Back in 1977, a dude named Xavier Roberts stole artist Martha Nelson Thomas's designs and turned his art degree and penchant for soft sculpture into a brilliant money-making scheme: chubby-cheeked, creepy-eyed plush dolls. Originally hawked as "Little People," with an "adoption fee" around $40, Roberts soon changed their name; Cabbage Patch Kids went on to enjoy immense popularity in the 80s. In 1985, America rallied as a nation to pull off something extremely important: sending one of these dolls—specifically one named Christopher Xavier—into fucking outer space. Why not!
It was important to the Cabbage Patch backstory that these wholesome toys couldn't come into our mortal world by the vaginal canal. All Cabbage Patch Kids are delivered in a weird-ass vestibule: BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, a place where people can come and witness a "live birth."
Cleveland isn't known for much. It has a vaguely charming downtown area, and it's close to the mountains, but that's about it. As such, it isn't hard to miss BabyLand. The doll hospital sits proudly at the top of a rolling, well-manicured hill. It looks, as my photographer eloquently offered, "like some fucking legit plantation mansion. Gone with the Wind shit." He wasn't wrong. An ivory porch wraps around the building, with roomy rocking chairs and sturdy, overcompensating columns. Ethereal children's voices sing over piped music from the porch out into the expansive parking lot—which, to my surprise, was pretty full.
In a way, the idea of hyperstimulated kids choosing " vinyl-faced dolls" with vacant expressions slicked across their doughy cheeks and plastic marble eyes over iPads seemed charming. Children are still independently interested in Cabbage Patch Kids, as evidenced by the enormous swarm present at Babyland on a random July Saturday afternoon. There's also this video.
BabyLand is less a theme park or an "experience" than a toy store on steroids. The lobby is white and sterile, keeping true to the hospital vibe. The staff rocks scrubs of various pastel varieties, flitting in and out of the opening area. Glass cases line the walls with physical evidence of the Cabbage Patch Kid's "natural progression." Non-white Cabbage Patch Kids didn't show up until much, much later down the IRL timeline. Another visitor, a large gruff man, muttered sincerely to his child, "I'm sorry we couldn't find one with the Dixie flag." Welcome to BabyLand.
During our visit, we caught three Cabbage Patch births. Not entirely impressive, considering the fact that "Mother Cabbage" gives birth "several times a day," as one young man in green scrubs explained. He was the OB GYN on duty, apparently, and barely out of high school. The young man requested not to be identified, so we'll call him Adam.
Adam moved jovially throughout BabyLand's innards: crates of stuffed baby dolls up for adoption (starting around $60), endless accessories (including diapers and bibs), weird candy (who knows why), and just heaps and heaps of junk. His enthusiasm was palpable and, as far as I could tell, genuine. Adam later revealed he'd been "delivering" at BabyLand for just three months, following a tip from his FFA sponsor.
Loudspeaker announcements boomed manic reminders of the upcoming birth. Swarms of large, sunburnt families pooled at the base of Mother Cabbage. She stands tall and proud like an animatronic nightmare, fat roots sprawled to the ground with her branches spraying outward and holding tiny, twinkling "Bunnybees." The infants nestled in their individual cabbage bases occasionally twitch mechanically, to mimic life. It's upsetting.
But we're gathered to celebrate new life! Adam begins the operation while guiding the group through a series of slick punchlines like "Mother Cabbage is dilated ten leaves!" Adam hooks the tree up with "imagicilin," something bubbling in an IV bag, and performs a procedure called an "easy-o-tomy."
Then, he asks the audience which sex they'd prefer today. Following a shouting contest, he illuminates a sonogram in Mother Cabbage's trunk. And that's how little baby Gatlin Carter came into this world, feigned umbilical cord cut and all.
It isn't exclusively children huddled around Adam and the freshly swaddled cloth baby. Lots of older women and a few grown men coo gently, apparently here by themselves.
I find a bored-looking nurse and ask what her deal is. Why does she work here? This nurse is responsible for controlling the BabyLand Facebook page. She explains that she's from Cleveland and BabyLand is sort of it. There aren't many more options around beyond donning a set of scrubs and shuffling around inside the retail wonderland. Steady streams of people roll through the place year-round, ranging from families to tour buses of senior citizens to the highly-esteemed members of the Collector's Club. Plus, she added, "Look at them. Look at these faces." She had a point. There was a lot of joy hanging around.
It's easy to rip on a place like BabyLand because it is, by definition, ridiculous. Packed to the gills with cheaply-made wares marked up 300 or 400 percent, the doll hospital is ethereal and opportunistic and absurd. But a quick 360 echoed the nurse's point: people were stoked to be there. And the fact that kids raised on iPads could still get excited about a bunch of IRL dollies can only be a good thing.
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