The Hat Lady

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“I am a colorful character of Anacortes,” declares Mae-Louise Dopps, and many would agree. Her numerous colorful and flamboyant hats support the claim.

Mae-Louise was born in 1928 in Boston, Massachusetts, the only child of Grace Louise and Henry David Horn. She was named Mae because she was born in the month of May. Her mother was an artist and her father was a violinist, tenor and Christian Science healer.

From birth through the first grade Mae-Louise and her parents lived in Dedham, Massachusetts, about 20 miles southwest of Boston. “I remember walking on the sidewalks of Dedham licking an ice cream cone,” she says, “and I used to stamp my foot and insist I was a Russian princess.” Years later she had a DNA test and learned that indeed, most of her heritage is Russian.

Tragically, her father committed suicide when she was five years old, leaving her mother to raise her alone. Her mother did not remarry until Mae-Louise was an adult.    

Mae-Louise and her mother moved throughout Massachusetts as Mae-Louise grew up. First they moved to Middleborough, about 40 miles due south of Boston, where she attended a one-room schoolhouse through 7th grade. “I had to walk to school down a rough rocky road,” says Mae-Louise. “It ruined my shoes. We had to go to a farmhouse next door to get water, with our Shirley Temple cups.”

Mae-Louise’s grandmother taught her how to sew. “On Sundays she pulled the curtains down because you weren’t allowed to sew on Sundays,” she says. Because it was the Depression, she says she made dresses out of grain bags and underwear out of flour sacks. But she also made more fanciful items, like hats, out of scraps of fabric.

When she was twelve they moved to East Bridgewater, a bit closer to Boston. She participated in 4-H, and taught sewing at 4-H camp. “I won lots of blue ribbons for my sewing and canning,” she says. Once she even entered the Singer Sewing Machine contest in Washington, DC.

They moved to Walpole when Mae-Louise was in the 10th grade. She attended a vocational high school in nearby Norwood. She took the train to and from school every day, five miles each way. “I took foods,” she says, meaning she learned to be a dietician. She attended high school for an additional year for “post graduate” work in nutrition.

Throughout high school she held summer jobs as a “salad girl” and assistant baker at big inns on Cape Cod. Following high school, Mae-Louise worked for two years as an assistant dietician at a bank in Boston. She and the lunch crew served 2,500 lunches a day to bank employees and workers at nearby businesses. Occasionally they also served dignitaries like Chiang Kai-shek and General Douglas MacArthur, in a special dining room. Mae-Louise earned $125 a month and commuted to work by train.

On the train she met a man named Richard Arthur Koch, who was attending Boston University at the time. The two married when Mae-Louise was 21, in 1949. “I made my wedding dress out of a parachute,” says Mae-Louise. Richard became a Navy pilot and together they led the itinerant Navy life.

Early in their marriage, the couple moved to Whidbey Island, where Richard was stationed at NAS Whidbey. First they lived on Polnell Point, then they moved into Oak Harbor, where they lived in a stucco house. “I started a church in my living room,” says Mae-Louise, “the St. James Episcopal Church. It goes by another name now.”

The couple had two children, Heidi, born at NAS Millington, Tennessee in 1954, and Arthur, born at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland in 1955. Mae-Louise also has a granddaughter (Heidi’s daughter), Elkiya, now a young adult.

By 1970, Mae-Louise and her family lived in San Diego, where she and Richard divorced. Mae-Louise was divorced five years. During that time she came back to Whidbey Island to visit her former landlady and landlord, and they introduced her to Warren Charles Dopps, who became her second husband in 1975. Warren was an electronics engineer at NAS Whidbey.

In 1976 they began to build the house on south Fidalgo Island where Mae-Louise still lives. While their house was being completed, from 1979 to 1981, they lived in Japan, where Warren was stationed at NAS Iwakuni. In Japan Mae-Louise studied shippo (Japanese enameling), Japanese classical dance and the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument. “I collected and collected,” says Mae-Louise, and they returned from Japan with 15,000 pounds of items, including furniture and many kimonos, several of which were used in a local production of “The Mikado.”

“I’m a costumer,” says Mae-Louise. Over the years she has supplied the costumes for many theatrical productions throughout the area, in collaboration with production designers.

Mae-Louise has also portrayed Annie Curtis in the Fourth of July parade for many years, Rainbow the Clown at preschools and other venues, and Mrs. Claus at Christmas events.

Before Warren’s retirement and well into it, he and Mae-Louise had shops in four antique malls from Everett up to Lynden. Sadly, Warren now has Alzheimer’s disease and is in a memory care facility in Burlington.

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Mae-Louise calls her house a “nest,” an apt description, because nests are not spacious. Though her house is fairly large, her many possessions occupy it entirely.

Immediately inside Mae-Louise’s front door is a huge pile of hats. “I have about 600 hats,” says Mae-Louise. “I make a lot of them, but I also collect a lot from thrift stores, antique shops and other people. I’ve been collecting hats ever since I can remember.” Many have wide brims, festooned with artificial flowers, rhinestones and feathers, but a few others are tiny and prim, as was the style in the 1940s.

Each room in her house is practically indistinguishable from another, its purpose buried by piles of hats, vintage lingerie and period costumes, including a Ukrainian dress that is 125 years old. “I’m collecting myself right out of a place to sleep,” she says (she now sleeps in an apartment downstairs). The beds in both bedrooms are piled high with costumes from the 1800s. Some corsets and waist jackets have bones in the seams that, once cinched in place, support the desired shape and prevent wrinkling. She mends them all herself, re-tatting fine lace on some garments and repairing elaborate beading on others.

In the kitchen the counters, table, an antique stove and a modern stove are covered with plants and more clothes. Red flash glass cups, vases and other vessels gleam in the kitchen window, crammed together on glass shelves that fill the window.

The dining room table is covered with antique candelabra, dishes and more clothing, and the living room furniture can hardly be seen beneath more piles of clothing. A chandelier of pink glass flowers, used in the movie “Auntie Mame,” hangs above.

Mae-Louise has two closets that don’t look any different than the rest of her house. One closet used to contain a bathtub that she had removed to accommodate her obsession.

The perimeters of each room are cluttered too, making it difficult to navigate. A tansu (Japanese chest) contains her purse collection, another tansu her shoe collection, including a pair of high heels for a dwarf. A cumbersome red iron coffee grinder with two large wheels on each side sits in a corner of the kitchen on a table she embellished herself with rosemaling, a form of Norwegian decorative painting.

Old brass post office boxes contain her sewing notions. Bookshelves with glass panel doors contain her collections of old books (including vintage fashion books and a White House cookbook), magazines (including a 1916 issue of Harper’s Magazine), old photographs and antique dolls. Two mannequins lean against a wall.

Mae-Louise also owns two player pianos, an electronic organ, two music boxes, and their larger relative, an 1893 Regina nickelodeon. She inserts a nickel, winds it up, the large vertical disc with tiny rectangular holes begins to rotate, and it plays a trilly version of Wagner’s “Evening Star Song,” each note resonating into the other.

Ornate plates and an array of pictures, including several cloisonné paintings by Mae-Louise, completely cover the walls. Underfoot, a beige carpet can be glimpsed beneath a path of area rugs, including a needlepoint rug made by her mother.

“I dust a lot,” says Mae-Louise. “I don’t let anyone else do it, because they break things.” Her daughter thinks she should downsize, but so far Mae-Louise thinks otherwise.

Mae-Louise wears a showy hat and long dress every day. “It’s sort of my signature, or part of my personality,” she says, “and my hair is not very nice. If I don’t wear a hat, I feel like something is missing, and people can’t tell who I am.” People call her the Hat Lady.

“I don’t wear hats to attract attention,” she continues, “but I don’t mind attention. People like to see me in hats, especially men.”