It's traditional at this time, the start of a new year and (arguably) new decade, to look both to the past for memories and inspiration and the future for hopes and dreams. As I enter the third year of prairie life, I am doing just that.
I have come almost full circle back to the Great Plains, 800+ miles nearly due north of the place I was born. The journey has taken me to both coasts after a sojourn in the Texas Hill Country. Museums and landscapes drew me across the country and refined my understanding and appreciation of places and people.
I have worked in museums since the day I learned that it was possible to do so, and I would not change that decision even if I could. Whatever I might have brought to museums has been given back tenfold to me. This is not to say that I knew exactly what I was doing when I went into museum work, only that it turned out to be the best possible choice for me.
Today I am focused on quilting, which has pulled so many disparate parts of my life together for several years now. I'm in the fifth generation of quilters in the matriarchal line of my family. Here's the first part of the story: in 1994, my grandmother Johnson left me a quilt that I had not known existed. This quilt was made by Nancy Ellinor Honnoll Walker (b. 1852, d. 1922) in Mississippi. It was made for and most likely with her second daughter, my great-grandmother, Mary Marcella “Mossie” Walker Brooks (Gran Brooks to us), b. 1874. The name Mossie is embroidered on two central blocks, with the year 1881 on one of those. I suspect that this was Mossie's first real project.
Beekeeping is one talent that did not span the generations to us, I fear. Not even remotely.
Nancy Ellinor Honnoll married John Hinton Walker (b. 1853) in Mississippi in 1871. We know that the Walkers moved from Mississippi to Oklahoma (near Altus) around 1882 in a covered wagon. Grandma Walker would have been 29 when she and her little 7-year-old daughter finished this quilt, with 5 children already born and several more to come. We have nothing else surviving of the Walkers’ records or possessions that I know of.
The quilt is appliqued with large solid-color autumn leaves in orange and brown. The back is a blue print-striped cotton. There appears to be little or no actual filling or batting in it. It is machine-quilted. How did they manage to afford a sewing machine of any kind in that place at that time? Let the purists sneer that it wasn't hand-quilted. I think is is extraordinary that it wasn't.
Damage to the edges of the quilt is most likely the result of a devastating tornado that struck the farm in 1957. Gran Brooks died as a result of injuries suffered in this. Much of the family information above was gleaned from individual pages from the family Bible recovered after the tornado. My grandmother took the quilt and put it away, and no one saw it for the next 37 years or even knew about it. My mother did not even know of its existence until my grandmother gave it to her for me, very shortly before my grandmother died.
In 2003, my husband and I were married at the Historic Church of St. Thomas at the Delaware Agricultural Museum in Dover, a tiny gem of a Methodist chapel. The good staff and volunteers there kindly helped me by sewing a sleeve on the back so that it could be hung in the chapel as a backdrop for our wedding. This was its first public display ever, the first time anyone outside my mother’s family had ever seen it. We needed no other decorations.
The quilt has been with me ever since and has inspired me to quilt on my own. It will be 129 years old this year. May it see in many more new years on the prairies.