02 January 2010

Look both ways before crossing

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.

Why do I keep coming back to the prairie? Morning light. Horizons. Storms. Sandhill cranes. Killdeer. Prairie dogs. Silence. Sunsets. Finding my way back to a place I never really left.

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.

I did not know much about the Honnoll line before I started researching this quilt. Now I know that they were, among other things, beekeepers. Here's an illustration from a patent awarded to Nancy's father Peter on August 31, 1875.

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.

Gran Brooks kept this quilt with her, put away safely, all her life. She married Joseph Newton Brooks in 1897 at her parents’ home in Oklahoma and had four children, the next to the youngest being my grandmother, Vada Vivian Brooks Johnson (b. 1909 in Oklahoma). Gran Brooks quilted all her life and had quilting frames hung from the ceiling. Among other things, she ran a boarding house during the Depression in Oklahoma; we have a few of her recipes, but mostly things were just not written down. She lived the last several years of her life on a farm outside Littlefield, Texas, near her son and daughter-in-law.

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.


Shirley Albright said...

Thanks for sharing this intimate family history. The quilt story is one that would make a lovely children's book. I can still remember playing under the quilting rack as a child as my mother and various other women quilted busily. Sadly, I didn't inherit her skills or her patience.

Angela said...

My grandmother is Hilma Brooks Cummings. Her grandmother was Mary Marcella Walker Brooks mentioned in this story. My grandmother was delighted to read the story. I wish to get intouch with the author. Please contact me via email at ray.Cummings@georgetown.org My grandmother is 90 and would like to get I touch with you. Thanks

Angela said...

My grandmother, Hilma Brooks Cummings, is the granddaughter of Mary Marcella Walker Brooks. She lived through the tornado in west Texas. She is 90 now and was in awe over your story. Please contact me via email at ray.Cummings@georgetown.org I would like to put you in touch with my grandmother. She has a wealth of knowledge about her family in Altus and Littlefield. Thanks