IN WHICH I return to the Hundred Acre Wood

It has been over a half century since I was a six-year old boy growing up in Westport Point, Massachusetts, a small rural village situated on the Atlantic coast between Fall River and New Bedford. I had just entered first grade and was learning to read in a two room schoolhouse located three houses away on Main Road where we lived. Halfway between our house and Lee’s Wharf on the Westport River lived Kim Mead, older than me by several years and the son of my parents’ good friends, Helen and Ted Mead. It was Kim who first introduced me, albeit inadvertently, to the world of Agnes Brush’s Hundred Acre Wood. My father had read me the Pooh stories at bedtime for as long as I could remember, and I had fallen in love with that “silly old bear” and his friends. I had no idea that there were stuffed animals that looked exactly like the characters in the book. When I stumbled upon a much loved Pooh in Kim’s bedroom, I knew exactly what I wanted for Christmas.

In those days, Christmas mornings at our house were chaotic. I was the second of four children. My older brother was nine and impossibly grown up in my eyes. My younger sister was five, and our little brother was three-and-a-half. My father dutifully recorded every Christmas on a Bell & Howell movie camera, and our excitement is still palpable on the old film stock. When we ran down the stairs that December morning and I found my very own Pooh under the tree, I was ecstatic. I don’t remember now what happened to the string tag. My mother, like most mothers in those days, probably removed and discarded it as she did my baseball card collection years later. But it didn’t matter to me. I had my very own Pooh, who became my instant companion. I carried him around with me, made up imaginary adventures for us, and went to bed every night with him by my side.

The following April, I celebrated my seventh birthday. My parents gave me a Piglet attired in a green and white jumper with a pink scarf, and I was overjoyed. I had been feeling guilty about leaving Pooh when I went to school, and now I knew he would have his best friend to play with until I came home in the afternoon. For whatever reason, I saved the string tag and set it aside, eventually storing it in one of my father’s boyhood books which sits today on one of my bookshelves.

We moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, later that year when my father was transferred to the corporate headquarters of ALCOA where he worked. On the overnight drive, Pooh and Piglet slept next to me in the back of our Rambler station wagon. During the next couple of years, my parents gave me more stuffed animals for Christmas and my birthday. None of them were Agnes Brush creations. Though each one was special in its own way, none were as important to me as Pooh and Piglet. By now, I was playing less with stuffed animals and more with a baseball. Still, I loved all of them, and each morning as I made my bed I laid them neatly on their backs in a row at the foot of the bed, covered by a small blanket. At night, I alternated between them, not wanting any of them to be sad they weren’t getting to sleep with me. But my favorite nights were those when Pooh and Piglet received the honors.

When we moved again for the final time in 1965 to Huntington, New York, just as I was entering junior high school, my stuffed animals were relegated to the linen closet. I had grown up and moved on. It is often not until we get older and gain perspective that we become nostalgic about our early possessions. If we are fortunate, they can still be found in a box somewhere. And we can revisit the memories that made them such an essential part of our lives so many years before.

In my case, as it turned out, that was not possible. Eight years after our move to Long Island, I was in my sophomore year at a small New England college. One evening, I received an urgent telephone call from my parents. They told me that a fire had broken out in our laundry room when they were at work. A watchful neighbor had seen the flames and called the fire department, which extinguished the blaze before it could destroy the entire structure. But my bedroom, which sat above the end of the house with the laundry room, had suffered significant damage. More importantly, the smoke from the fire had spread throughout the house, killing our two beloved dogs and damaging virtually everything we owned. When I got home on spring break a month or so later, I understood what this meant. Smoke from a house fire is insidious, finding its way into every open air space and impregnating its sooty scent and fingerprints on everything it touches. My mother had saved my old stuffed animals and asked me what I wanted to do with them. I took one sniff and told her we couldn’t possibly keep them. Pooh, Piglet, and all the others made their way to the skip box in the driveway like most of my other possessions.

Time passed. I moved to the West Coast, got married, raised three wonderful kids who knew only the Walt Disney version of Pooh and his friends, got divorced, and remarried. A few years ago, I found a bulky, misshapen Christmas gift from my wife under the tree. I had no idea what was inside because the shape corresponded with nothing I had put on my list of desired gifts. I carefully opened the wrapping paper, and as the last portion of the paper fell away, I gazed upon an Agnes Brush Piglet, his tiny, black beaded eyes staring up at me.

“Where did you get this?” I asked softly, my eyes watering. “How did you know?”

She smiled. “You told me about your Pooh and Piglet after we met, and I’ve been looking for them for some time. I finally found one.”

This Piglet looked exactly like mine, from his green and white striped jumper to his small, black boots. He was soiled from years of being loved, but to me he couldn’t have been more beautiful.

I had always been a collector, and this seemed to be an invitation to find a Pooh. I began watching eBay, which appeared to be the best site on the internet for this type of decades’ old artifact. But none of the Poohs that surfaced was in the condition I was looking for. Then, in 2007, I stumbled upon an upcoming auction at Morphy’s Auctions that included a set of four Agnes Brush animals—Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Owl. Better yet, all of them appeared to be in collectible condition, and each had a complete or partial string tag. The estimated price was $700 to $1,000 for the lot. When I told my wife that I wanted to bid on them, she encouraged me to do so.

“How high do you think you’ll go?” she wondered.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “But I sure would like get these. They don’t come up that often in this kind of condition.”

I registered for the auction and planned to bid over the internet. The auction was being held on a Saturday morning, and it was still early on the West Coast when I turned on the computer and went to the auction website. I tracked each of the earlier lots to see how the bidding corresponded with the auction house estimates. Were the bids exceeding the estimated values or were they less? I really didn’t have a fix on that when the Agnes Brush lot opened for bidding. I jumped right in. At least one other bidder was bidding against me, but I was not going to let these get away. Every time he or she bid, I responded. And then the bidding stopped, suddenly and unexpectedly, at only $450. With the buyer’s premium, the total price came to $540. I was the high bidder, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I went into the bedroom, woke my wife, and told her I had won. With sleepy eyes, she asked how much I had paid. When I told her, her eyes shot open, and she gave me a hug. “You got a bargain,” she said.

I certainly thought so. But when the lot was shipped to my office, I found that the partial string tag on the Tigger shown in the photo on the Morphy’s Auctions’ website had been replaced by an auction house lot number tag. I immediately faxed Morphy’s a letter pointing out the discrepancy and asking where the string tag was. Dan Morphy telephoned me within an hour and told me that he didn’t know. He said he thought the photo in the catalogue was ambiguous, that it wasn’t clear the Tigger tag was anything other than what I received. I told him the photo appeared clear enough to me. Moreover, the lot description had indicated they all had string tags. Morphy offered to take them back if that’s what I wanted.

“I’m not stupid,” I replied.

We both knew I had gotten a great price, and I wasn’t about to let them go. “No, I’ll keep them,” I added. I suggested he have his staff look around to see if they could find the missing tag. He agreed and stated he would refund the buyer’s premium if they couldn’t find it. I thought that was a fair compromise. Unfortunately, the tag never turned up, and the thief was never caught.

I now had four of the nine characters that Agnes Brush had made, including two Piglets, each with a completely different colored jumper. My original plan had been to simply duplicate the Pooh and Piglet I had lost as a result of the fire. My auction success had given me two characters I had never owned, but this created a quandary. The set was incomplete, and, as a collector, I felt that would never do. I now needed to find a Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo, and the ridiculously uncommon Heffalump.

Kanga and Roo popped up on eBay the following year. Both were in excellent shape but lacked the string tag. I also added yet another eBay purchased Piglet to the collection, this one in pristine condition with a blue and white striped jumper. (How many different Piglets did Agnes Brush make, anyway?) A collectible Eeyore with small, white beaded eyes followed, again courtesy of eBay. At this point, Rabbit and the Heffalump were all that eluded me.

In the late summer of 2010, a Google search directed me to the Ruby Lane website where a small selection of Agnes Brush stuffed animals were for sale. One of the sellers was offering a package that included Rabbit together with an Eeyore with sewn eyes. Both were in only very good rather than near mint condition, so I decided to watch and wait before purchasing them. Maybe something better would turn up. However, as the months passed and I began to develop the content of this website, I decided that I really needed these two in order to illustrate the characters. I would still be lacking the Heffalump, but it looked like these were the best I was going to get. I told my wife about the pair in mid-November since she is always thinking ahead to the next present-giving holiday.

Two days later, I opened up my e-mail and found an eBay alert for almost the entire Hundred Acre Wood—all but Pooh—being individually offered for sale by a seller in Detroit. Most of them came with complete string tags and, from the photos and descriptions, appeared to be in near mint to mint condition.

I immediately e-mailed my wife and told her about them. She shot back a quick reply. “Your timing is awful!”

Over the next several days, we strategized over which of the characters to bid on. I hate to admit this now, but, unbeknownst to me, my wife also made a run at the seller to see if she would consider selling any of them outside of eBay. The seller rightfully declined. She explained that she was selling them for a friend who had been married to a man that had recently passed away. In the attic of their home where he had grown up, the wife found these Agnes Brush toys, all of which had apparently been put away by the man’s parents the day they were given to him as a boy almost a half century before. The fact that only Pooh was missing from the set suggested that the boy had really wanted only him.

As the days passed, no one had registered a bid on any of the animals. That struck me as odd even though the opening bids were relatively high. These were virtually brand new, a condition that almost never surfaces. I had seen incomplete sets of well worn Agnes Brush toys go for over $1,000 on eBay. In an auction in June, 2009, what I would consider merely a good set of all but the Heffalump went for $863 at Noel Barrett’s Antique Toy Auctions. For most collectors, there would never be another opportunity to acquire these animals in this kind of condition. I suspected that everyone was holding back, waiting until the last minute in order to grab them at the best possible price. We decided to do likewise and then, in the final seconds, jump in with an overwhelming bid. Or at least that was the game plan.

The problem was that the auctions were each going to be expiring within minutes of each other. So, we decided to use two separate computers, one bidding on my account and the other on my wife’s. On the final evening, as the clock was ticking down, I was in front of one screen and my stepson, a teenage computer wizard, was in front of the other. My wife was too nervous to take on the responsibility of bidding.

The only question we still had was which of the characters I wanted. The Heffalump, the rarest of the set, was a no brainer. It had a tag, and I needed it to complete my collection. I also knew that the Rabbit being offered had a tag and was far superior to the one that had been for sale on Ruby Lane and which I imagined was now sitting in a box hidden somewhere in the house. So that was also an obvious choice. The Piglet made the list even though I already had three of them. This one offered yet another variation on the multi-colored jumper. I added Eeyore as well because this one, unlike the one I already had, came with a tag and sewn eyes. Yes, there was probably a similar Eeyore in the box in which the Ruby Lane Rabbit was sitting, but it wasn’t nearly in this condition and lacked the tag. I couldn’t pass this one up. Nor could I let the Kanga and Roo go. I did have the two from my eBay purchase, but this pair came with the tag, and the Kanga was made in a somewhat different color felt. Yet another variation. The Owl was on the cusp. I had obtained one in the Morphy’s auction with a tag, but this one seemed newer and fresher. I’m a collector. I gave in and added it to the list. Ultimately, the only character I decided not to chase was Tigger. This one did not have a tag, and I already had a mint Tigger without a tag from the Morphy’s auction.

Beginning just after 6:00 p.m. on November 28, we started entering our bids in the final minute of each auction. One after another, we wound up as the successful bidder. Only the Piglet and Eeyore received competing bids, and we prevailed on each of those at less than I had been willing to spend.

Within a week, the boxes began arriving from Detroit. All of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood were now together again. My collection was complete at last. Like all collectibles, each one of the characters has a story to tell. None, of course, can replace the Pooh and Piglet that watched me grow up. But all of my new friends take me back to a time in my life when every day brought new wonders and I learned a multitude of things about the world and myself that helped make me who I am.

I owe a measure of gratitude I can never repay to Agnes Brush. When I had a chance to talk to her daughter Joyce as I was completing my research for the website, I asked her whether her mother ever sentimentalized what she was doing. Did she recognize and appreciate all the joy she was bringing to the lives of the children who loved her playthings? Joyce said, matter of factly, that she didn’t. Her mother cared about the quality of each item and took great pride in her creations. But to her it was a business, plain and simple.

Nevertheless, her stuffed animals gave me many happy memories, which I can recapture every time I look at the ones that have entered the second half of my life. Others of my generation who once held their own Pooh or Piglet can probably relate. If you are one of them, I hope this website brings a reminder of your past and the joy you felt playing in the Hundred Acre Wood.