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Gillette
Sunday, November 29, 2020

Back to the Drawing Board

Father and daughter join forces to make dollhouses for the next generation of girls.

Dollhouses have come a long way since he last built one, Duane “Swede” Erickson said, as he squinted down at the pile of intricate wooden pieces on the worktable in front of him last Friday. He and his daughter Leann Erickson have spent the past month assembling it at Area 59 from a kit that seemed to have temporarily stumped the 84-year-old as he searched for missing pieces.

Holding a tiny wooden staircase up for closer scrutiny, Swede reached for the thick booklet of instructions and diagrams. After flipping through a few pages, he found a picture of the stairwell and nodded. Yep, he was missing a couple steps. Rather than searching, he decided he’d make his own.

Swede Erickson consults the instruction manual when he hits a snag in the design.
Swede Erickson consults the instruction manual when he hits a snag in the design.

This is the fifth dollhouse he’s made over the years, including three for his own two daughters, the first of which they shared. Both Leann and her sister Lori Cooper still have their handmade dollhouses on display in their Gillette homes. Back then, Swede had cut out his own pieces of wood and fashioned them together in a much simpler two-story layout. The pre-packaged kits are much more elaborate, he said, with their cupolas, fancy-framed windows and gingerbread trim.

“It a lot more dressed up than when I made them from scratch,” Swede said, pointing to the box full of pieces still to be cut out, assembled and painted.

Right now, the dollhouse intended for his great-granddaughter, 2-year-old Sydney’s Christmas present, is about half done. The bottom story and upstairs bedrooms are papered in antique, flowered wallpaper chosen specifically by Swede along with a stained wood floor waiting on the table beside the house for installation.

That day, Leann was holding two pieces of the roof together while the glue dried. There’s a lot of such waiting, she said with a wry smile, which gives the father and daughter plenty of bonding time and opportunity to practice patience.

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Leann Erickson practices patience as she literally waits for glue to dry.
Leann Erickson practices patience as she literally waits for glue to dry.

“It’s kind of fun,” Swede said, noting that he and his daughter make a pretty good pair. “She’s got much better eyes.”

Though having a kit to work from in theory sounded handy, the two have since realized that a lot more goes into building the Orchid All Wood Dollhouse than either would have imagined. Admittedly, Swede was shocked when he first opened the box and saw the hundreds of pieces. They’ve been working on this one on and off for about a month and still have another to go for Swede’s second great-granddaughter, 4-year-old Eva, who will get the same design.

They’re hoping to learn from their mistakes on the first go-around to make the second much quicker to assemble, Leann said.

Swede’s nose turned pink from the cold air in the open workspace as he walked his crudely cut step over to the sander to polish up the edges. In retrospect, the pair wish they would have sanded all of the pieces for a better fit. That’s just one of the lessons learned, Swede said, as he flipped a switch and the belt squealed into action, smoothing down the edges of the stair.

The kit is much more cumbersome than building a doll house from scratch, Swede decides.
The kit is much more cumbersome than building a doll house from scratch, Swede decides.

That’s the great thing about working at Area 59, he said, with its room full of saws, sanders, laser cutters and other equipment to help facilitate any number of projects. He also enjoys leather working and has made a couple belts for the grandkids but said this type of work is much better because it gets him out of his chair now that his bad knees have put an end to his golfing.

Swede, who is originally from Watford City, North Dakota, moved to Gillette in 1981 when transferred by Halliburton. After retiring, he and his wife moved back to North Dakota, before convincing Leann to return to Gillette to be closer to his other daughter, Lori.

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In Gillette, the 84-year-old Army veteran had driven a school bus for sports teams and other activities but retired officially just before turning 70.

“There was another bus driver who the district asked to retire at 70, so I retired myself before they could ask me to,” he said with a grin.

For her part, Leann moved to Gillette 23 years ago with her dad, and now, the retired art teacher and journalist enjoys her time with her dad at Area 59, where she recently taught a workshop on stained glass.

With his new piece in hand, Swede returned to the business of gluing together the stairwell while Leann held the two pieces of the roof in place as the two worked alongside each other quietly, father and daughter, aligned in a joint mission of creating dollhouses for the next generation.

With the stairwell nearly finished, Swede realized he was still missing another step after trying to jimmy it into place through a hole in the floor leading to the second story.

“Well, it’s back to the drawing board again,” he said, stepping over to his place behind the table as he rifled through a stack of wood to find another small piece among the scraps and stencils with a faraway smile.

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