Here in Utah we’re celebrating Pioneer Day today. Which is our State Holiday commemorating the arrival of the first non-native settlers in Utah in 1847. I have a great tale to tell of a pioneer quilt made by some of these earliest settlers to our State that was cut in two. But luckily, both halves survived to tell a story of the lives of the many women who made it. Including one of particular interest to me.
But first, here’s a brief story about some other ancestral quilts…
Pioneer Quilts in Snowflake, Arizona
I’ve always loved Pioneer Day. Not just because it’s another chance to BBQ, light fireworks and take the day off. But because many of my forebears were some of those hardy pioneers crossing the continent for uncharted territory.
You may remember my summer as a Pioneer when my kids and I volunteered at the Heritage Park Deseret Village in Salt Lake City, a village recreating mid-19th century western settlements. We had so much fun doing that. Even though it was a lot of work to get us there at the time, I’ll be forever grateful for those memories with my kids – especially as they’re getting older now!
A few years ago when we visited the Grand Canyon for fall break, we stopped in Snowflake, Arizona on the way home. A place where other ancestors of mine had settled later in the 19th-Century; and their home is still standing as a museum. Which is where I found multiple quilts made by three generations of my foremothers. Including my great-grandmother, who I met as a toddler before she died.
Even though I’m sure many of my foremothers made quilts (probably more out of necessity than as creative outlet, though I hope there was a dose of both), I don’t have any of those heirlooms in my possession. Nor do I really know what they made. So finding those quilts in Arizona was a treasure!
Now let’s move one to the other personal pioneer-era story of the quilt that was cut in two.
The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt Cut in Half and Pieced Back Together Again
This particular story is tied to my Grandma who passed away a few months ago. So it feels like a good time to record it.
23 years ago, I was finishing my time as a missionary for my Church in northern England. Anywho, my parents came to England to meet me and visit people and places with me before I went home. One place I really wanted to show them was a favorite little village in the Ribble River valley of Lancashire called Downham.
My Dad had brought some information about our ancestors from England and the night before we visited Downham, I discovered that I had a Great-Great-Great Grandmother, Ellen Douglas Parker, who was born in Downham itself! No wonder I felt a connection to this place! Meet Ellen.
Well, fast-forward about 10 years later in my life and I was married with little ones and working in my local quilt shop. One day a customer started telling me about a book she was reading about an Album Quilt made in Salt Lake City in 1857, 10 years after the first settlers arrived in the Salt Lake valley. The husband of the author, Carol Holindrake Nielsen, had inherited half of the Album Quilt (yes, it was cut in half!), which she thought was so intriguing.
In 2004, after some sleuthing to find distant cousins, the quilt halves were reunited and Carol Nielsen felt that “the posterity of the women who sewed the quilt must see the needlework of their ancestral mothers. . . .” and the story of this quilt and it’s makers needed to be told.
The blocks on this quilt were made by individual members of the women’s Relief Society organization as a fundraiser. There is a wide variety of skill shown in the various blocks – some very simple, others incredibly ornate and complex. Because each block was signed in the traditional album quilt style of the time, the author was able to research each woman who contributed to the quilt and tell their stories.
Isn’t it interesting how some of the blocks were cut down to create the side-setting blocks? (I wonder how those makers felt…)
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) the raffle was won by a 12 year old boy, lol. (Which I guess makes me laugh because my youngest was just recently a 12-year-old-boy and I don’t see him getting too excited about winning a quilt.)
But he took good care of that quilt (his mother was one of the makers, which probably helped). At the end of his life, rather than have to choose which of his two daughters to give the quilt to, he cut the quilt in half.
Fortunately both girls passed their respective halves of this pioneer quilt down to multiple generations.
Hearing this fascinating intro and being a lover of pioneers, history, quilts and antiques, I had to read the book. I loved learning about the various women who contributed and as I’m reading along, lo and behold, who is one of the contributors?
It was so fun to find out that this foremother of mine was also a talented quilter! I don’t think I could have known any other way; as I don’t know of any quilts of hers that survived.
I also learned that Ellen is no ordinary quilter! Ellen’s block in particular is one of the most stunning in the quilt. And how do I know this? A short time after reading the book, my mom heard that the author was giving a lecture and bringing her half of the quilt with her! So I took my grandmother, the great-great-granddaughter of Ellen, to hear the lecture and see the quilt. Fortunately Ellen’s block was included in the half the author had in her possession. So we were able see her work up close.
And it blew. my. mind. Honestly, I’ve never seen applique like it! I wish I had a good photo of that block! It was the most delicate, intricate applique I’ve ever seen! Particularly those strawberry stems and the tiny yellow stitching to create the strawberry seeds. I wish so badly I’d taken a picture, but sadly, this was before I owned a smartphone or heard of a blog for which I’d want to post pictures on.
My grandma also enjoyed this connection to her past. Which made me decide right there that it would be fun to somehow recreate that quilt block. I knew that there was no chance in you-know-where that I would be able to recreate that intricate needle-turn applique. So I made my reproduction block using wool felt. (I love applique with wool – you can leave the raw edges and it’s so much easier to manipulate.) I appliqued the wool on a background of woven raw silk which has great texture and a homespun look/feel. Then I made this wall hanging for her for Christmas in 2005.
After my Grandma’s passing a couple months ago, I brought this back home to my house. It’s been fun to have it with me again. Especially because it reminds me not only of great-great-great-great grandma Ellen Douglas, but also my grandma that I grew up with.
With those kinds of skills, I’m sure Ellen made many quilts in her lifetime. I’m not aware of any that survive. Nor am I aware of any quilts made by the majority of my foremothers. So I’m incredibly grateful, not only that this block survives and that I got to see it, but I’m grateful to 12-year-old Richard Horne for passing along that quilt and for Carol Holidrake Nielsen feeling the urgency and providing the opportunity for this posterity of one of the women who sewed the quilt to “see the needlework of [her] ancestral mother. . . .”
Here’s the rest of the story…
A postscript about Ellen: Ellen emigrated to the US in the 1840’s. In the 1850’s she made her way west to Utah with the Pioneer Migration by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By 1860 she and her husband had been asked to help establish a new settlement named after the Virgin River outside what is now Zion National Park in southern Utah. Having been to the place of Ellen’s birth, I wanted to find her grave in the town where she lived the last 20+ years of her life.
One fall break on the way home from a trip to Zion National Park, we stopped so that I could find Ellen’s grave in the Virgin City Cemetery. I can’t think of a bigger contrast of landscape than between the cemeteries of Downham, England and Virgin, Utah. (Personally, I think I prefer Downham.)
I’m grateful for these tough foremothers who pioneered some tough territory. Some of which still looks a little God-forsaken, if you ask me. Even so, I’m proud to say I inherited a sliver of their quilting talents; and I hope I inherited a sliver of their tough, pioneer spirit too.
Do you have any ancestors who were quilters or special quilts in your family story? I’d love to hear about them. Share in a comment below!