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Jackie Miley, 63, is surrounded by bears at Teddy Bear Town in Hill City, S.D. She holds the Guinness World Record.
KRISTI EATON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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BY KRISTI EATON
HILL CITY, S.D.--As a child growing up in foster care in Minnesota, Jackie Miley never had the quintessential childhood toy: the teddy bear.
The 63-year-old resident of Hill City, S.D., has made up for that--and then some. With 7,790 different bears, Miley holds the Guinness World Record for largest teddy bear collection.
Her collection resides in a small home along Main Street in Hill City, a town of fewer than 800 people in western South Dakota's Black Hills.
Teddy Bear Town is filled to the brim with every bear imaginable--Beanie Babies, the talking Teddy Ruxpin and porcelain bears.
Visitors can admire the collection and buy souvenirs at a bear-themed gift shop.
"I'm referring to it as a house of memories. I've got people's very first bears. I've got bears in memories of people who passed away It brings back childhood memories to a lot of them," Miley said of the visitors.
Miley's path to teddy bear fame wasn't planned. She arrived in Hill City more than a decade ago to work as a live-in desk clerk at a Super 8 hotel with her first and only teddy bear, Grandma Jackie, a bear she had made at a Build-A-Bear store.
Her collection slowly grew as she traveled to thrift stores in Rapid City.
"One day someone pointed out to me, 'Do you know you have more bears than people we have here in town?'"
That wasn't quite true: According to the Chamber of Commerce, her collection didn't yet match the 780 residents. A few months later, she had more than 1,000 bears, then 3,000.
People started coming to see the bears--bearing bears. Visitors asked if she had contacted the Guinness World Records. In 2005, she sent in an itemized list, numbering 3,610 bears, and was told she had the largest teddy bear collection.
"I was ecstatic. I mean, I just shook," she said.
The collection has grown, and she's appeared in the Guinness World Record book three times.
Miley partnered with Victor Alexander, who owns the hotel, to move the collection to a house built in 1895. Only about 4,000 bears can be displayed at Teddy Bear Town, but he hopes to expand the house to accommodate as many as 20,000.
As curator of Teddy Bear Town, Miley greets visitors and happily shares her story of becoming the "bear lady."
Miley is appreciative of every person who takes the time to send her an animal--even Norman from Norway. A letter inside said the sender hoped Miley didn't already have a similar bear.
"When I pulled it out, it was a moose," Miley said.
Her most meaningful bear is from one of the schools she attended. The bear, which had a photo of Miley from the second grade pinned to the chest, was a surprise from visitors.
"I was raised in foster homes and I don't have a lot of childhood memorabilia, and that is the only picture I have of myself at the age of 7," she said.
WHAT: Teddy Bear Town WHERE: 108 Main St., Hill City, S.D. HOW MUCH: Free WHEN: Open Memorial Day weekend through late September. Open by request the rest of the year. Daily 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Monday, when it opens at 2 p.m.