MONROE - Monroe's fabled "Aunt Bett," Elizabeth Upham McWebb, has delighted and entertained children across the reading world for more than three-quarters of a century. Now her most cherished creation, the Little Brown Bear, is almost ready to begin entertaining them for at least a few centuries more.
Monroe officials and children's literature lovers are planning a gala celebration for October to unveil a 900-pound labor of love on Loranger Square.
There, on a special spot they've landscaped outside the Dorsch Memorial Library, a 4-foot-high bronze Little Brown Bear will sit on an 8-foot bronze log for the foreseeable future - a metal testimonial to a county's collective love for its 97-year-old adopted aunt.
"It's been overwhelming, the amount of community feeling toward this woman," said Debbie Bagnall Haines, chairwoman of the newly-created Monroe Art and Beautification Fund, which spearheaded the Little Brown Bear effort.
"People talk about national treasures; well, Aunt Bett is a Monroe County treasure, and we just want to honor her while she's still alive for all that she's done for literacy and for Monroe County," Mrs. Haines said. "Everybody's been so enthusiastic about it that they have donated thousands of hours of labor and services to make it happen."
Bedford native and Dundee resident Devon Vergiels spent hundreds of hours over the last several months crafting the Little Brown Bear statue in a West Monroe storefront window. Her time and talents were donated, as was the clay she worked with, the metal frame that held it together, and the computer-aided engineering that brought her miniature homage to its full-sized life.
"This is the first big piece I've ever, ever done, and I've had an absolute blast sculpting this thing," said Ms. Vergiels, a member of the Toledo Area Sculptor's Guild. "Under normal circumstances, I'm what is technically termed a master wax carver. My normal scale up to this time would have been a 4-inch-long sterling silver humpback whale."
The pieces of Ms. Vergiels' Little Brown Bear were disassembled earlier this month and hauled to Petersburg, where they will be cast in bronze over the next few weeks at the Daedalus Art Foundry and eventually reassembled on a newly landscaped area outside the Dorsch Memorial Library.
The whole project, Ms. Vergiels said, "has gone really fast. It should be at least a year project, and this thing has come together in six or seven months."
Mrs. Haines said the most difficult part of the experience has had nothing to do with the bear itself; it's been coordinating schedules to have the unveiling and dedication, now tentatively planned for Oct. 6.
Most of the shortened timeframe has been because of the incredible ease project organizers have had in gathering assistance toward their goal, said Bill Saul, one of the project's facilitators for the Monroe Art and Beautification Fund. The group also wants to have the dedication in time for Aunt Bett's 98th birthday on Oct. 20.
"We set an original budget of $47,000, but it's turned into a real community-based event. We've had about 50 percent of our work donated," Mr. Saul said.
What the fund and its organizers have been able to save they have re-invested into the project, making sure it had the fortitude to withstand whatever weather Mother Nature might throw its way. "We've built it for a millennium. We want it to stand for at least 200 years," he said.