The Western Pocono Community Library has all the features of a great local library: a well-curated collection, a vibrant children’s section, dedicated staff, access to the on-line world – and one thing no other library, or anyone else has: the exquisite shadow boxes of Phoebe Conrad.
Born in 1914 in western Pennsylvania, by the young age of 34 Phoebe already had career stops as a commercial illustrator, defense factory worker, nurse, family caregiver and contributor to department store displays. But it was her whimsical dioramas of storybook scenes that led her to start her own miniature wax museum in the Poconos.
She had studied as an artist in both Pittsburgh and at the famed Art Students League in New York, but her interest in dolls – and a chance encounter with a wax hand during her nursing training – led her to the painstaking labor of creating wax-based figures to populate storybook scenes. Soon she had a Winnie the Pooh, Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Old Mother Hubbard, even a meticulous Charlotte’s Web (“Some Pig!”). With the number of boxes growing, Phoebe needed a place to put them all.
It was the late 1940s, a time of folksy roadside attractions when she first displayed the boxes in her aunt’s barn. By the 1950s she moved them to a small gallery of her own in Mountainhome, near Mt. Pocono, where tourists from nearby resorts could come and see the evocative little scenes. Now known as Phoebe’s Little Wax Works (adult admission fifty cents, kids a quarter), they were a hit.
In the 1960’s the collection moved from the gallery to the Pocono resort of Memorytown USA, where they remained for almost 20 years. But as times and tourist tastes changed, the scenes fell out of favor. They were put in storage until 2000 when smarter heads prevailed and they made their way to the Western Pocono Community Library.
Today the librarians are keeping a careful eye on these one-of-a-kind works, promoting Phoebe (who passed away in 2007 at the age of 93), and even selling a small book about her art to help maintain the joyful collection. When the Library opened the Phoebe Conrad Gallery in 2004, Phoebe was able to attend and see first-hand some of that joy for herself, on the faces of Western Pocono Community kids.