Quilts are more than covers to keep us warm; some are treasured heirlooms, genealogical records of family and community members from a time long ago when women sat around a wooden quilting frame hung from the ceiling.
Prior to statehood, pioneer families were establishing themselves in Cherokee County. These settlers left behind relatives in states such as Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama. In preparation for the trip west, many followed printed guidebooks that told them to leave home with plenty of provisions.
As a result, a great deal of sewing and quilting was done before they headed west.
Along the way they endured many hardships, spent months in wagons with little time to rest before they reached their destination. Quilts were often used on the trail. Since the wagons had no suspension and the roads were rough, many people would soften the ride with quilts, although a more serious use for quilts was occasionally necessary.
In some cases they became targets for arrows when they were hung on the exposed side of the wagons for protection during Indian attacks. The story of the infant Elizabeth Dickey paints a vivid picture of those times. Elizabeth was the first of Moses & Melvina Dickey’s children born June 29, 1835, in Tennessee. A family story recounts that Indians attacked the wagon train as they made their way to their new home in Cherokee County Texas. Elizabeth was hidden in a quilt until the skirmish was over. Elizabeth lived to be 89 years old and is buried in Mixon Cemetery.
Once these pioneer women were settled in their new homes they continued their quilting. With few newspapers and distant neighbors women yearned for female companionship. Gathering together for a quilting bee gave women a chance to talk, exchange ideas and discuss child rearing. Second only to church, quilting bees were the primary contact for women. Friendship quilts were a favorite, made to record events like births, weddings, and deaths. Thus, these quilts were a significant family heirloom which functioned as a record of family life to be passed down from generation to generation.
Preservation interests of the Cherokee County Historical Commission (CCHC) cover many topics, quilts included. Four friendship quilts from Cherokee County will be highlighted here; each is significant because of the historical records their embroidered squares contain.
First is the 1935 Corine School Quilt made by mothers of students at the time as a going away gift for Mrs. G.H. Thomas, a teacher who taught there from 1927-1935. Unusual in that each block of the quilt contains a student’s name, the only adult name present on the quilt is the teacher’s. Corine, a farming community eight miles west of Jacksonville, was settled after the Civil War, a post office opened in 1888, and a school was established in 1892. Eventually the school closed and consolidated with Jacksonville.
It is not known how this quilt came to be in a Tyler antique store; when in 1980 Mary Taylor, a CCHC member, spied it. She explains, “It’s a joy to find a piece of history and be part of its return…The friendship quilt caught my eye as I immediately recognized names like Lloyd Bearden and Harold Simpson. I called Virginia, Harold’s wife, and she purchased it…” Virginia, who still resides in the Corine Community, smiled as she stated, “I didn’t hesitate, didn’t ask the price, a first for me! I just bought it…” Other family names on the quilt are Martin, Acker, Bledsoe, Oden, Cooper and Lockhart, just to name a few.
The second quilt is from the Earle’s Chapel community which was established in 1859, five miles west of Jacksonville on Hwy. 79. Former member of the CCHC, Neil Earle shared the following story. The 1939 Earle’s Chapel Friendship Quilt mysteriously became packing material for furniture and found its way overseas. After 33 years this ‘lost’ quilt was returned to its rightful place in the community. Just as pioneers had used quilts as packing material for precious items; movers in Bridge City, Texas arrived at the home of career Air Force officer Lt. Col. Joe Howard with a quilt to protect goods to be moved. His wife Jean asked if the movers knew where the quilt was from and they replied, ‘no’.
Jean Howard asked if she could keep it and thus began the saga of the quilt that accompanied the Howards on their 12 moves around the globe. The quilt made two trips to Iran, once by ship and once by air. In 1979, it survived the Iranian Revolution in a warehouse that was surrounded by buildings in flames! At an Earle’s Chapel reunion June 22, 2003, the ‘lost’ quilt was finally home and on display; everyone present marveled as Lt. Col Howard told the story.
Quilt number three owned by Shelley Cleaver was made by his mother, Sissie, and her Sunday school class from the Jacksonville First Baptist Church. All of the class members’ names are on the quilt, along with several pastors. Of interest is a block with the embroidered name of Mrs. Eunice Sanborn, a member of the class who was born July 20, 1895. At 114 years old Eunice is the oldest living person in Texas and currently resides in Jacksonville!
Thanks to the recent efforts of Butch Guy Holcomb, also of the CCHC, we have photographs documenting a quilting bee in the Bulah Community. Settled in the 1840s eight miles southwest of Rusk, Bulah is still home to descendants of those early pioneers. These modern ladies are keeping their community’s quilting traditions intact.
Images of quilting bees are rare, in part because quilters were just too busy to pose for photographs. In1987, Bulah community quilters’ were intent on every stitch as they sewed a historical document that commemorated the 50th Anniversary of Arville & Lorene Hugghins.
Today’s quilters, just like our pioneer ancestors, spend countless hours of work and devotion creating beautiful and useful items which they often give away; sometimes to those in need like breast cancer survivors, children in foster care and to military families. Thanks to all of you who continue the art of quilting! Note: If you have a quilt story please contact the Cherokee County Historical Commission; our email address is email@example.com or call our office at 903-683-9680.