Most of us know a person whose hobby is to collect things, like sports cards, coins, insects, stamps, comic books or rocks. But how many of us know a person who has a collection of heads?
About 40 years ago, a friend gave Marge Nierengarten a porcelain head figurine of a beautiful young woman. “I called her a fancy lady,” she said. It wasn’t too much later when Nierengarten got a second head figurine, and before long, she had a shelf full of them. Time went by, and one day, she realized that she had two shelves of “fancy ladies.” And what happened next, one might ask? “It started out slow, but then it just grew,” Nierengarten said with a laugh, as she attempted to explain her 40-year old hobby and her very large collection of “heads.”
Nierengarten, of Sauk Rapids, cannot explain exactly why she is fascinated with heads and faces, but her interest in the subject and her love for collecting is quite clear. From the moment you enter Nierengarten’s home, you can see faces of all kinds staring back at you. Some faces are recognizable, such as Laurel and Hardy, Big Bird, Elvis, Betty Boop and Marilyn Monroe. Other faces are not so easy to identify. There are clowns, sports figures, cartoon characters, presidents, religious figures, Native Americans, celebrities and more, tucked in amidst the “fancy lady” figurines. From the entryway to the kitchen, to the dining room and living room and bathroom, and back downstairs to the lower level, her collection looms.
When asked if she has “heads” in every room of her house, Nierengarten said, “Yes, every room except for the bedroom.” Her yard and patio are also places for her to display more of her collection. Yard and garden art include tree faces attached to the trunks of some trees. Nierengarten emphasized, though, that every room in her house is used and that no part of it is off limits to anyone.
Her collection of heads is displayed on shelves, in curio cabinets, on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, in picture frames, above windows, on the floor. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re tucked in every nook and cranny in some areas of her home. She doesn’t know how many heads she owns, but the number is most likely in the thousands. Nierengarten does know one thing for sure. “There are no two alike,” she said.
The heads and faces in her collection can be on everything from bobble heads to coffee mugs, books, pitchers, candy dishes, corkscrews, masks, toys, figurines, whiskey bottles, PEZ dispensers, music boxes and more. One of her favorite kitchen gadgets is the Peter Petrie Egg Separator, which looks like a mug with a face on it. When separating the yolk from the egg white, the mug is tilted until the egg white pours out from the nose!
Nierengarten said she finds most of her heads at thrift shops and flea markets. She has a good eye for spotting a head to add to her collection. “You can go to the grocery store and find something,” she said. She has also brought home additions to her collection from some of her travels. In Poland, she bought a hand-carved nutcracker in the shape of a man’s face. “And at Graceland, I found Elvis. It’s my favorite one,” she said of the bust of a young Elvis, actually a cookie jar, which sits on the floor in a prominent spot in the living room. She added that she was a big fan of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and she liked his music.
She does not remember where many of the heads from her collection came from because she picks them up at second-hand shops. The advantage of that is–it keeps the cost down.
Nierengarten said she didn’t have any special hobbies when she was a child. But these days, she not only has a hobby but she also enjoys speaking to Christian women’s groups about it. She fills a bag to take to each event where she shares photographs and a few items from her collection with the group. She has also hosted open house fundraisers in the past to help support her favorite charity.
Last year, Nierengaraten and her unusual collection was featured on KSTP’s television program, On the Road with Jason Davis. Davis and his crew travel around Minnesota to discover interesting people and places and tell their stories. Davis said Nierengarten was known as “Minnesota’s number one headhunter.” Being on the television show was a positive experience, she said, “except they got our names wrong. They called me Barb Nierengarten. I don’t know how they got Barb out of that, but I didn’t call to correct it. It’s no big deal.”
When asked about how people react to her collection, Nierengarten said, “People are mostly kind to me.” She thinks that some people might think it’s weird to have a hobby such as hers, but she understands that everyone is different. “Not everyone likes to golf, and some people might not understand having that for a hobby.”
As for the never-ending task of keeping her collection dust free, Nierengarten said matter of factly, “I collect dust, too.”
Nierengarten and her husband, Jim, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They have four adult children and grandchildren ranging in years from first-grade to college-age. She said her family doesn’t have much to say about her head collection these days. “They will come over for a birthday party or get together and nothing is said… They’re over it,” she added. Visitors will notice the collection of heads everywhere around the house, whereas Nierengarten admitted that she doesn’t always see them as she goes about her daily life.
Nierengarten said she had concerns about what would happen to her collection in the future. Younger people, including family members, decorate their homes differently today. “They want to declutter,” she said. So she approached Benton County Historical Society to ask them if they would take her collection, and she was happy to hear that they would. “The board approved it,” she said. “ It makes me happy to know that I have a home for ‘my friends.’”
Nierengarten has other interests, which include traveling, teaching religion and spending time with family and friends. “And, other than the heads, it’s pretty normal here,” she said. “I’m just another old grandma.”