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Just kids at heart
25 years ago this Christmas, Cabbage Patch Kids were the hottest item on the store shelves

When Inez Jones told her kindergarten students where she was born, they sat in rapt attention, some in disbelief and some in awe.

Jones, it seems, was born in the Cleveland Clinic, an old hospital that was the main health care facility for years in White County. But in the late 1970s, the clinic was transformed into Babyland General Hospital, home to the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Nevertheless, the idea that Jones sprouted from a cabbage under a magical tree was as good a story as any for the students.

“I’d tell them, I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m a Cabbage Patch Kid,’ and that would excite them when I’d tell them those things,” Jones said. “I’d kind of elaborate on it, you know, I’d tell them, ‘That’s where I was born. That’s the hospital where I was born in, where the Cabbage Patch Kids been born.’”

This Christmas marks the 25th anniversary of Cabbage Patch Kid craziness, when parents across the county stood in lines and occasionally fought over the pudgy-faced kids. If they were lucky, they could score a kid with the same hair or eye color as their own — but sometimes, they just bought what they could find.

Today the headquarters of the Cabbage Patch Kids empire, still based in Cleveland, is making plans to move into a new Babyland General this spring. The facility, while staying true to the traditions of the original Babyland General, will also incorporate acres of gardens and spring-fed lakes, according to Cabbage Patch Kids creator Xavier Roberts.

“I found an old map of 1865; hopefully we’re going to weave the history in. So you’re going to learn about the gold rush in Helen and Dahlonega, and really just weave in a history and time, so you get to see where the babies are born and delivered from the tree and a lot of things will be the same. But we’re hoping to add a lot more just about the people in the area, not just now but in the past, weaving the Indians being here,” Roberts said. “And at the same time, trying to keep it fun and keep the original magic of the other place. I’m sure people will like it.”

Humble beginnings
Cabbage Patch Kids are more than the plastic-faced toys you can find at the mall. Originally, Roberts, said, he created them as a form of art. He saw them as soft sculpture pieces, he said, or contemporary art.

This was in the 1970s, when Roberts started crafting the kids and selling them around Northeast Georgia. Eventually demand got so big that he started recruiting family members to help assemble them, and eventually had a whole army of White County workers adding hair or making clothes.

“That happened back in ’78; we were making the original kids that were all handmade in Cleveland, and at that time they really were pieces of original art,” Roberts said. “Then we started manufacturing them in Cleveland, and first it started with family and friends, and then it got to be at one time we had like 400 people working in Cleveland.”

Jones was one of those workers. Growing up in White County and knowing Roberts and his older brother from school, she also helped put hair on kids’ heads during the summer.

“It was really exciting,” she said. “It was at the beginning part of (Cabbage Patch Kids) because he had to get hair on the babies. My sister and myself, we would congregate at each other’s homes at the time. ... We put the hair on the heads of those dolls — those kids.”

Through a friend, Roberts said, he was able to fix up the old Cleveland Clinic. And he and friends soon started dressing up as doctors and nurses in the old hospital. Except instead of helping bring real babies into the world, they were lovingly crafting their Cabbage Patch Kids.

“It’s really strange how it fell into place, like it was meant to be,” said Roberts, who remembers being treated in the clinic as a child. “It was a little bit like magic.”

The whole Babyland General idea, he said, seemed to fit into his idea of the North Georgia mountains, which always sparked his imagination, along with tales he heard growing up about “little things living in the woods.”

“But the shocking thing was, was that people started visiting,” he said. “We’d have one or two people pull in and word got out more, and word got out more, and people started visiting Babyland all the time.”

Today, according to Margaret McLean, director of communications at Cabbage Patch headquarters in Cleveland, they estimate about 200,000 come to visit Babyland every year. Most come from Georgia and surrounding states, but each year they usually find homes for babies in all 50 states.

“Our babies also find homes internationally, in (the) U.K., Canada, Australia,” she added, although not in large numbers.

Small town, big effect
For White County and Cleveland, the effect of Babyland is undeniable.

“We are located in Cleveland, and that is the No. 1 question when visitors come into our area, they’re looking for Babyland,” said Judy Walker, president of the White County Chamber of Commerce. “They’ll call us because they’ll be looking in the phone book for ‘Cabbage Patch Hospital,’ and it’s actually listed as ‘Original Appalachian Artwork’ or ‘Babyland General Hospital.’”

And because White County’s economy is primarily tourism-driven, Walker said, Babyland adds to the overall draw to the area, which includes Helen and other recreation in the mountains. Even festivals that take place in Cleveland are tied in with events at Babyland.

For example, a fall festival in Cleveland took place during the same weekend Babyland celebrated its 25th birthday party.

“We do work with Babyland General and have, with the (Easter) Eggstravaganza, on average, you’re looking at about 7,000 visitors that come into White County that weekend alone.”

And growing up in White County in the 1980s, when Cabbage Patch Kids reached global status, resident Wendy Clackum, 29, said her childhood is intertwined with Babyland General.

“I do remember visiting Babyland as a child and just being overwhelmed, walking in thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can play with all these dolls,’” said Clackum.

Today Clackum’s daughter Kendal, 4, is the proud owner of her mother’s Cabbage Patch Kids, along with a few new ones of her own.

“I only had one that was purchased at Babyland General. I still have that one, and of course my daughter, she has all of them now,” Clackum added. “We went to my parent’s house and loaded them all up and brought them home. And she keeps them spread out in her room, and when her friends come over she’ll say, ‘This was my mommy’s when she was little.’ And she gets real excited about it because the ones I had have yarn hair, as opposed to these (new Cabbage Patch Kids) have the ‘real’ hair. ... She was very excited to learn they were mine.”

And events at Babyland General are part of Kendal’s childhood now, too.

“I just remember in my mind how much fun it was for me, and it’s so important to take her to those things now,” Clackum said. “And since she’s been born, we haven’t missed one. Every Eggstravaganza they have and every event, the lighting of the tree and all that.”

The birth of the Kids
Roberts said it’s hard to believe 25 years have gone by.

The Cabbage Patch Kids debuted at a toy fair in 1983, Roberts said. They got a good response but nobody felt like they would be “the next big thing,” he said.

At that point toy company Coleco had licensed the Cabbage Patch Kids, producing them nationally with soft bodies and plastic heads.

“The toy fair happened in like February of ’83, and then everything kind of died down,” Roberts said. “It went to February, March, April, May, and we just kind of carried on business, not really knowing what to expect.”

Then, the madness started.

“I was happening to be traveling to Orlando (Fla.) visiting friends, and I was just watching the TV and it was Miami, and I saw all these people running toward these boxes. And it was just like, all of a sudden, I realized it was Cabbage Patch Kids that they were running to,” Roberts said. “I was staying at, like, a Holiday Inn at the time, and that was probably the most surreal moment because it didn’t seem real; like I was dreaming.”

The next day Roberts said he went to a Ward’s store with a friend and there was a line of people around the building, waiting to buy a Cabbage Patch Kid.

“That was really when it hit that it was happening,” he said. “So really it was just shock at that point.”
And it all started at a humble hospital in the North Georgia mountains.

Jones still remembers how her mother was so excited to see the Cleveland Clinic become Babyland General.

“L.G. Neal Sr. was my doctor, and my mom would always tell me, after it became Babyland, she’d always say, ‘Well, you was born in Babyland,’” Jones said. “It was kind of an exciting thing the way it turned out.”

And without the help of the community, Roberts said, who knows what might have happened to all his Kids.

“Cleveland is a small town that we all knew each other 25 years ago, so I think a lot of that is everybody pitched in. Everybody worked — we knew all the people. So it was more like a family kind of thing that developed over the years,” he said. “Cabbage Patch Kids’ success has really been through a lot of people. They’ve all been involved in it, and without them, I just don’t think it would have happened.”