THORNDIKE, Maine — When 85-year-old Bea Bryant leads you on a tour of the Bryant Stove Shop and Museum, you follow her with pleasure — even when she steps into a dimly lit, quiet room where the walls are lined with hundreds of dolls who all seem to be waiting for something.
When she flips a switch that turns on the doll circus she and her husband, 84-year-old Joe, have created, you see what they’ve been waiting for. The room fills with jolly, rollicking circus music and all manner of dancing dolls, stuffed animals and miniature carnival rides. There’s a Ferris wheel, a carousel and much, much more.
The circus was born of Bea’s indefatigable love of collecting old dolls at Florida flea markets and yard sales and her husband’s genius at tinkering with small motors and bicycle chains. For years, it has delighted visitors to the stove shop and museum with its music, motion and whimsy, and in some ways it seems like a perfect metaphor for the couple’s long marriage and business partnership. Together, Bea and Joe Bryant have a gift for finding value in objects that in other hands might have been thrown out and the creativity and vision to make that value apparent to many.
“We always collect stuff,” Joe said. “We have more stuff than smarts.”
But people who love old stoves, cars, music machines, such as calliopes, and other old things likely disagree.
“Just because things are new doesn’t make them better, I don’t think,” Bea said.
The Bryants were high school sweethearts, who graduated together from Freedom Academy in 1949. They were married in 1950.
“I was all set to be a missionary,” Bea recalled. “But he asked me to marry him, so I stayed home.”
At first, Joe worked at the family steel fabrication business, Bryant Steel Works. But in the 1960s, Bea noticed how many out-of-state companies were coming up to Maine to purchase old stoves, pianos and other antiques by the truckload and then hauling them out again to sell.
“We wanted to save the stoves so we could have something in Maine to be proud of,” she said. “We wanted to keep antiques in Maine.”
They began purchasing and restoring old cast-iron cookstoves and parlor stoves that modernizing Mainers didn’t want anymore. Then they found a Vermont man who had saved hundreds of stoves from the dump during the 1940s.
“That really put us in the stove business,” Bea said.
The business grew, with the couple learning that lots of people still love old stoves. They now employ some of their family members at the stove shop, where they purchase, sell and refurbish cookstoves and parlor stoves. Although Bea originally had wanted to staunch the flow of Maine antiques to out-of-state dealers, she acknowledges that she sells to customers who come from both near and far for one of their stoves. In the last few years, those customers have included the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurant chain. Every new Cracker Barrel that is built now includes a stove from Bryant’s.
Some of the stoves are so old, ornate or otherwise interesting that the Bryants set them aside in the special stove museum, located with Joe’s antique car collection in a Quonset hut connected to the main building.
“Look at these stoves,” he said. “Every one of them is excessively fancy.”
Some of them date to the 1840s and even earlier, and all the stoves in the museum seem to harken back to a day when decoration seemed to be as integral to a stove as how well it threw heat.
“They wanted to make them pretty so somebody would buy them,” Joe Bryant said.
Also featured in the museum are the restored old vehicles that are near to Joe’s heart, including a 1926 Ford Model T that was registered in Maine as recently as July 2000. There’s also player pianos and other music-making machines he loves to show off.
“It took him a while to really like stoves as much as he likes cars and music,” Bea said.
Her husband is a self-taught engineer, who said that he got his education “down behind the barn with a hammer.” He said that at first, Bea’s hobby of collecting things was challenging to him, especially during the 17 years they wintered in Zephyrhills, Florida, when she found many flea markets and many dolls to take home.
“I said to myself, no more dolls,” he recalled.
But when they had the idea for the doll circus, the collections seemed more interesting.
“I’d automate them and get them working,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”
The first thing he made was the carousel with its toy passengers.
“I said, ‘You can’t have a carousel without having a Ferris wheel.’ It wouldn’t be much of a fair without a Ferris wheel,” he said.
The doll circus became a natural fit for the Maine shop and museum, where it is especially popular among visiting schoolchildren and older folks. The Bryants like making kids smile, and are proud of their own large family. They had eight children and have 19 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
“Life wouldn’t be worth a nickel without the children,” Joe said.
When asked what the secret was to the couple’s long, successful marriage and business partnership, Joe had a quick reply.
“I just say, ‘Yes, dear,’” he joked.
But Bea disagrees a little.
“I’ve got to contradict that,” she said. “It’s keeping an interest together, so he doesn’t go one way, and you go another.”
The Bryant Stove Shop and Museum, located at 27 Stovepipe Alley in Thorndike, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.