The Skookum story begins on Valentine’s Day in the town of Fairfield, Maine in 1876. Mary Dwyer McAboy, originator of the Skookum Indian doll, was born to Mr. and Mrs. John D. Dwyer. The Dwyer family then moved to Red Lake Falls, Minnesota where Mary spent her childhood years. She aspired to be a teacher and received her training in Winona, Minnesota. Mary later taught in the towns of Duluth, Minnesota and Missoula, Montana.

It was in Missoula that Mary met Frank E. McAboy. They were married in 1909. Mary was 33 years of age and Frank was 26. Mary worked as a teacher and Frank was employed in town as the Deputy County Assessor. They lived in Missoula until 1912. In that year, with Frank having been diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, the McAboys moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Although it seemed that the dry Arizona climate was helpful in the treatment of his symptoms, Frank E. McAboy died unexpectedly the last week in May 1913. Mary and Frank had been married for less than 4 years.

Mary returned home to Missoula to bury Frank and to be near her family. It must have been a trying time for her, but she persevered. Amazingly, it was in this same year that she created the Skookum Indian doll.

“What became of those little apple-faced dolls your mother used to make?” (Playthings, 1920). Mary’s mother was the first to make apple head Indian dolls wrapped in blankets, which she gave to friends and sold at social events. Their folky appeal made them very popular among collectors. It was she who provided the inspiration for Mary’s Skookum Indian dolls.

Mary decided to make her own little apple head Indian village. The figures were set up in the display window of a local grocery store. Astounded by their success Mary is quoted as saying, “The Naughty Marietta Opera Co. was playing in town at the time and bought the whole village—paid actual money.” (Playthings, 1920) Mary saw the business potential and seized the opportunity!

The word Skookum is an old slang term still used today in the Northwest Territory of the United States. Ask any Northwesterner and they will tell you that Skookum means “Excellent” or “Mighty” and to Mary McAboy these little dolls were “Bully Good!” She filed to trademark register the name SKOOKUM April 19, 1917, claiming use since the fall of 1913.

Mary also applied for a design patent November 29, 1913. The patent was granted February 17, 1914 a few days after her 38th birthday. She patented the designs for three types of dolls: a male, a female, and a female with a baby. Production began from her father’s home and the business rapidly grew.

“At the end of a year I was glad to shift part of the responsibility on stronger shoulders.” (Playthings, 1920) Mary McAboy moved to Denver, Colorado and merged her business with a large western company. Her dolls had caught the eye of a shrewd businessman named Harry Heye Tammen, founder of the H.H. Tammen Company of Denver, Los Angeles, and New York. He began mass production and nationwide distribution of Mary’s dolls. The dolls were sold across the country from San Francisco to New York City, as far north as Canada, and as far south as Tijuana, Mexico. Mary McAboy was employed as head of Skookum assembly. She oversaw the production of these dolls for approximately 38 years, and retired in 1952. Oh, the dolls she must have seen!

Mary Dwyer McAboy passed away in Denver, Colorado at the age of eighty-four on January 3, 1961. She may never have realized the legacy she left behind—how these lovely little dolls would touch our hearts. They are a part of history now, a piece of time long gone. Mary proved to be a teacher after all.


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