December 29, 2023 at 10:40 a.m.
Father’s love evident in 70-year-old dollhouse
From left to right are Katelynn Gordon and Lauri U’Ren, Ted Dolphin’s great-granddaughter and granddaughter, respectively. Kenyon Bennett photo.
By Kenyon Bennett
Author’s note: So as not to confuse the reader, first names will be used in the article. Some people interviewed have the same last name.
Although Christmas has passed, a treasured yuletide gift can take on a life of its own and last for several generations in a family. Among the best Christmas gifts are those a father might handcraft for his daughters.
Thomas “Ted” Dolphin made a dollhouse for his daughters 70 years ago, and four generations of his descendants have now played with it. The memories it has created will not be forgotten. After leaving the Dolphins’ farm, the dollhouse was passed to family members with little girls. The families have ties in Mineral Point, Dodgeville, or other nearby communities.
Ted and his wife Melva raised 10 children: Jerry, Jeanie, Larry, Ronald, Lou Ann, Nancy, Elaine, Carol, Mary Beth, and Steve. For a time the family lived on a farm at Rewey, Wisconsin. Their home was a “big, big square farmhouse,” Jeanie (née Dolphin) Calvert, the oldest daughter, said.
Jeanie remembered when her father built the dollhouse. “We lived in a big old farmhouse and had a big full-size basement downstairs. Half of it was for wood for the big furnace. Dad had a little area down there that was his workshop. I can’t remember how old I was, maybe around 12. There were only four sisters back then. The last two kids, Beth and Steve, weren’t around yet,” she said.
Building the dollhouse was a clandestine process. When all was done, the carefully crafted wooden dollhouse had windows, upper and lower levels, carpeting, linoleum floors, wallpaper, and furniture.
Jeanie described how her father constructed the dollhouse. “At night after all the chores were done and the milking, my dad would go down in the basement. Mom would have to keep the little girls upstairs. I would go down and help Dad. So, we put it together and painted the floors or carpeted them. It was a lot of fun helping him. I had to hold the parts while he nailed them together,” she said.
Jeanie believed her sisters received the dollhouse on Christmas morning, but specific details are foggy now. The dolls the girls played with were “pretty little,” she said.
After the Dolphin sisters grew up, the dollhouse found a home in different places. “I had the oldest granddaughter, so she had it first. Then, it went right on down the line to whoever had the little girls,” Jeanie said.
Nancy (née Dolphin) Bockhop shared her dollhouse memories. “I don’t have a lot of them. There were four of us girls in a row, all about 15 months apart or so. It was a Christmas gift for all four of us,” she said.
“Jeanie remembers helping build it in the basement and trying to keep us other four girls from going down there for anything so that we wouldn’t see it,” she said.
“We’ve passed the dollhouse around. I had it for my great-granddaughters to play with, and sometimes even the little boys played with it. Elaine’s was the last house that had it because she has the youngest girls,” Nancy said.
Following the dollhouse’s exact trail through the years appeared daunting, so Elaine (née Dolphin) U’Ren seemed the logical person to contact next.
Elaine remembered playing with the dollhouse at the Rewey farm. “It’s been around as long as I can remember, from when I was probably four or five,” she said.
The dollhouse “had an upstairs, downstairs, and different furniture. As the years went by, things would get broken or lost because we (Dolphin family) moved. But, it went with us,” she said.
Elaine married her husband Dick, and later the dollhouse ended up at their house. “I have three girls. My sisters all had mainly boys. Each would have one daughter. I ended up with three daughters and one boy, so I had the dollhouse more than my other sisters,” Elaine said. Her children were Mary, Lauri, Kelly, and Jason.
As the Christmas season passes, Elaine’s daughter Lauri U’Ren, who owns the Red Room Bar & Restaurant in Dodgeville, displays the dollhouse at the business, along with a handmade toy fireplace that her grandfather Ted Dolphin had also made for his children. When Dodgeville’s Home for the Holidays weekend began after Thanksgiving, the Breakfast with Santa event drew families to the Red Room Saturday morning, Nov. 25. The fireplace was behind the restaurant’s decorated Christmas tree. Santa Claus sat in a chair by the tree and greeted children.
Lauri referred to the dollhouse. “Honestly, I never played with it,” she said. When she was a child, one of the other aunts had it. “I remember seeing it over the years, but I never got to play with it. My sister and I had one of those old metal ones from like the 1960s or ‘70s,” she said.
Terry Lauffer, Lauri’s husband, refurbished the Dolphin dollhouse this year. “He spruced it up for the holidays and gave it a new look after 70 years,” she said. Because time had passed and four generations of children had played with the dollhouse, revamping it became necessary.
Katelynn Gordon and Irelynd
Lauri’s niece Katelynn Gordon works at the Red Room. Katelynn’s mother Kelly U’Ren is Lauri’s sister. Katelynn, too, has dollhouse memories.
“My first memory is playing with the dollhouse when we all used to meet for a little family get-together at Ted and Melva’s house. They would be my great-grandparents. We only had little pieces of furniture with it and old, old really beat-up dolls for it. Then, when I got a little bit older, we took it to my grandma Elaine’s house, and it was always on the front porch. All my elementary school friends and I would get together and bring our own dolls and doll pieces and play with it because nobody had an actual Barbie dollhouse. That was it. That was our makeshift Barbie dollhouse,” Katelynn said.
“It had furniture. Some of it was plastic, but some of it was wood. It didn’t have a complete set. A lot of the furniture we played with inside of it was like Lincoln Logs. We had little Lincoln Logs or building blocks as chairs and tables. It also did not look like it looks now. It was custom painted, and it had little wallpaper on the walls and little carpets in it and stuff. Lauri and Terry made it look like the beautiful thing it looks like now. It’s a beautiful house,” she said.
“In my family a lot of us were very poor growing up. We didn’t get nice new things. Everything that we got was a hand-me-down or homemade,” Katelyn added. She understood at a young age that the dollhouse was not to be treated roughly or colored with crayons. “It was very special. Grandpa Ted had passed away when I was 10 years or younger. So, I knew that this present was one in a million for our family, and we would never get something like this again,” she said.
Katelynn’s daughter Irelynd, age 4 ½ years, has also played with the dollhouse. “Irelynd loves playing with it. She thinks that it is just the coolest thing ever to have a real dollhouse. She has a very fancy dollhouse at home, and she doesn’t play with it as much as she plays with the old-school dollhouse. It think that it just has a nice homey feel to it. When she plays with it, it’s kind of like actually playing house for her,” Katelynn said.
“I’m glad we have the dollhouse. I’m glad my daughter got to experience that. She never got to meet the great-grandma and grandpa on that side. She just gets the story in pictures, but I’m glad that she has something physical that he (Ted) made with his bare hands. We have a few things that he’d made like outdoor decorations and the dollhouse. My grandma also has a Christmas tree made of pop cans that he made. So, it’s just nice to have those actual physical memories here, too,” Katelyn added.
When asked why the dollhouse is important historically to the family, Jeanie’s and Elaine’s responses varied somewhat.
“Probably because Dad made it, you know. Back then, there wasn’t much money. I mean, you looked through the catalog, and you picked out what you wanted, but you only got one gift in the end,” Jeanie said. She didn’t remember exactly which catalog her siblings and she looked through but believed it came from Sears. She also said different sets of furniture were used over the decades.
Elaine offered her viewpoint. “Oh, because Dad made it. He made it for us as girls, and they kept passing it around, and you know. Stuff was repaired except for the windows. There’s no glass in it anymore or whatever was on there,” she said.
Ted Dolphin’s dollhouse is a beloved family heirloom that has traveled many miles over several years. During the holidays this year, it can still be seen at the Red Room in Dodgeville in a side dining room.