Genealogist uncovers hidden stories in 1930s quilts
The term “happy hour” connotes that familiar revelry many working folks enjoy after a hard 9-to-5 day at the office or in the trenches. It’s become a marketing pitch for establishments that serve discounted alcoholic drinks in the late afternoon.
But I doubt that’s the type of activity the women of the Happy Hour Club engaged in when they formed their group in 1922. Theirs was an auxiliary to the Highpoint Rural Life Club, organized in 1915 by families who settled in the Highpoint farm community northeast of Fruita.
The women may have partaken of coffee or tea and possibly munched on snacks, but their primary intention was quilting together. That’s what made them happy, the stitching, the conversations and the friendships they shared.
At least a half-dozen of their bed quilts survive today, one of those folded and stored in a box in Ruth McLendon’s closet since the early 1940s, says genealogist Jan Botkin Therkildsen of Arvada.
That particular quilt was given in 2007 to Therkildsen, whose grandmother, great-grandmother and three great-aunts embroidered their signatures on it during the Depression.
Therkildsen previously had been unaware of the quilt, and because she is “addicted” to genealogy, she began to research the Happy Hour Club and the ladies who autographed it.
Since then, she has discovered five more quilts made by the group, with a total of 74 signatures among them.
Women often inscribed their names on the individual blocks and sewed them all together in what are known as friendship quilts.
On Wednesday, Therkildsen will bring several of the quilts to Grand Junction, where she will present a program on “Pieces in Fruita Time: Hidden Stories in Friendship Quilts” to two different quilt groups in the valley.
She has completed research on all 74 names the quilts contain and says a few of the original farmhouses still exist in the Highpoint area.
Her own ancestors, Romance (yes, Romance!) and Mary Botkin, moved to rural Fruita in 1907 from Iowa, her grandfather, Paul Botkin, managed the co-op store from 1942–1967, and her father, Mick, grew up in the Highpoint community.
The quilt given to Therkildsen, “still in beautiful condition,” is a “Milwaukee’s Own” design, one of the Parade of States patterns, she says.
All of the blocks were pieced by Elsie Perkins, then signed in thread by members of the Happy Hour Club. Perkins embroidered a center block that reads: Happy Hour 1934–35.
McLendon, 91, of Pueblo, was the foster daughter of Joe and Elsie Perkins. Elsie had not assembled the quilt blocks into a top before her death, and when the 17-year-old McLendon was then invited to live with Ila Keifer, the bag of blocks came with her.
Keifer asked the Ladies of the Brethren Church in Fruita to finish the quilt in 1940. At that time, the women hand-quilted as a group to earn money for the church. From there, the quilt ended up in McLendon’s closet for the next six decades.
Wasting no time since taking possession of “Milwaukee’s Own,” Therkildsen has uncovered much about her own relatives and other Highpoint settlers, with clues falling into place like dominoes.
She drafted a 100-page book with the Highpoint story and history of the 74 quilters’ families.
For example, her father’s cousin, Don Stark, 81, of Kent, Wash., relayed his early memories of Highpoint life to Therkildsen.
When he was 4 or 5 years old, Stark accompanied his grandmother, Mary Botkin and his mother, Fern Botkin Stark, to Happy Hour Club. He recalled the ladies meeting for “good visits,” bringing along their sewing, crocheting and other handiwork.
“I learned to knit and crochet,” he said, “but my crowning glory was that I was the needle threader. First, I had been threading needles for Grandma Botkin for quite a while, as she was going blind with cataracts. I, on the other hand, had great eyes and steady hands just made for the job.”
Another Highpoint resident, Milded Kingsley Ilk, was a teenager when she signed some of the quilts, and she lived down the road from Paul and Oralee Botkin.
The young woman helped many afternoons in the Botkin household because Oralee was ill with tuberculosis.
Ilk recalled how much the Happy Hour Club ladies taught her in those formative years.
For example, her mother-in-law, Ada High Ilk showed her how to crochet and do embroidery stitches.
Another club member, Myrtle Ellis taught Ilk how to “correctly” do the running stitch, she said.
Home remedies also were shared at the meetings.
Ellis advised the young Ilk to put “milk” from a milkweed plant “on a scabby spot on my wrist,” Ilk recalled. “It works.”
Discovering these hidden anecdotes delights Therkildsen, whose curious mind constantly wonders where the Happy Hour women came from, what their lives were like on the farm during the Depression and where they and their families are now.
Through her discoveries and continued quest for historical facts, Therkildsen has started her own business, Family Sleuthess LLC. She offers her professional services to others who are searching for their roots.
She says she’s excited to come to the Grand Valley and share her latest project this week “because I always meet people who have more information or contacts for me.”