The Aegis
Harford County

Cornhusk doll-making tradition lives on at historic Harford mill

A volunteer at a historic Harford County mill that once ground corn into meal is teaching today's visitors an old-fashioned craft of making dolls from cornhusks.

Many years ago, stone-ground corn meal was an integral part of a family's sustenance, and the dried cornhusks, along with a little string, were use to fashion toys for children and create other functional and decorative arts. That old tradition still lives as best exemplified today by golden cornhusk dolls.


At Jerusalem Mill Village in Kingsville, each Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m., Joan Scovill sites attired in colonial garb and entertains visitors with period-appropriate games and activities. Scovill's husband, Chris, is the curator of the museum at the historic restored mill, where he volunteers almost seven day a week.

Joan Scovill determined many years ago if the couple wanted to spend retirement time together, then finding some activities in the museum for her was a must.


The Scovills, who live in Upper Falls, met in 1965 when they were stationed together in the Air Force, where he was an intelligence officer and she was a nurse. They later married and after Chris Scovill retired from the military, they eventually moved to Maryland. Joan Scovill continued her nursing career with the American Red Cross blood service program. Her explanation for continuing her nursing career is "I had to go back to work to help support his habit of volunteering."

After retiring in 2001, she had time to become involved in the ongoing museum activity and on Sunday afternoons began providing visitors a tour of the old mill. While the parents of visiting families were often very interested in the history of the mill and the surrounding village, some children found the experience a tad boring. To add a little interest for "children of all ages," as she now refers to visitors, Joan Scovill began gathering period-appropriated games.

Quaker traditions

The early mill owners were Quakers whose children were not allowed to engage in physically demanding activities on Sundays. They could, however, play a game called Jacobs's Ladder that has references to the Bible. These thin and relatively square paddles of wood are hinged together with ribbon and appear to cascade down when the top paddle is alternately rotated back and forth.

Another game Scovill collected truly amazes on-lookers and is demonstrated with a string through the center of a solid wooden ball. With the ball at one end of the string, she raises it above her head and holds the other end of the string below her waist. Then magically she commands the ball to slowly descend and then to quickly stop. Her audience is captivated and visitors try to repeat the game but utterly fail. After attempts by several "children of all ages" she reveals the trick.

Another volunteer at the museum, retired school teacher Andrea Staschak, introduced Scovill to making cornhusk dolls. Scovill acquires the restaurant-grade cornhusks from a supplier that sell them primarily to food vendors where the husks are used to wrap tamales. The only other material needed in doll making is ivory-colored string, principally used in crocheting, that she finds at craft stores.

When making the dolls, Scovill sits at a small table behind which is a supply of cornhusks submerged in a bucket of water. This soaking makes the husks pliable enough to shape and bind together without fracturing. Besides her hands, the only other tool is sharp scissors.

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With the compassion of a gentle nurse and the kindness of an angel, Scovill patiently explains and demonstrates each step in the doll-making process and engages the participants in tying the thread that creates the various shapes.


Adding features

After the final trimming of the doll, the husk is still damp, so Scovill explains how to arrange the doll so it will have the desired shape when it dries at home. After drying she suggests the participant use a pen to add eyes and other features to the doll's face.

Some of the boys prefer to make a male doll with pants rather than a skirt, but others request different objects altogether such as a dog or airplane.

"These are more difficult and require additional time," Scovill explains, but always with a gracious smile, as she puts forth her best effort. Be it a doll or a dog, the final product never fails to please.

Sunday afternoons are not the only time you will find the volunteers at Jerusalem Mill Village. During the school year, the historic site hosts many school groups that are given lessons in Colonial period living. Dressed in period attire, Scovill tells youngsters about how a girl or boy might have grown up in earlier times, pausing to ask and answer questions.

Scovill also travels away from the mill, giving lectures, demonstrations and providing living history tableaux. She and other volunteers delightfully bring Colonial history to life right here in Harford County.