200-year-old quilt collection preserves history

LONGMONT (AP) – The cream-colored quilt covered in colorful lilies was so beloved that the family folded it into a wooden box and buried it in their backyard to spare it from falling into enemy hands.

On March 6, 1862, Union forces marched into Pea Ridge, Ark., beginning the Civil War battle that secured Missouri and northern Arkansas for the North. The Pope family, whose land turned into a battleground, buried their family quilt in the ground for safekeeping before they fled.

While it was buried – no one knows for sure how long it was before the family returned to dig it up – rain seeped through the box and caused the colors to run, leaving behind coffee-colored stains. A rodent nibbled through the binding on one side. Occasionally, a small duck pinfeather wrestles free and pokes through the quilt top.

Longmont resident Jeananne Wright bought the quilt at a Denver antique show in January 1996.

Despite its battle scars, it’s one of her favorite pieces. Out of a collection of more than 600 quilts dating from 1811 through the present day, that’s saying something. And it’s the story behind the fabric that the 71-year-old said fuels her passions.

“When you put a face and a place with it, that quilt to me just comes alive and becomes one of my children. These quilts are like children to me, treasured children,” said Wright, a retired fourth-grade teacher from the Jefferson County Public School District.

Wright was the featured quilter at this weekend’s Interfaith Quilter’s annual show and sale at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Longmont. She planned to display more than 40 of her quilts from 1875 to 1900 during the show.

Wright began collecting quilts in 1968, mostly at garage sales and antiques stores, in an effort to preserve “material history.”

When she and her husband left their home in Lakewood in December 1992 and moved to Longmont, Wright said, she had about 50 quilts. She carefully loaded the 18 best ones into a cardboard box and naively labeled it, “Best quilts.”

That box never made it to Longmont.

Instead, Wright received a $6,800 insurance check for the stolen quilts. That gave her enough seed money to start collecting historic quilts.

“My mission is to save quilts, to treasure the stories and in treasuring the stories, to see if I can find out who made them and then honor that person in my lectures,” said Wright, who lectures about the history of quilts and textiles.

She is also one of about 100 appraisers in Canada and the United States registered with the American Quilter’s Society.

Today, Wright’s collection includes the oldest documented quilt in Colorado, titled “Cockscomb and Prince’s Feather.” The quilt’s creator, Susan Adair of Blackhawk, started working on it in 1859 and finished it in 1917.

Another rare piece hails from 16-year-old Virginian Janet A. Campbell, who created a floral counterpane in 1820 by cutting floral designs from expensive English fabric and then appliquéing them onto a bed sheet.

Aside from collecting, Wright also rescues quilt tops – just the pretty top layer of a quilt – and adds batting and backing to complete the piece. She has completed about 50 of them so far, though her arthritis slows the process to a point where Wright uses pliers to pull her needle through the thick backing.

Though Wright daydreams about the original creator – Why was the quilt never finished? Maybe the woman fell ill? Was she too busy taking care of her children to quilt? Did she die? – the responsibility of finishing another person’s quilt weighs on her mind.

“I take it very seriously,” she said. “In other words, I hadn’t thought of myself as being very patient, but with the first one I did, I decided you have to do it slowly and carefully or don’t do it at all.”