Donna Grant shows the quilt hand-stitched by one mystery quilter and a band of volunteers hoping to save an old, historic church in a small Nebraska community. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 9, 2013 9:00:21 PM
A hand-pieced quilt has effectively stitched together the lives of one area woman and quilters aged 9 to 90 in rural Nebraska and South Dakota.
When a vacationing Donna Egger Grant happened to purchase a few raffle tickets in June for a quilt displayed at the Niobrara Lodge in Valentine, Neb., she "never dreamed" she would actually win it. She simply wanted to help out a good cause -- saving that area's historic, aging Sparks Church.
As Community Relations coordinator at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle in Columbus, Grant often helps organize events in support of causes like Relay for Life and the Salvation Army. She's well aware that every dollar helps.
"You don't ever expect to win, but you know that however great or small an amount you can give, it's for a good reason -- and if everybody did their own little part, it would affect the outcome," said Grant, who lives in Aberdeen.
When the phone call came in September, no one was more surprised to learn she was the lucky winner than Grant. Well, except the ladies who drew her name at their annual Old Settler's Reunion back in Nebraska: Their first thought was that the winner was from Aberdeen, South Dakota, which is just a few hours' drive from Valentine. On closer inspection, they were surprised to realize the quilt so many hands had worked on was about to head to the Deep South, a journey of about 1,000 miles.
As Grant and her kindly caller talked, the fan-pattern quilt's story began to unfold. Grant learned that it had all started with a quilt top poet and quilter Yvonne Hollenbeck of South Dakota had gotten from an antiques dealer about 20 years ago and held onto.
"The quilt (top) was made by an unknown lady who died before she finished it," Hollenbeck said in a Valentine-area publication in September.
Experienced quilters dated the top to the 1930s, based on its feedsack fabrics. Because Hollenbeck shared a compassion for Sparks Church with people in that community, she donated the quilt top for a raffle, and then helped organize some old-fashioned quilting bees.
"I just thought it needed to be finished by hand," Hollenbeck said. Old and young took up their needles -- girls, ladies and at least one young great-grandson. Each "piecemaker" who contributed stitches to the vintage quilt signed a log that was sent to Grant, along with the lovingly completed quilt and the article that had been written about it in Nebraska.
"You have to wonder what happened to the little lady that stitched this quilt top and why she never finished it?" voiced Grant, who appreciates the backstory behind her new treasure. "I'm going to keep it all together so when I pass it on down, the story will go with the quilt," she said.
The stitchers who finished the mystery quilt are glad it's gone to someone who values its history. They believe the unknown quilter who patiently patched each top piece together would be pleased her work was finally finished. Hollenbeck penned a poem in tribute to the project that became meaningful to so many and forged a bond that stretches from Nebraska to Mississippi.
The Mystery Quilt
Who was that special lady? I would really like to know;
Who cut and pieced this pretty top so many years ago?
I'm sure she planned to quilt it 'fore her time on earth was through,
but oftentimes we leave this life with so much left to do.
We wonder, did she live alone? Were there children in her care?
Was family grown or was this sewn with cradle by her chair?
Some pieces are from feedsacks; there's scraps of stripes and plaid.
Did she salvage them from outgrown clothes or cut from cloth she had?
Perhaps little checks are from a tiny baby's clothes, but we'll never know the story ...
Heaven only knows.
So we'll finish what she started and let's hope we do her proud
as we stitch on her old patchwork quilt in which we've been endowed.
Perhaps her spirit's with us as we gather round the frame,
the maker of this mystery quilt, though we'll never know her name.
Copyright Yvonne Hollenbeck
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.