annual pass, figuring that we’d be making quite a few visits to these parks to get our money’s worth and would make use of the campground discounts too. Gosh I can’t wait to go camping…I’ve sleeping in a warm, comfy bed for far too long. 
IMG_7858The white trail is the longest – a 5.2 mile loop that takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to hike. It’s rated “moderate to difficult,” but it was definitely tamer than that rating would suggest. Winding through stream coves on a wide dirt path, the white trail is the most remote and least crowded of the three.
IMG_7862Armed with a slightly-less-than hardcore manatee backpack (manatees!) and a picnic lunch, we hiked through the wooded area with lots of tall, skinny trees. My parents gave us a tree guide book for Christmas, but I haven’t really figured out how to transition it from being a coffee table book to a useful field companion. There has to be an app for that…
IMG_7864 The creek flowing across the rocks slabs was really beautiful, and I had to keep reminding myself that this really was January. There is definitely nothing about Chicago weather that I’ll miss!IMG_7870 After scarfing down the sandwiches and fruit I’d packed for lunch, we continued hiking to where the white trail met up with the red one. The red trail leads to the intriguing ruins of the five-story New Manchester mill, which was the most interesting feature of this hike. Discovering this mid-hike mill reminded me of the ruins of the Ney Springs Resort in Mt. Shasta, California.

Related: Resort Ruins and an Auto Graveyard: Rediscovering My Love for Hiking in Mt. Shasta

IMG_7874.CR2Another fun and notable feature of this state park were all the dogs! I’m slowly coming to realize how dog-friendly Georgia is. Although I don’t have a dog of my own yet, I run a dog-sitting side business through Dog Vacay. It’s a fun way to get to know different types of dogs and dog personalities while life if still a little too uncertain to commit to a full-time pooch of my own. Finding parks, patio bars, and even driving ranges to take the dogs-on-loan to makes the side gig even more fun. And in this particular park, I almost felt out of place NOT having a four-legged friend tagging along beside me.

IMG_7876 The red trail is the most congested trail in this park because it provides the easiest access to the historic old mill. As the stroller crowds trudged along en mass, I came to realize that we weren’t the only ones to have the brilliant idea of a mid-day hike in the mild sunshine. IMG_7878Now fenced off and lined with “no trespassing” signs, this mill was part of a mid-nineteenth century town called New Manchester. The Civil War destroyed this town, but remnants of this mill are still standing today. Apparently, park rangers lead guided hikes on certain days and times inside the fences and tell the history of this crumbling textile mill.
IMG_7882But even if you don’t catch one of those tour times, there are some signs posted around to catch you up with the Cliff’s Notes. With water rushing in all directions in the background, it really does make for some photo-worthy views.

1Actually just yesterday, I went on my second Georgia hike – to Panola Mountain State Park, also in close distance to Atlanta. And this time with a boxer that I’m dog-sitting for the weekend!

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It feels great to get out and active in the middle of winter, and it feels even better to explore a new place that I call home. It’s a new phase of my life and I’m glad to be in an area where there are lots of trees and non-stressful spaces to reconnect with the environment around me. I expect these to be the first of many more hikes as a newly southern gal as I slow down my pace and start taking notice of the new, exciting, and beautiful things around me.

Nude Barbies in the Front Yard? Only in Georgia.

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Gnomes, flamingos, concrete geese, gazing balls…these are the types of kitschy lawn decor you expect to find in front yards across America.

But Barbie dolls? NUDE Barbie dolls?

Only in Georgia.

I was first introduced to Barbie Beach back in 2009 by my best friend, Michelle, who had recently moved to Newnan, Georgia with her husband. She told me that Barbie Beach was “right up my alley” and that I simply HAD to see it for myself. She tried to explain the phenomenon to me to no avail. It is truly something you have to see for yourself to understand.

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Barbie Beach, Fall 2009

Steve and Lynda Quick own the Barbie Beach property on the outskirts of Turin, Georgia. From I-85, you can take Exit 41 towards Newnan and make a right at the Highway 16 fork. You’ll find Turin about nine miles after the four-way stop. To accommodate gawking tourists and locals, the Quicks have put up some signage directing passersby to a little parking area to avoid traffic congestion.

They started sticking Barbies (often naked Barbies) in the yard back in 2006. There’s always a theme, and some of them have been the Royal Wedding, the Final Four Playoffs, Winter and Summer Olympics. Random people bring Barbies to the Quicks for their display, often naked and with haircuts and tattoos.

Check out this incredibly interesting video interview by Rebecca Riley, Daniel Oramas, and Alessio Summerfield from the Chattahoochee Heritage Project:

These are some of my absolute favorite quotes:

It started with six naked Barbies, a ping pong net, a ping pong ball, and a homemade sign…

Three, four beers…your imagination gets crazy and you start talking it through, and you go, well we could do this, and we could do this, and well…we’ll do that!

The first thing that a child does when they get a new Barbie is take the clothes off.

To me, it is a form of freedom of speech.

Barbie Beach June 2012 - Photo credit: Tom Magliery via Flickr

Barbie Beach June 2012 – Photo credit: Tom Magliery

In 2011, the front yard beach was filled with Barbies painted up like zombies, in tribute to The Walking Dead. Barbie Beach has gained so much local notoriety that it even made its way onto Roadside America.

Barbie Beach June 2012 - Photo credit: Tom Magliery via Flickr

Barbie Beach June 2012 – Photo credit: Tom Magliery

A couple months ago, I paid a visit to Michelle and made a point to stop at Barbie Beach. There was an envelope along the fence containing informational guides to the history of Barbie Beach.

History of Barbie Beach - Handout from the owners

History of Barbie Beach – Handout from the owners

When I recently visited, it was Memorial Day weekend, so the Kens were decked out in military gear. I must admit that I was a little disappointed by the lack of Barbie soldier representation in this scene. But the plastic spoon headstones quickly made up for that.

Memorial Day Barbie Beach 2014

Memorial Day Barbie Beach 2014

You can request to join the Barbie Beach of Turin, GA Fan Club Facebook Page, and I recommend doing so to keep up with all the latest themes and gimmicks. You’ll see updates posted a couple times a month.

Close up of the patriot Kens

Close up of the patriot Kens

Make me choose between a gnome and a Barbie, and I’ll take the gnome any day. But Barbie Beach is truly one-of-a-kind and I hope the Quicks keep it up for a long, long time.

If you have a yard, why not fill it with things that make you happy…even if they don’t make sense to the average critic? WHY NOT?!

We need to stop taking our yards (and our lives) so seriously and lighten up a bit. Barbie Beach has the right idea. It’s always brought a smile to my face and re-lit a creative, free-spirited spark that I sometimes forget is inside me. I hope to have a yard of my own in the near future, and you’d better bet it’s going to be really freaking weird.

Gorillas in Georgia?! A Tour of the Dewar Wildlife Trust Sanctuary

Georgia sounds like the absolute last place on earth that gorillas would be living in the wild. But there they were, roaming around on a couple hundred acres in the mountains of northern Georgia.

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Over a decade ago, a software engineer decided to switch gears, follow his passion, and build a gorilla sanctuary. His name is Steuart Dewar, and he made a good chunk of his gorilla-funding fortune developing a calendar application for the Palm mobile operating system. After some other land deals fell through, one worked out – a plot near Blue Ridge and Morgantown in the rolling mountains of northern Georgia.

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Dewar’s goal was to build a facility to care for gorillas that couldn’t otherwise be kept at zoos because of their medical or social issues. He built 14-foot concrete walls that enclose about eight acres of green space and indoor enclosure spaces for them to sleep at night. By enlisting the help of well-regarded veterinary facilities and veterinary professionals, the sanctuary earned the approval of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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When I arrived at the gorilla sanctuary for my scheduled tour, I unknowingly expected to find lots of gorillas living behind these fences. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that only TWO gorillas lived on site. The current residents are Kidogo and Jasiri, and they’re both about 15 years old.

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A former resident, Joe, arrived at the Dewar Wildlife Trust (DWT) in 2003.  In July 2012, Joe had to be euthanized “at the conclusion of an emergency immobilization following a recent marked decline in his health along with ongoing chronic health conditions that included advanced periodontal and cardiac disease.” Although Joe was born in the wild in Cameroon in 1963, he was captured and contained in a series of zoos in Birmingham, Denver, and Brownsville, Texas.

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DWT took on a gorilla named Oliver in 2006, but he was later moved to Ohio to live in the Columbus Zoo and father his first child. Kidogo and Jasiri, the third and fourth residents, both arrived at the facility from Zoo Atlanta in March 2012 after causing a ruckus and fighting with younger gorillas in designated bachelor groups.

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This nonprofit organization isn’t technically open to the public, but they still offer tours and host school groups. To get in touch, I contacted Steuart’s wife, JoBeth Dewar, by calling 706-374-5109. You can also email her at [email protected] Keep trying and leave messages if you don’t get a quick response.

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These gorillas are tucked away in the absolute middle of nowhere, and your vehicle had better have four-wheel drive if you’ve booked a tour. Steuart and JoBeth don’t advertise the GPS location of the sanctuary until your tour is on the calendar because they’re afraid of high school kids sneaking in to mess with the gorillas. To respect their privacy, I’ll just say that the roads to reach DWT are dusty, windy, hilly, narrow, and a bit treacherous. There is absolutely no signage along the way to let you know you’re on the right track.

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After rerouting my Jeep a couple times, I called JoBeth to let her know that I had arrived for the tour. Apparently, my boyfriend and I were the only ones scheduled for this tour, which worked out well since the drive from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee took longer than expected.

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JoBeth and Steuart pulled up in a (much older and rugged) Jeep of their own and told us to hop in. They took us to the front office, which was unassuming and featured little more than a small TV set and a decade-old laptop. Steuart shared a PowerPoint side presentation with us about how he started DWT and the gorillas that had lived here. Then we hopped back in the Jeep to meet Kidogo and Jasiri.

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Although Kidogo and Jasiri live behind a large concrete wall with a ton of open space, they stay in one place. JoBeth and Steuart brought a bag of apples and grapes to let us feed the gorillas between metal bars beneath windows in the concrete enclosure. Given their sheer size and power, I was surprised at how gentle the gorillas took food from our hands.

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Oh by the way, gorillas smell absolutely terrible. Apparently baths aren’t part of a gorilla sanctuary care regimen.

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Now you need to understand that my boyfriend and I aren’t just casual wildlife observers. We’re really into primates, having recently visited the Chimp Haven Sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana, supporting the Born Free Primate Sanctuary in rural Texas, and watching every documentary out there. So we had a ton of questions about caring for the gorillas, and Steuart and JoBeth did an excellent job of answering all of them.

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At times, the sanctuary area made me feel like I was the one in the cage, while the gorillas roamed “free” in open space. To my relief, they don’t seem the least bit crowded and they get along marvelously. We watched Kidogo and Jasiri tease each other, play-fight, and even grope each other a bit. I suppose it gets boring without having any female gorillas around to play with.

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After feeding time, the couple took us to the upper “observation deck” area to watch the gorillas interact without our intrusion. Then we went down to the nighttime enclosure space, which has large cages, hammocks, and a few toys.

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We also got to see the veterinary hospital room, with its large operating table and medical equipment. Both gorillas recently underwent routine cardiac ultrasound exams to test them for cardiac disease, which is the #1 cause of death for gorillas living in captivity.

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According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Zoo Atlanta pays for two full-time curators, Horton and Bobby Fellows, to care for the 14-year-old gorillas, both of which remain property of the zoo. The zoo also supplies other in-kind support, including gorilla chow. Apparently, Zoo Atlanta remains interested in working with DWT to find solutions for some of their 21 male gorillas who don’t assimilate well with groups in the zoo’s small 3-acre space. The Dewars don’t live on site, but rather travel back and forth from Texas in their live-in RV for tours and other gorilla business.

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After it was all said and done, the Dewars spent a couple hours with us and really seemed to enjoy working with “the boys,” as they call the gorillas. Group tours cost $39 per adult and $19 per child, usually start at 1:00 pm, and last for 2-3 hours. These group tours are scheduled on select Saturdays from May through September, otherwise you’ll be paying $495 for a private tour scheduled at a date of your choosing.

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Aside from the small number of gorillas living onsite, two other things surprised me. There is a ton of underutilized space at DWT that has never been built out. Steuart indicated that maybe someday they would be able to take on other types of animals and use the vacant buildings and land spaces for unrelated conservation use. But for now, the buildings are empty and the construction materials lie in stacks.

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Finally, there is a thrift shop onsite. A full-blown thrift shop with dusty furniture, lamps, and knickknacks – I’m not even kidding. After JoBeth sold her six-bedroom home to live a gorilla-filled life on the road with Steuart, she had a lot of extra stuff at her disposal. Every DWT tour ends at the thrift shop in case you’d like to buy anything or make a tax-deductible donation of your own unwanted junk. All for the sake of fundraising!

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I must say that I absolutely loved spending a Saturday afternoon with Steuart and JoBeth, who were some of the most interesting characters I’ve met in a very long time. Although the need for a gorilla sanctuary isn’t incredibly great, there is still is a need. As someone who has come to hate everything that zoos stand for, I think DWT is making the best of these gorillas’ situations and helping them live out their adult lives more peacefully.

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Kidogo and Jasiri were sweeter, calmer, and more playful than I would have ever expected them to be after all they’ve been through. DWT has a Facebook page, however, most of the updates are about general animal conservation topics rather than what Kidogo and Jasiri are up to. But I still check in every now and then to see what shenanigans these teenage gorillas might be getting into. And I wish them both the very best!

For more information on visiting Dewar Wildlife Trust, visit Steuart and JoBeth’s tour page: http://www.dewarwildlife.org/tours.htm and register online.