CLEVELAND, Ga. — Standing in a loose circle with one hand raised, a group of about five dozen adults recited an oath to be the best adoptive parent in the world. Then, when the word was given, they scrambled around the room to find the perfect baby.
They're collectors at Babyland General Hospital, the birthplace of Cabbage Patch Kids. And they aren't after the mass-market dolls that sparked a frenzy three decades ago. They've come to snag a limited-edition, hand-stitched baby — no one calls them dolls at Babyland General.
Nestled in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains, Babyland General looks like a Southern-style home, complete with white columns and a wide porch. Inside, Mother Cabbage sits at the base of the Magic Crystal Tree.
When the crystals at the base of the tree begin to glow and an announcement comes over the loudspeaker that Mother Cabbage is dilated, visitors gather to watch Mother Cabbage deliver a baby. A nurse gives Mother Cabbage a small dose of "Imagicillin" to help loosen her leaves and a large dose of tender loving care, or TLC, and then leads onlookers in breathing exercises before pulling a naked doll from the leaves.
Each baby in the limited Appalachian Christmas collection available at the recent collectors' event was unique, and some people had trouble choosing.
"I have to like the face," collector Wilma Arrington said. "That's the first thing I look at."
"And the hairstyle," her husband, John, added.
"The hair and the outfit, it has to go together," his wife agreed.
For others, it's a bit more abstract.
"It's the personality and the look of the baby because we come in here, and some draw us to them and some don't," said Eileen Cancilla, another collector. "It's the baby that picks us out."
On this particular day, six called out to Cancilla and her husband, Bob, who traveled from northern California. At home, they have a collection of about 2,500.
And while everyone is clearly focused on getting the baby they want, there's no pushing or shoving or fighting over individual babies — unlike in 1983 when production was overwhelmed by demand for the mass-produced version of the chubby-cheeked dolls and fights over the toys broke out.
"Everybody respects everybody else," said Rebecca Wagner. "When one person sees a baby they like, then the other person will back away."
Wagner has passed her love of Cabbage Patch Kids on to her 24-year-old daughter, Victoria, and the two have more than a thousand dolls. They make the trip from Cleveland, Ohio, to Babyland General several times a year.
Collectors sometimes have a hard time explaining their passion to friends. Bob Cancilla endured a bit of teasing about his hobby before retiring several years ago from his job as a sheriff's lieutenant.
"They used to laugh until they found out how the value is of the older babies," he said with a chuckle.
Newer hand-stitched babies start at about $225, but dolls dating to before the mass-market frenzy can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
During their trip for the most recent collectors' event in November, the Cancillas also picked up Bartholomew, a baby from 1978 that they'd paid for using "Time Adopt," a payment plan for more expensive dolls.
But what keeps these collectors making several trips a year to Babyland General is the tight friendships they've formed with other collectors who share their passion. The Arringtons, who also used to travel from Ohio for the seasonal collector events, now live an hour away.
"The main reason we moved here is because of Babyland," John Arrington said.
And while they love all the babies in their collections, each collector has a favorite.
For Victoria Wagner, it's a Blackberry Winter edition preemie from 1980 hand-signed by Cabbage Patch Kid creator Xavier Roberts that she adopted over the summer.
"He's my oldest one and he is so tiny," she said. "That's my pride and joy right there."