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 teddy 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 teddy 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 two years prior.
Her collection slowly grew as she traveled to thrift stores in Rapid City and bought the bears that stood out to her.
"One day someone pointed out to me, 'Do you know you have more bears than people we have here in town?'" she said.
Turns out, that wasn't quite true: According to the Chamber of Commerce, her collection didn't yet match the 780 residents in Hill City.
So, she set a goal. A few months later, she had more than 1,000 teddy bears, then 2,000 and then 3,000.
People started coming to see the bears at the hotel -- bearing bears. Several visitors asked if she had contacted the Guinness World Records about her collection. 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 of the first record.
Since then, the collection has grown as people from all 50 states and 20 countries send her teddy bears, 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 quaint house across the street that was built in 1895. There are so many bears that only about 4,000 can be displayed at Teddy Bear Town, Alexander said. The rest are stored in a nearby building, but he hopes to build on to the home soon so that as many as 20,000 bears can be easily displayed.
As curator of Teddy Bear Town, Miley greets visitors and happily shares her story of becoming the "bear lady." She points out the various locations of the bears in the store, which have been named after places in the Black Hills. The biker bears are on Beargis Rally Road, a nod to the famous motorcycle rally held in nearby Sturgis every August, while the sleeping bears are tired from walking the Mickelbear Trail. (The Mickelson Trail is a 109-mile trail from Edgemont to Deadwood.)
Miley is appreciative of every person who takes the time to send her a stuffed animal -- even if it's not a bear, like what happened recently with Norman from Norway. The outside of the package said it was a teddy bear, and 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.
Miley's most meaningful bear is from one of the elementary schools she attended in Minnesota. The bear, which had a photo of Miley from the second grade pinned to the chest, was a surprise gift from a visiting couple.
"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.
In the future, Miley and Alexander hope to open a Build-A-Bear workshop or something similar. Until then, they are focusing on expanding the collection and getting as many people to take part in the record as possible. Every person who sends a bear gets an official certificate.
"The idea is if you don't have a world record at home, you can become a part of that world record simply by donating to the collection," Alexander said.