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Local History

Rose O'Neill: Illustrator, Author, Artist, Philanthropist

Two local organizations are keeping alive the amazing accomplishments of a woman who helped pave the way for female artists.  In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, Michele Skalicky takes us to Bonniebrook and to the Rose O'Neill Museum.

Set along a flowing stream, complete with waterfalls in the middle of the Ozarks woods, it’s easy to see why Rose O’Neill loved Bonniebrook.

Today, the recreated house mimics closely what the 14-room Ozarks mansion looked like based on photographs and O’Neill’s diaries.  The original house, home to O’Neill’s family and a place she came to many times over her lifetime, burned down in 1947—three years after O’Neill’s death.

Highway 65 runs just west of the property now.  But when O’Neill was a young woman it took two days to get to the property in Walnut Shade from Springfield.

The history of Rose O’Neill, creater of the Kewpie doll and a prolific illustrator, author and artist, is being kept alive by the nonprofit Bonniebrook Historical Society, which offers tours of the recreated house and allows visitors to wander the property where O’Neill and members of her family are buried in a family cemetery along the creek.

Susan Scott is president of the Bonniebrook Historical Society and on this mild spring day was giving tours of the house.

"Welcome today, and we'll go through and I'll explain a little bit to you at the first here..."

The Historical Society leases the land for $1 a year from the estate of a couple that purchased the land in the late 1960’s.  They saved the property from being turned into a subdivision—something another interested buyer had planned to do—and founded the society.

Members of the Historical Society held a variety of fundraisers to rebuild the house, open an art gallery featuring O’Neill’s artwork and the Kewpie Museum.

The more than 110-acre property is on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Scott, and is one of fewer than five historic sites in the U.S. that honor American women artists.

O’Neill’s career began in 1893, soon after her mom sold a cow to buy a train ticket so she could go to New York City from their home in Omaha, Nebraska.  She stayed at a convent, and nuns escorted her to publishing houses where she was hired as a rare female illustrator for a variety of magazines.  That same year, Scott said O’Neill’s family came to Missouri and homesteaded the land that Bonniebrook would be built on.  There were two rundown cabins at the time.

"And then Rose--she's making all this money at the publishing houses, so she sends money home, and they start building the mansion in the Ozarks," she said.

In 1896, O’Neill was hired as a staff illustrator and cartoonist at Puck Magazine.  But she came home as often as she could.  She loved music—in fact, two songs that she wrote were published as sheet music.  Bonniebrook had a music room, and it was there that O’Neill listened to opera music

"So, on the phonograph, and the windows would be open in the summertime, she would put on there a record that was by Caruso.  She said, 'I love to fill the Ozark Hills with the sounds of Caruso,'" Scott said.

An art studio at the top of the four-story house contains two of O’Neill’s original art boards.  It was there that she created artwork for herself—art that she refused to sell even after receiving rave reviews during an exhibit in Paris, France in 1921 and getting offers to purchase her work from the Petit Palais Museum, the Luxembourg and others.  She called the creatures portrayed in her artwork “sweet monsters,” according to David O’Neill, Rose O’Neill’s great nephew and curator of the Rose O’Neill Museum on Lone Pine in Springfield.  They were mythical characters with hooves and horns.  She donated her work to various causes, including the American Red Cross.

It’s easy to picture O’Neill hard at work on her art in the top floor art studio.  There are balconies on two sides with a large window that looks out onto a rose garden.

"It was in this room that history was made," Scott said.

In the art studio in June, 1909, O’Neill drafted a letter to the editor of Ladies Home Journal detailing a little character that had come to her in a dream.  She proposed writing stories and verses to go along with her Kewpies.

The first story featuring the chubby characters appeared in December of that year, and by 1912 the Kewpie doll was created.  Despite her numerous illustrations, artwork and even books, David O’Neill said it was the Kewpie that made his great aunt famous.

"Anything that they could put the Kewpies on, well, just moved off the shelves immediately," he said.

At one time there were 17 different factories in Germany manufacturing Kewpie merchandise—the character was put on everything from radiator hoods to toothbrushes.

Susan Scott said O’Neill was active in the women’s suffrage movement, and the Kewpie was even used in campaign material.

"She marched.  She got out onto the streets of New York," she said.

A poster for the women’s suffrage movement, featuring the Kewpies, hangs at the Rose O’Neill Museum in Springfield.

"And this is a picture of Rose and her sister, Callista.  Callista had this poster on her back," O'Neill said.

By the time the Kewpie craze ended, O’Neill had made $1.4 million from the character alone.  At one time she had homes in Connecticut and the Isle of Capri, two apartments in New York City’s Washington Square and Bonniebrook, but she was a generous person who couldn’t say ‘no’ when someone asked her for money, and by the time she died, her wealth was gone.

Thanks to her nephew, Paul O’Neill, much of her artwork, memoirs and other items were removed from Bonniebrook before it burned and now can be viewed both in Walnut Shade and at the museum in Springfield.

O’Neill died in 1944 at what’s called the Rose O’Neill House, a Victorian-style house built by O’Neill’s brother John that’s now on the east side of the Drury campus.  David O’Neill was five at the time, but he remembers his mother and O’Neill’s sister, Callista caring for her.

When his Uncle Paul died, O’Neill’s possessions came to David O’Neill.  He opened up the museum in Springfield to let everyone know what his aunt accomplished.

"Most people can picture her with the Kewpies and what have you, as far as creating that, but that was just a small part of Rose's life," he said.

Click here to find out more about Bonniebrook and here to learn about the Rose O’Neill Museum.