A Life with Bears
by Cindy Steele
Deb James got her first sewing machine at the age of five and hasn’t stopped sewing since. She grew up in Elida, Ohio, a little town near Lima, where her mother was a seamstress, creating goods for several stores in Brown County and big craft shows. Deb made her own doll clothes and toys with her mother’s leftover material. She loved to tag along with her parents on the trips to Nashville and imagined herself having a store in a little building on Washington Street. She followed in her mother’s footsteps, making bears and dolls for the past 35 years. Now she is realizing her girlhood vision with her own Brown County store, Bearly Country.
Deb always adored bears, especially old bears. She would take the bears apart and figure out how to make them bigger. Her handmade bears and dolls became Christmas presents to family and friends.
Deb needed a way to make money and still stay at home with six young children very close in ages. She started selling bears and dolls at small craft shows and flea markets. They became so popular so fast that she soon sold them wholesale to shops in Ohio, Kentucky,
Tennessee, Michigan, and Indiana. Her kids helped with making the body parts and selling. Deb ran the wholesale business for a total of 20 years, first serving more than 25 shops, and then cutting back to about a dozen. She also ran a retail shop in Rushville and Metamora, Indiana.
Much of Deb’s life was spent as a single parent. She often worked two or more jobs to keep the family going. She closed her shops when she moved to the city to work in the floral business with Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Centers. She was responsible for the floral departments of their ten funeral homes. She later managed the floral business of Cub Foods that serviced Ohio and Indiana.
When Deb’s youngest child was a junior in high school, she married her husband Bill. The first year they were married he paid for four weddings. They had a blended family of 10 children and 23 grandchildren. She was able to concentrate on making bears and dolls again and worked the Covered Bridge Festival in Parke County for about nine years.
Last year, her husband retired after working at Rolls-Royce for 48 years. He encouraged Deb to open the shop she had longed for in Nashville. They had lost their home in a fire and he wanted her to start up the store while the house was being rebuilt. Her supply of crafts had been spared from the fire and she made more bears and dolls while living in their camper. When the little building behind her current shop location opened up, they rented it. But, two months after retiring, Bill found out he had stage-four cancer, and passed just before Christmas.
Recovering from the blows of losing both her husband and her home in such a short time has not been easy for Deb. Her daughter Megan Westdyke and her sister Cheryl Dotson have been by her side to help with the business. Her home in Monrovia has since been rebuilt but Deb spends most of her time in the camper in Brown County to be closer to the shop. Megan runs the shop while Deb makes more bears and dolls. Her sister comes over for a week at a time to help make product.
When Ian Levett retired from running the Ole House this past summer, Deb chose to move into that larger space. She had already outgrown the little building she had started in. Since the move her business has increased and she tripled her inventory. Her children and grandchildren have been a big help. They all moved the store to the bigger location in a single night.
The bears and dolls are the main focus of the shop. Each one has a unique face and personality. Some of her designs are based on 19th Century bears that she took apart and reconstructed, and some have primitive styles. You will also find unique bunnies, scarecrows, quilts, doll clothes, primitive clothes, and floral decorations.
You must see her work to appreciate the quality. A bear and a doll of hers are even on exhibit at the Indiana State Museum.
Bearly Country is located at 62 East Washington Street at Old School Way in Nashville. Deb’s hours may vary through the holiday season so call ahead at (317) 464-9953 or visit her Facebook page bearlycountrybydeb.