Texas Quilts, Texas Women – Suzanne Yabsley (1986)

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Abstractions of battles and hardships or colorful events and personalities of the past are rendered on the quilt’s surface, but its real meaning is the spirit of the maker.

Prowling the library shelves one Saturday, I happened to come across some local history/ fabric art titles, and this volume jumped out and in my hands. After it sitting in the pile for a few days, its turn for reading finally came, and this was a good one.

Now, I’m not a person who quilts. I am not really a sewing person, but I enjoy cross-stitch and knitted during the teenaged years, and I adore looking at fabric arts. Combine “fabric arts” with pioneer Texas history, and we were off to the races.

As the title pretty much confirms, this was about Texas history combined with the history of women and quilts, and it was really fascinating.

Living in an area with its own history of the early pioneers, I frequently see reminders of early pioneer life: the land surrounding our city still resembles the same view that pioneers must have had when they first arrived on the South Plains, and there are several historical markers and a large university-related museum which focus on these early years with an emphasis on how the early (white) ranchers lived in dugouts and other wooden structures through the years, and much of our regional population here are descended from pioneer families.

(Our city wasn’t incorporated until the 1920’s, but there were plenty of First People who nomadically passed through this area, naturally, but the actual formal formation of the city came later. It’s rather a contentious history, I’m afraid.)

So – to the book itself. I ended up making a list of notes as I read through, and so that’s what you guys are getting. Hope that works. J

  • If you’ve ever seen a cowboy film that has the actual details historically correct, you may have seen cowboys on horses with a bedroll tucked behind them to the back of the saddle. That bedroll is called a “suggan”, and was usually a heavy hand-made quilt made from old wool pants, jeans or khaki pants (usually part of the trouser leg as that received the least wear). (Also included “tailor squares”, but not sure what they are. Anyone?)
  • Suggans were usually very rugged construction, and usually the cloth pieces are sewn around the edges (similar to a traditional quilt), but suggans have one big stitch (with the threads not cut off) in the middle of each square. This was a quick way to finish the quilt, and to make sure that it could withstand cowboy life on the prairie. (Strangely enough, I saw exactly one of these in a TV interview later on that same day, and squealed as I could now recognize it as a suggan. It’s the little things.)
  • Quilts rather slid from public popularity during the American equivalent of Victorian times, but when WWI occurred, quilt-making came back to the fore with the campaign slogan: Save the Blankets for the Boys Over There (1917). In 1918, WWI was still going on, but now the U.S. was deeply involved, and so the government used most of the country’s wood supply for commercial use, and instituted “Heatless Mondays”. (This makes me wonder if Paul McCartney’s vegetarian campaign slogan of “Meatless Mondays” was influenced by this saying…)

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  • Texas had its first female governor in the 1930’s: Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson. (Hmm. Going to have to look at this. I thought that there had only been Ann Richards, but it seems there is another contender. Good.)
  • According to the author, quilt-making is both an individual art and a group project, depending on where one is in the process. These are the steps:
    • Step One: Making the top of the quilt. Usually an individual project involving selecting the fabric and creating whatever design s/he wants to sew with the fabric pieces.
    • Step Two: Place both the (now-finished) quilt top piece on top of the filling (batting?) and the bottom sheet, and then put the quilt into the quilting frame. (Usually a large wooden frame that holds the layers of the quilt together so that the edges can be sewn shut and the pieces joined.

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  • This frame quilt (see above image) was large in size, and since most of the early pioneer homes were rather small (think Little House on the Prairie), the quilt frames were on a pulley system so that the quilt-in-progress could be lifted up to the ceiling to get it out of the way for day-to-day life. It was also a popular social occasion in rural areas (as you can see from the happy expressions of the people in the photo above). 🙂 I’m kidding.
  • Quilting bees are small groups than quilting groups which are smaller groups than quilting guild(s). Huh. (I’m guessing, but I think the bee reference is to do with the idea of bees being very busy? Not sure. Just made that up just now.)
  • Other cultures have quilting as well: the African-American culture has a quilting tradition, Mexico (and remember that Texas is really close to Mexico geographically so there was lots of inter-cultural influences) had colchas bordados (or embroidered blankets), and the Navajo made quilts using vertical stands as opposed to the horizontal ones.
  • Britches quilts were made out of the unused parts of trousers when the seat of the trousers got too worn to wear. Recycle, repurpose, reuse. 🙂

 

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Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier – Dayton Duncan (1993)

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In the past few years, I’ve become really interested in the history of places (both the place that I live and also those of the places that I visit), and I enjoy learning about the different narratives that make up the more complete picture of a place. So, when I came across this title at one of the FoL book sales, I was intrigued.

I’d also been interested in seeing how many of the titles that I’d purchased at last year’s FoL book sale I’d actually read, and realized how very small and paltry that number was. And — I’ve also started my Fall Book Buying Ban which means making a concerted effort to read more titles from my own bookshelves. I did this last year and it was pretty fun so thought I’d start it up again.

Plus I’m heading to England next month and I can always find some interesting titles over there. Need to get some space freed up in the shelves for those treasures who cross the Atlantic on the home trip.

So, all this to say that reading this particular title was good on several different levels!

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This title is one that examines America’s contemporary frontier (as in the “Wild West” frontier). As the publisher writes in the back cover copy: “[T]he sparsely populated American frontier – declared as “closed” by Frederick Jackson Turner a century ago – remains open…” and this book explores the history and current (as in 1993 current) status of “frontier counties” (i.e. counties that have fewer than 2 people per mile population distribution wise). In other states across the U.S. and if you live in a metropolitan area, this stat may sound impossible to have in this day and age, but for a lot of Western counties (a la old cowboy film scenery), it’s very much of a reality.

I live in West Texas (in the Panhandle, really), and the county where I live was one of those frontier counties until a few years ago. You may have heard of the saying, “Big Sky Country”, and that is where I live. The topography is pretty flat, you can see for miles, and the sky is huge and uninterrupted across the horizon. There’s a joke around here that says “the country is so flat, you can see your dog running away for two weeks!”… Arf. Arf.

I love it here, and miss the view when I visit cities (especially NYC which I love but is also claustrophobic for me after a while). I’ve lived here for quite some time, but there are still some days when the region catches me by surprise (e.g. if I see a working cowboy complete with spurs and hat at the grocery store like I did the other day). When that happens, it’s like seeing a living piece of history and I really appreciate the link to the past.

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Driving around the Western states, author Dayton Duncan introduces the reader to some of the people who choose to inhabit these frontier counties. Most of his focus stays on the more typical pioneer states (such as those in Texas, New Mexico and others), but he does include states as far away as Oregon and California since they were the destinations for many of the families who traveled the Overland Trail in their covered wagons and on horseback.

(It’s amazing when you sit down and think about it. The pioneers and their families knew that they would probably never go back from where they came – how brave is that especially when one considers the complete lack of information that they were working under!)

As he drives around to meet the folk who live here and to cover some of their history, Duncan maintains his respect for the townsfolk without having to resort to stereotype and lazy reportage. As the miles go by, he writes about topics as diverse as the extinction of the buffalo herds and the process of choosing where to put a SuperMax prison facility to the known history of the nation’s First Peoples and Billy the Kid (both the legend and the evidence that’s left). Billy the Kid was a real person, but it varies as to how long he lived, where (and how) he died, and what his legacy may mean. (Actually, the place touted as his burying place is on our way west to the mountains near the Texas/New Mexico border.)

This was published by an academic press, so it wasn’t an easy read (in terms of how dense the material was), but it was really interesting to me. There was a lot of overlap between historical events at the time (slavery and pioneer travel for example), and a lot of the history that Duncan relates was new to me and I found it fascinating. (For more about one particular African-American frontier town in Kansas, see here.)

I’m very glad that I pulled this off the shelves to read, and am now digging around my TBR to see what other little treasures that I can dig up….

Going Home to Nicodemus – Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994)

 

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Subtitle: The Story of an African-American Frontier Town and the Pioneers who Settled It.

“All colored people that want [sic] to go to Kansas on September 5th, 1877, can do so for $5.” (Taken from handbill issued by the Nicodemus Town Company.)

This was a fascinating read about a part of the Wild West which I’ve not seen receive much mention before: how the pioneer world also included African-Americans in its spread westward during the nineteenth century. What was so interesting for me was learning that Kansas was a hub for these African-American pioneers. Kansas, I hear you say? Really? Well, yes.

In 1865, the U.S. cemented the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment secured citizenship for African-Americans, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 secured voting rights for African-Americans (at least on paper).

kansas mapSo in the later nineteenth century, former slaves were now free-ish (depending on lots of factors and not just the law), but although they had their freedom, it was not without its own set of problems. Former slaves were often just released without any resources to support them; many had no land, no money (and little chance of getting any), no home, no job, and limited access to employment due to a lack of skills and to rampant job discrimination. How was a former and newly released slave supposed to support him/herself and the family?

Thus the Freedman Bureau  was established to address this need, but it fell wanting in numerous areas. Most slaves were minimally agriculturally skilled which only allowed them to earn a living through share-cropping (where they don’t own the land, but work on it and then share a portion of what is produced on that land). With no means to buy land and thus no opportunity to own land, what was a former slave to do?

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Along around now also came the Homestead Act (1862) which opened up land ownership for many people in the newly established western states (including Kansas). So with the numerous land companies popping up and with their exaggerated exhortations with regard to the amount and quality of resources that were available in these states, newly freed men and women were targeted for populating these wide open states. Slaves with few other opportunities jumped at the chance for a better life and thus a door was opened for the African-American pioneers of the time.

Kansas was, at that time, a mix of pro-slavery and anti-slavery with the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas” due to its liberal values. With the abundance of flowery literature portraying it as a land of plenty and with the fact that famous abolitionist John Brown lived there, the state looked really attractive to the freed slaves and so thousands of African-Americas moved there. The influx of new settlers were called “Exodusters” and estimates go as high as 40,000 people who moved there.

Alongside this was an African-American Kansas resident called Pap Singleton who is credited with being one of the earlier visionaries with regard to establishing all-black communities for these new incomers. His ideas, along with the huge influx of settlers, led to the formation of the town Nicodemus and other communities run for and by black residents. It was quite a revolutionary idea for the times.

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However, with the now-free slaves with few resources and not many skills, many preferred to live close to the already established communities and so although the incomers were many, few had the skills to homestead. Such an increase in community population led to an increase in crime, of poverty and other social ills, and in 1880, the Kansas Governor finally had to say no more to the newcomers and to the town companies who were promoting this state.

Roughly two-thirds of the incomers left the state after that, either going home or on to different states, but even so, it still left a pretty large population of African-Americans struggling to make Kansas their home.

And so the story goes on. It’s an amazing tale and one that I had never heard of, despite having lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. I knew that there were African-American cowboys – in fact, I happen to know two guys who do that now – but I had no idea of the sheer numbers of freed slaves who came west. Just imagine how brave these newly freed pioneers were – and what a risk they took to create new and better lives for themselves and for their families. Amazing.

I’m really interested in learning more about this more unknown side of pioneer life, so I’m looking out for other books now. This was fascinating.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader – Elinore Pruitt Stewart (1914)

A classic of its kind, this short book is composed of letters sent by Elinore Pruitt back to her old employer after Elinore has left for her new future as a pioneer homesteader in Wyoming. It also could be argued that this is an early-ish example of feminist literature in that she demonstrates through example that women are just as capable as men in this regard.

Elinore was a young widow with a small child, and knew that pioneer life would be hard. However, as demonstrated in her absolutely charming letters, she has a winning attitude to her new hard life, and is very determined to make a go of the whole project. She begins by starting as a housekeeper for a grumpy Scottish homesteading man, but after several years, they get married.

This is one of the most honest and moving accounts of early settler life I have ever read. Elinore is eloquent and clear in her writing and descriptions of life, and the people and friends who she meets, many of whom are characters in their own right: Zebbie Parker, Mrs. O’Shaugnessy, N-Yawk the ranch hand…

(It was also interesting to read about her travels into Utah and her mentions of contact with the Mormon groups down there…Fascinating when I think about what I have learnt about that religion and having been to Salt Lake City…)

It’s quite remarkable to read what she says about homesteading: “Homesteading is the solution of all poverty’s problems” – compare this with the “modern” idea of urban farming, sustainable agriculture, and buying local (a la Michael Pollen)…

And then this bit:

“Any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put as much time at careful labor as she does the washtub will certainly succeed, will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own at the end…”

Words to live by, indeed.