Beware. Blood. Hairpin. Signal Loss. Trail. Inclement. Cabin. Fog.
Laid out like plot points in a murder mystery novel, these are just a handful of words that greet you on signs every few hundred feet as you climb the mountain roads of rural Georgia.
Depending on the time of day and the season, the atmosphere is fitting for a spooky story. If it is raining or if there is any threat of rain, the mountain is covered in grey light and misty fog. The trees are dense, the hills are very steep and the trajectory is very, very curvy.
Wild, serene and untouched by commercialism, indicators of human existence are completely void except for a hiker’s rest stop area near the top. Leading through the Chatthoochee National Forest and along the Appalachian Trail this particular hilly incline is called Blood Mountain. Murder mystery material indeed!
Just up and slightly over the top crest of the mountain a large white weather-beaten sign declares Babyland General Hospital is a quick right down a rugged road. On her way to somewhere else, Ms. Jeannie passed the sign by, but in doing so, something familiar from a long time ago tickled her memory. Curiosity got the better of her and she turned the car around heading in the arrow’s direction. Paved but narrow, unkempt and heavily wooded on each side, Ms. Jeannie passed a couple of commercial office parks and a manufacturing plant before the landscape opened up into a panoramic vista that looked this…
And that’s when Ms. Jeannie realized why Babyland was so familiar. Her six year old self knew exactly what this place was… the famous garden of the Cabbage Patch.
A marketing phenomenon in the 1980s Cabbage Patch Kids were created by Georgia native Xavier Roberts. Beginning as a local handicraft, his cloth folk art dolls quickly evolved into an assembly line of characters that were sold by the millions all over the world. Xavier became a toy manufacturing genius, a multi-millionaire and a household name all within a ten year timespan.
As a dynamic storyteller and a natural promoter, Xavier created a whole entire world revolving around the Kids – their origin story beginning with birth in the cabbage patch, the assorted pals that friended them along the way including Bunny Bees, Farm Cuties, dogs and mountain bears and all the adoption paperwork that made Cabbage Patch Kids such a novelty in the early 1980’s toy world.
Ms. Jeannie got one herself for Christmas when she was six. Her kid came all the way from France because it was so difficult to find any available ones in the US. To celebrate her heritage, Ms. Jeannie gave her a French name – Marie Rose – the epitome of six year old sophistication! With her green eyes, light brown hair and small chip (a shipping adventure!) on her cheek, Ms. Jeannie loved her. But as fun and engaging as Marie Rose’s story was to Ms. Jeannie as a little girl there is something unsettling about the whole Cabbage Patch world now.
Headquarters for Babyland General started out in a small historic medical facility in downtown Cleveland, Georgia, in the late 1970’s but ten years ago they moved to a brand new $2 million facility outside of town that sits on 500 plus acres. Like a bright light beacon, the hospital is beautiful on the outside with wide porches, rocking chairs…
and flower pots that are spilling over with bright and bold arrangements…
Because Xavier took his theme and totally ran with it from the very beginning, his Cabbage Patch detailng creeps into every aspect of the story experience beginning on the front lawn with the giant four foott wide plaster cabbage patch kid sculptures found randomly placed around the property.
From far away in the driveway and parking areas they look like flowers. But up close they are faces!
Inside, past a wall of framed celebrity photographs all autographed to Xavier and/or the Cabbage kids, the hospital opens up into essentially a very large gift shop. Ms. Jeannie, thinking it would somehow be like a Disney experience, was ready to suspend disbelief and soak up the scene as a nurse greeted visitors. As soon as she announced that she was an L.P.N. (a licensed patch nurse) and that everything was for sale all in the same sentence, Ms. Jeannie began to lose a little hope in this presentation.
Cabbage Patch Kids were everywhere and arranged in settings and scenes that ran the gamut from newborn nurseries to schoolrooms to playhouses. Literally thousands of faces greeted her throughout the walk around the room.
Crying baby noises and gurgles played on a speaker system, a Christmas corner announced all the holiday fun one could have with their Kid and racks of clothing for both dolls and their human parents were available at every turn. It was a megaplex of merchandising.
While there is something inherently cute about these faces, to Ms. Jeannie they also looked a little bit sad. Part of what made Cabbage Patch Kids appealing as a little girl – was their unique factor. You could pick a doll that matched your gender and your hair, eye and skin color. You could name it whatever you wanted and you had to sign an oath that you promised to take care of it under any and all situations. It was a highly personable shopping experience back then in the age before the internet. But now seeing so many of them lumped together in a mass produced, forced style of merchandising “fun” made these Kids seem anything but unique and personal. There were just so many.
Ms. Jeannie was getting ready to leave when a message came over the loud speaker announcing a delivery that would soon occur. Visitors were directed to the big tree in the middle area of the room where Mother Cabbage was going to give birth any minute.
Bright colorful crystals hung from the branches of the big tree and lit up as cabbage baby heads at the base rolled around in excitement.
Anticipation culminated with the appearance of the head nurse who walked visitors through the birth of a new cabbage in exquisite detail. Ms. Jeannie will spare you the uncomfortable dialogue but the words dilation, stretching, sonogram, massaging oils and deep breathing were discussed in good measure before the nurse leaned in to have a look at Mother Cabbage’s progress. Thank goodness the baby was coming out head first, otherwise, if it was feet first it would be known as a branch birth, so she said. Oh my.
Up to her elbows in cabbage leaves the nurse finally pulled a naked baby out of Mother Cabbage, spanked its bottom, wrapped it in a blanket and then called on visitors to name it before the new baby was whisked off to the nursery where its vitals were checked and an outfit was selected. At that point Ms. Jeannie headed for the exit door.
On the drive out, a final sign from the cabbage gang bid Ms. Jeannie goodbye.
It took a few days to figure out what that whole experience was exactly. Some further research on Xavier explained that he was not actually the original designer of his dolls. Back in the 70’s he noticed the handmade dolls of Martha Nelson Thomas at a craft fair. She built a family centric persona around each of her handmade dolls, referring to them all as babies, and offered kids the ability to “adopt” them. Xavier picked up on the charm of that notion, bought one of her dolls and began creating his own versions in duplicitous style.
Eventually after ten years of legal battles over rightful ownership of the original cabbage patch kid designs, Martha and Xavier settled out of court in the mid-1980’s. Martha was paid an undisclosed amount to forgive and forget and Xavier went on to grow his empire.
Since their inception over 95 million Cabbage Patch Kids have been sold around the world. They morphed into books and movies, cartoons, television shows and video games and a million different merchandising pieces from key chains to coffee mugs. They’ve been launched into space, opened the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. But perhaps most importantly they have captivated kids and collectors hearts for thirty plus years, securing their place as one of the most iconic toys of the 20th century.
So why did visiting Babyland General leave such a strange taste in Ms. Jeannie’s mouth? Like the drive up there, with its murder mystery stylings and foreboding signage, this trip to the Cabbage Patch presented an unsettling look at a situation that wasn’t quite what it appeared to be. Blood Mountain is a beautiful spot in Georgia, one of the highest vistas in the state but it is also a dangerous natural landscape. Babyland General is a beautiful light-filled building on a gorgeous piece of property, but it behind all that polish, shine, and kid-friendly disguise there lurks a darker world of commercial motivations.
If you’ve been to the Cabbage Patch please share your experience in the comments section below. Ms. Jeannie would love to hear your thoughts!