Art Of Quilting Column April 26, 2009

Family lore, quilt pattern are fabric of life

Granddad Wilson, like a quilt stuffed with batting, was chock-full of great stories that he loved to tell us of earlier times.

One that especially sticks with me pertains to his mother, Mary, who grew up in a dugout along the banks of the Solomon River in northwest Kansas.

Pioneer families commonly shoveled such hovels from the earth where they set up house until a more sturdy sod home could be built above ground. Trees for log cabins were not so plentiful on the open prairie.

As frontier times faded into history and the early 1930s came along, a pattern company began publishing Workbasket magazine. In it appeared a quilt pattern called “Kansas Dugout.” That pattern is still around today, and I recently made a miniature version of it with 2-inch blocks. The 8-inch by 10-inch quilt commemorates my family ancestry.

Great-grandmother Mary, born in 1870 in Illinois, traveled west with her parents and four younger siblings when she was 7 years old.

According to oral family history, they homesteaded near Big Bend, so named because the railroad took a large curve around the river at that location. (The town today is known as Speed, Kan., population 41.)

Obviously, dwellings such as dugouts were cramped and primitive. I can’t imagine a family of seven living in those conditions, let alone surviving the seasons without heat or air conditioning.

At some point, the story goes, the parents, Sam and Elizabeth Wickline, left their children in the dugout and went to Georgia, probably prospecting, Granddad speculated.

The kids existed on wild goose and duck, using the down to stuff tick mattresses and pillows so nothing went to waste. At least they slept in some comfort on
featherbedding.

Granddad also remembered his mother telling about American Indians in the area coming by the dugout. The children were deathly afraid of them and once threw black pepper in the Indians’ eyes to scare them away, he said.

Sadly, their mother, Elizabeth, died of malaria on the return trip from Georgia.

I never saw the actual spot where the dugout was in the late 1870s, but in 1979,

Granddad said indentations were still visible in the riverbank and some arrowheads were found nearby.

I must credit my aunt Thelma (Wilson) Morgan of Loveland for preserving this rich family history. Before Granddad died in March of 1984, she tape-recorded him relating his many stories, then transcribed them into a biographical booklet for the younger generations.

We have his words in writing, as well as his actual voice on tape. What a priceless legacy.

Along with these, I have a copy of his mother Mary’s obituary from a 1940 newspaper, which recounts these early years and says the family later moved 10 miles northwest of the riverbank to the town of Logan, Kan. (my birthplace), and “established their new home in a dugout in what is now called the City Park.”

Hard to imagine a dugout being referred to as a “new home,” but perhaps it was quite an upgrade from the original.

The headline on the obituary refers to Mary as a pioneer mother who died at the age of 69 at her home (I’m assuming by then she lived in a wood frame house).

She married John Alvin Wilson in her early teens and bore eight children, one of whom was my granddad, Roy Alvin Wilson, born in 1897.

“Mrs. Wilson was known by many travelers,” the obituary reads, “who were never refused a meal and, in her early pioneer life, often helped feed the Indians who came to their home.” (As an adult, she must have overcome her fear of them.)

Three generations later, my own curiosity heated up like an iron when I discovered the Kansas Dugout quilt pattern.

So, I’ve sewn blue and light brown reproduction fabrics onto a white print shirting background, using a modern paper-piecing method.

With it, I’ve been able to incorporate my pioneer heritage into a tangible piece of art.

So crucial to Kansas history is this dugout pattern that it’s one of seven 6-foot quilt block designs set in cement around the Barton County Courthouse in Great Bend, Kan., 120 miles northwest of Wichita.

These are part of the Kansas Quilt Walk, which reflects early settlement days and marks the original route of the historic Santa Fe Trail in that community. Some of the other designs are “Kansas Troubles,” “Farmer’s Daughter,” “Windmill” and “Rocky Road to Kansas.”

Nothing could be more perfect in my opinion, but I’m a Kansas gal at heart.

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