In a dimly lighted room in the Oella Mill, 800 heads are waiting - all of them bald and staring into eternity. They sit on wooden racks, waiting for history to come alive.
The synthetic heads await the artistry of Dorfman Museum Figures Inc. Using skills that have been honed over its 43-year history, the Howard County company has churned out thousands of figures - from the most recognizable presidents to the most nondescript workers.
Run by Robert Dorfman, whose father, Earl, founded it, the business has become the place to go for people looking for realistic replicas.
"Anyone who is in the museum business is very familiar with Robert," said John H. McGarry, executive director of the Muskegon County Museum in Muskegon, Mich., which recently purchased eight figures from Dorfman. "He is very widely known and well regarded."
Orders pour in from around the country to the shop, where employees share work space with the 800 synthetic heads.
One of the Dorfman creations made its debut last week with the unveiling of a Cal Ripken Sr. figure at the Ripken Museum in Aberdeen.
The figure, which shows the late Ripken dressed in his Orioles manager's uniform, moved his wife, Violet, to tears, said Jim McMahan, president of the museum.
"It was a very emotional experience for us," McMahan said. "Vi brought her granddaughters in to see it, and you could tell by their faces that they were in awe."
Robert Dorfman can relate. A figure of his father, who died in 1995, rests with its eyes closed in the hallway outside the shop.
"I find it comforting," the younger Dorfman said. "I can come to work every day and see my dad."
No one knew the business would attain such prestige when Earl Dorfman started it in 1957. A former display manager at the Hecht Co. in Washington, the elder Dorfman had thought he would make his fortune as a mannequin repairman.
But life on the road did not suit him. "He was pretty unhappy," his son recalled. "He was an artist at heart."
So Earl Dorfman set about making figures that were so detailed that they included even the whorls on fingertips. These days, 90 percent of the company's clients are museums that can choose from among the hundreds of completed heads or place a special order.
The process of making the figures is carefully choreographed. Starting with a photograph, a sculptor makes a clay head, which then must get the client's approval. Once the clay model is approved, a mold is made, and a vinyl plastic mixture is poured into the mold. Once set, the molded plastic is painted and fashioned with human hairs that are inserted one at a time. Prosthetic eyes, dentures, urethane foam bodies, vinyl-plastic hands and wooden arms complete the custom-made models.
Most of the special-order models take three to six months to complete and cost about $8,000 each, Dorfman said.
Recently, the offices were buzzing with activity, as employees filled the order for the Muskegon museum. Deborah Kommalan pulled apart a figure of Louis McMurray, careful not to drop the eyeglass case and blue handkerchief jutting from the pocket of the figure's denim shirt. McMurray is a Muskegon County commissioner, whose likeness is being used as part of the museum's "Coming to the Lakes" exhibit. The exhibit focuses on why people moved to that part of Michigan, which is 40 miles west of Grand Rapids.
McMurray said he got a kick out of seeing his double.
"I hope it is not an indication that I am on my way out of here," McMurray said, laughing. "You always have this vision of yourself, and you wonder how others view you. I kept looking in the mirror and back and forth, because they got every little thing correct."