A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson
“A quilt is not just a quilt. It is not an inanimate object only to be spread on a bed or hung on a wall. It is the repository of special memories … It is a time recalled—an event of huge proportions such as a birth or death, or the hardly earthshaking memory of having the children use it as a tent over the card table. A quilt is not just a quilt.” (Judy Schroeder Tomlinson in Mennonite Quilts and Pieces)
Do old quilts speak to you? While I don’t hear actual voices, I will admit that over the years more than one quilt has suggested a question that led to a story.
Years ago, as a docent at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, I learned about a unique group of Mennonite women who lived in Strasburg, a town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In the late 1800s, these women dressed just like their Victorian neighbors. But a tragedy in 1896 set off a revival that changed things.
Young Barbara Hershey and her escort, Enos Barge, were returning home from a Saturday night party, talking with friends in a buggy behind them, when they approached a railroad crossing. A train emerged suddenly from around a sharp curve and struck the buggy. Both Barbara and Enos were killed.
At the time of the tragedy, young people held off joining the church until later in life, sometimes until they were in their thirties or forties and had a few children. In the aftermath of the deaths of Barbara and Enos, preachers began appealing to young people to "stop sowing their wild oats" and join the church. Hundreds not only responded and joined the church but they also exchanged their fancy, Victorian clothing for a distinctive Mennonite dress style. Photographs in the book pictured above illuminate that time. Young women who’ve joined the church are dressed plain, while friends who haven’t yet joined wear typical Victorian dresses.
The book on the right includes a photograph of a trunk belonging to a Lancaster County Mennonite woman named Anna whose life was affected by the Strasburg Revival. Anna's daughter remembered being forbidden to open the trunk as a child. When Anna passed away and the daughter inherited the trunk and opened it, she found her mother's pins, beads, gold rings, and fancy clothing--and quilts. I find it intriguing that Anna kept her fancy clothing.
"Bleeding Heart" the exquisite quilt on the cover of the book, features over 1,000 perfectly round berries along with expertly appliqued wreaths and leaves and a lovely swag border. It also suggests a story. Made for Molly Grove’s hope chest, the quilt was never used because Molly's boyfriend rejected her before their marriage. Molly (who never married) stored the quilt away. It was eventually purchased at a public auction of Molly’s belongings many years later.
Do you sometimes wonder about the stories behind the treasures people leave behind? How would you have reacted to the drastic change in dress required of the Mennonite women in Strasburg in the 1890s? Why do you think Anna kept her fancy clothing? Would you keep an exquisite quilt that was a reminder of a lost love?
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
God often takes us through times of disappointment and brokenness before planting us where we belong. Molly Grove’s “Bleeding Heart” quilt combined with my research into the Strasburg Revival inspired my story about Rachel Ellsworth, an artistic young woman struggling, not with the idea of “plain dress,” but rather with the challenges of the “plain life” that isn’t anything like the life of her dreams. You can read about Rachel in the novella Mending Hearts, which is part of the collection Christmas Stitches recently released by Barbour Publishing. Find it here: