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Rural Missouri Magazine

From a nickel to a Belsnickle
How a chance find at a garage sale
transformed Linda Lindquist Baldwin's life

by Jarrett Medlin
While working two jobs and attending college at night as a single mother, Linda Lindquist Baldwin found a book at a garage sale about how to make papier-maché Santas. She made several of the Santas and sold them at a local craft fair. Over time, Belsnickles have become a multi-million dollar business.

Life is unpredictable. At times every day seems to repeat itself when suddenly everything can turn on a dime. Or in Linda Lindquist Baldwin’s case, a nickel.

It began with a garage sale. While traveling home to Joplin from Springfield one Saturday in 1986, Linda stopped at a small yard sale. Even today, she’s not sure what caused her to stop. At the time, she was a single mother working two jobs and attending college at night, so she could hardly afford to spend time or money at a garage sale.

Linda struck up a conversation with the owner and learned she was going to a nursing home after her husband’s death and needed to sell most of her belongings. Feeling sorry for the woman, Linda desperately scanned the table looking for something to buy when her eyes landed on a worn book featuring old-fashioned, papier-maché German Santas called Belsnickles. She paid a nickel for the book and took it home, where she immediately fell in love with the collectibles. As she read, however, she learned the antiques were worth thousands.

“There was no way I could afford that,” she says, “but that McDonald County determination kicked in and I thought, ‘I’ll make one myself.’”

Despite having no artistic training, Linda began experimenting with Elmer’s glue, newspaper and water. She created several crude Santas and, hoping to earn extra cash to buy clothes for her son, set up a booth at a Joplin craft fair and priced them at $6 a piece. Years later, she would buy one back for $75. She now has a $6,000 offer for it.

To Linda’s surprise, the Santas quickly sold out. More importantly, a scout from Better Homes and Gardens saw her creations. “He told me no one else in the United States was doing this and I was renewing a lost form of papier-maché,” she says.

Linda began designing crafts for Better Homes and Gardens, and soon she was receiving calls from other national magazines, as well as CNN and NBC’s “Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.”

Each Christmas, Linda designs a new Belsnickle Santa. Above is her latest.

“Everyone was suddenly interested in my Santas, and there was no way I could keep up,” she says.

That’s when she launched into business. In 1992, the Schmid Company, a firm specializing in gifts and collectibles, began duplicating Linda’s work from her originals and placing a nickel in each collectible to remind collectors of Linda’s story. Four years later, she joined with Enesco, the world’s largest gift and collectibles company at the time. With Belsnickles among the company’s top sellers, earning about $4 million per year in retail sales, the company rented a stretch limo and luxurious hotel suite for Linda once a year when she traveled to Chicago to meet with Enesco executives.

Linda traveled the nation, signing her work and speaking to collectors. The New-Mac Electric member’s extroverted personality made her an ideal speaker. “Artists are typically known as being shy,” she says. “Well, I was almost 40 before I became an artist and it was too late for me to become shy.”

Linda, who has made life-long friends while serving jury duty, came to form special bonds with many collectors at these events. She often refers to them as “my friends.”

Lynda Hardman, a long-time collector who lives near Joplin, has met Linda on numerous occasions. “She’s the most gracious person you will ever meet,” Hardman says. “She’s so busy, but she always has time for you.”

Linda never knows where she'll find her inspiration. These snowmen were inspired after her husband, Bill Cearnal, apologized after a tiff.

Linda, who typically works 18-hour days, six days a week, credits her work ethic to her upbringing on a McDonald County farm that lacked running water and electricity. Years later, she often visits that farm to find peace while she works.

Linda never knows where she’ll find inspiration. Her Belsnickles, which have expanded to include snowmen, witches, rabbits and Red Hat Society members, often have a story behind them. For instance, a collectible that depicts two snowmen with arms wrapped around each other was inspired by a time when Linda’s husband, Bill Cearnal, apologized after a tiff. Collectors love the way Belsnickles capture such moments.

“They remind me of a gentler time,” says Hardman, who displays her collectibles year-round like so many other collectors. “They’re not like the roly-poly, ha ha Santas. They’re old-fashioned.”

To protect collectors like Hardman, Linda made the latest change in her life. In 2002, she left Enesco to start her own business, Seasons of Snickles. By limiting the production of Belsnickles, she can ensure the collectibles keep their value. Running her own business, however, means more responsibilities and constant work. Still, she’s loving it and has no plans to quit anytime soon.

“I can’t see myself retiring,” she says. “There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

For more information, visit Linda’s Web site at www.lindalindquistbaldwin.com.

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