This article was originally published by Road Trippers Magazine, 2019.
Sherry Groom got her first troll doll when she was five years old and now has over 26,000 pieces in her collection.
The population of Alliance, a small town located in the northeast corner of Ohio, has been slowly declining since the 1980s. In 2014, however, the population increased significantly when Sherry Groom and her husband moved more than 20,000 troll figurines and troll-related memorabilia into a former chiropractor’s office on East Main Street.
Groom currently holds the Guinness World Record for “largest collection of trolls.” As of September, 2018, there were 8,130 unique trolls in her collection—when you add in duplicates, that number increases drastically.
“I’m from that age of baby boomers where people collect things—stamps or Barbies—but the number one question I get asked is ‘why trolls?’” says Groom. “Because of their mythology, their magic, and their mystery.”
The Troll Hole isn’t simply a place to display Groom’s troll collection, although as you’d expect, trolls—in one form or another—are everywhere. The museum is part traditional exhibition space and part art gallery. Several floors of troll history are packed into two adjoining buildings.
The Grumpy Troll cafe, located in the back of the obligatory gift shop, serves coffee, teas, and waffles. Originally, Groom imagined that their tourist hook would start and end with securing the World Record: “We were just going to have a big pile of trolls,” she says. But the exhibit grew quickly, and soon it was a full-fledged museum.
A pile of trolls Groom got her first troll doll when she was just five years old. By the time she was a teenager, she had a few more, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s—when the dolls experienced one of their many resurgences in popularity—that she started seriously amassing a proper collection.
When Lisa Kerner, owner of the Trolling Around museum and gift shop, decided to get out of the troll business, Groom combined Kerner’s inventory with her own. One of the most famous trolls currently on display—a Rod Stewart-lookalike presented to Stewart by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show—came from Kerner, who had once dated Stewart’s accountant.
About 2,000 of the trolls were donated to the museum by individuals, and there is an entire section devoted to fan mail. After their grandmother passed away, a Florida family rented a U-Haul and drove her entire troll collection up to the museum. “It was a pilgrimage,” says Groom. “People donate their trolls, not because they don’t know what to do with them, but because they value the trolls and want a good home for them.”
Groom has actually held the World Record since 2012, when she had just 2,990 dolls. David McDowell, a tour guide and the museum’s artist-in-residence, says that updating the record in 2018 was an arduous journey: “We had to count and photograph every doll, which took six months,” he says. The process culminated in an official marathon counting session, which lasted four hours and included witnesses from Guinness.
That recognizable hair is a large part of what qualifies an item as a “troll,” but McDowell says that the museum extends the designation to anything marketed and sold as a troll. This includes Moomin, a hugely popular character created by a Swedish-speaking, Finnish illustrator. Although he looks like a hippo, Moomin is one of the best-known trolls in the world.
The museum has dolls in its collection worth two cents up to several hundred dollars. The tiniest trolls are made to top pencils, which were a huge moneymaker due to their low production cost. A conjoined twin troll isn’t as rare as you may think, but it’s definitely one of the oddest in the collection. Perhaps lesser known are the animal trolls—giraffes, elephants, cats—and a dinosaur troll with pointy hair horns.
The ever-growing collection is well-organized, but the buildings—some of the oldest in Alliance—are practically bursting at the seams. Open a door marked “employee bathroom,” and you’re greeted with some of the collection’s overflow.
Groom, who was raised in the Southwest, moved to Ohio after retiring from mental health nursing. “Everyone thinks we were crazy to come into Alliance,” Groom says. “But historically, trolls move into places people abandoned.”
She currently runs a group home nearby that helps to support projects like the Troll Hole. The Grooms own 13 buildings in downtown Alliance. “Commercial property is cheaper here than a used car,” she says.
Groom also sits on the board of Arts in Stark, a local non-profit art fund, and envisions turning Alliance into a tourist destination beyond the walls of the museum. “We’re using art to spur economic development,” she says. Groom has been instrumental in creating murals and sculptures around town, and every year, the museum hosts two scavenger hunts.
This year, 17 local businesses participated in the hunt, which sends people around town in search of hidden trolls. After completing their maps, participants are entered into a drawing to win prizes, including a tablet, a hotel stay, original art, and Troll Hole tours.
McDowell creates a lot of the sculptures and paintings you’ll see around the museum. The fact that his pointy beard resembles the hair of an upside-down troll is entirely coincidental, he tells me. On the streets of Alliance—once a thriving rust belt manufacturing and railroad hub—his carnival-barker aesthetic might seem out of place, but inside of the colorful confines of the Troll Hole, he looks almost conventional.
The first McDowell creation you encounter on the tour is a miniature football stadium—a nod to the nearby Pro-Football Hall of Fame in Canton. The museum plans to honor another Ohio landmark by adding a Rock & Troll Hall of Fame in the future.
Guests are encouraged to bring in a customized troll and add it to the growing stadium crowd. “You can help add to our unique troll count,” McDowell says. “You’ll also have bragging rights—to be able to say ‘I have art in a museum.’”
Trolls have been depicted in wildly different ways throughout history and across cultures. In the Norwegian fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff, a hideous troll lives under a bridge and threatens to eat anyone who dares cross. In the U.S., trolls generally seem to be considered lucky: “That’s why everyone takes their troll dolls to the bingo parlor,” says McDowell.
But to Groom—who sometimes dresses as her alter ego, Sigrid the Troll Queen, for tours—those contradictions are part of their appeal. “People ask me, ‘Why are you attracted to the dark side’?” says Groom. “Trolls are good luck but also evil—I’m attracted to that duality.”
Although troll folklore has existed for centuries, Thomas Dam, a Danish woodcutter, is considered to be the father of the very first troll doll as we know them today. Dam dolls were created in 1959 and spread to the U.S. in the early ‘60s.
An error in Dam’s copyright led to an explosion of knockoffs, but you can spot an original doll by its heavy plastic body, distinctive foot mark, soft Icelandic sheep wool hair, and glass eyes. 8” is the traditional harvest length for wool—a troll with hair longer than that is rare, and therefore more valuable.
Trolls are one of the only collectible items whose value can be maintained—or even increased—by customization. Troll wigs are an actual thing that you can buy on eBay: “It’s really all about the hair,” says McDowell.
The quest for completion haunts every collector, but with trolls, “the knockoff rabbit hole is never ending,” says McDowell. The museum doesn’t have a budget large enough to chase expensive pieces, but store displays and a troll that came with a tail—it kept breaking off, making intact specimens rare—are on the wishlist.
Of course it’s impossible for Groom to pick a favorite troll from her vast collection, although she does have a soft spot for the very first high-quality Dam doll she acquired. However, it’s not the monetary value that excites Groom: “A lot of collectors discount the knockoffs but if I find a one-of-a-kind, quirky troll, I think that’s special,” she says.
Troll dolls are the second-best selling toy after Barbie dolls and they’ve consistently proven that they’re not a short-lived fad. In 1993, the combined sales of all troll makers exceeded $1 billion. They have undergone cosmetic and name changes throughout the years, but every generation seems to rediscover a love of the whimsical dolls. Whether you know them as Treasure Trolls, Norfin Trolls, or Wish-nicks, “everyone has a different idea of what a troll looks like, depending on when they were born,” says McDowell.
In 2013, Dream Works acquired the intellectual property rights from the Dam family. In 2016, they released the animated movie Trolls, creating an entire new generation of fans. McDowell says that attendance at the museum doubled after its release. More than 19,000 promotional items were created for Trolls, including underwear, chia pets, and a $750,000 jeweled crown.
One entire room of the museum is packed with memorabilia from the franchise: “I’d love to know how many times Sherry had to go through the McDonald’s drive-thru to get all of the toys,” McDowell says.
Surprisingly, the only trolls left in the Groom household—outfitted in Dallas Cowboy’s gear—belong to Groom’s husband. Jay, a football fan who grew up in Texas, didn’t even know that troll dolls existed until he met his future wife. After twelve years of marriage—sharing Groom with thousands of mostly-naked little men and women—he’s not exactly a convert: “I don’t dislike them,” he says. “I had never seen or heard of trolls and now I can’t get away from them.”
“My husband thought people would visit the museum once but we get people who come back five times a year,” says Groom. “We’ve tapped into this whole body of emotions and people are connecting with the trolls—that’s the value they have.”