HOLLY HILL, S.C. (AP) — Beloved Holly Hill teacher-turned-toymaker Jean Smoak Schell, known as “Ms. Noah” by countless numbers of people, died on Oct. 28. She was 89.
Her toy making career lasted 28 years and each toy was created and handcrafted in Holly Hill.
Some people may think of the whimsical polyester-filled creatures as just stuffed animals, but they were much more than that.
Ms. Noah said so herself.
Each of her creations were extensions of her life, whether based on a character she read in a book or someone she knew or about herself.
She told The Times and Democrat in 1981 that her favorite creation, at that time, was a unicorn.
“To catch a unicorn, you have to hope and believe and love and I like to think that’s what I’m all about,” she said.
Each plush creature had a tag attached to it. The tag contained the creature’s name and description.
For example, Tarleton Sebastian the Hound, a soft, floppy, brown dog, had a tag that read, “Tarleton is an old and infamous history name in the South. Sebastian seemed an appropriate addition. Actually our hound is courageous, straightforward and kind, helpful, loyal and trustworthy, etcetera, ad infinitum. He has spent his life living down his name. He is a bit thin because he went deer hunting for a week – with no dinner!”
One of her favorite creations was Bunchy, a “pudgy bunny rabbit who always carries a carrot,” she said in a 2012 T&D interview.
The tag attached to Bunchy reads, “Bunchy ate a whole pound of chocolate when no one was looking and then hid the wrappers under his bed. He’s now on a strict diet of carrots and string beans.”
In that interview, she explained that she tried to rid herself of the love of chocolate at summer camp and ate a box of 24 Hershey bars.
“But I didn’t hide the wrappers under the bed, I threw them in the trash,” she said.
She created hundreds of such toys.
After teaching at Holly Hill High School for a few years, her toy making career started in 1973 when she was 40 and prompted by a dare from one of her sisters, Millie Smoak Wilson.
She’d accompanied Wilson to a craft show and saw the stuffed animals for sale there.
“I can do better than that,” she told Wilson.
Wilson told her, “I’m doing a show in a month.”
With a deadline and upon receipt of 30 pounds of polyester stuffing from her brother-in-law, “Ms. Noah” was born.
She made twos of everything initially.
The first show wasn’t as successful as she’d hoped.
But she continued. She saw the potential.
As she prepared for a craft show in Clemson, Wilson asked her, “What are you going to name this enterprise?”
That’s when “Ms. Noah” popped into her mind.
At an empty residence just two doors down from her Holly Hill home, Ms. Noah got the toy making business in full swing in 1974.
She called that home, “The Ark.”
Her employees? She called them “elves.”
She called them “elves” because she believed her employees did magic things.
In 1979, she created a custom 6-foot-2-inch white, bowtie-wearing rabbit named “Harvey.”
He was used in the April 1979 production by the Holly Hill Little Theatre of “Harvey,” by playwright Mary Chase.
Ms. Noah told The Times and Democrat then, “Harvey has overwhelmed me. The Harvey in my head is a friend who is warmth and magic. To get that friend out of your head is very difficult.”
The peak of her business was in 1990. She employed about 30 “elves” then.
By the mid-1990s, around the time of the Persian Gulf War, Ms. Noah’s business began to decline.
She’d faced opportunities to move manufacturing of her creations overseas, but she wanted those soft, lovingly stitched animals to continue to be made in Holly Hill.
By 2002, she closed the Ark for good.
Ms. Noah’s daughter, Caroline Shuler, said, “She gave love to everybody and she didn’t even know she was doing it.”
For the past few years, Ms. Noah made her home at Magnolia’s assisted living in Santee.
“She’s going to continue to live on through all of us,” Shuler said.
“She found the good in every person,” she added. “She was our magic.”