Published August 11th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Rosalie and Charles Gilbert gazed at the gargantuan Missouri Bicentennial Quilt on display at the Center for Missouri Studies in Columbia, Missouri.
Other onlookers questioned the meaning of the Johnson County quilt square depicting a dog named “Old Drum,” and Rosalie Gilbert jumped in to share the historical tale from her former home county.
The story goes that a trusty hound, Old Drum, was shot after a series of sheep were killed by a dog on a neighboring farm. Old Drum’s owner, unable to let the death of his dog go, took the issue to court. After three trials (one in the Missouri Supreme Court) and a touching Eulogy to Old Drum, the owner was awarded $50 in damages, and local fame in Warrensburg, Missouri.
That unique story prompted exactly the type of reaction that Missouri Bicentennial Coordinator Michael Sweeney had hoped the quilt would generate. It’s a way to bring Missourians together by sharing the stories of their counties through fabric art.
“It has been one of, probably, the most important of our bicentennial projects,” Sweeney said. “It brought lots of people together, and I think it achieved one of the things we wanted to do, which was to find ways for folks to sort of articulate who they are and what they’re about and to find ways to share those things together.”
The massive Missouri Bicentennial Quilt features a block for each of Missouri’s 114 counties, submitted by quilters either from the county or with connections to it. The quilt will become a piece of history for the state as it celebrates 200 years this month.
The quilt has been years in the making. Sweeney said he started accepting squares in late 2018, and continued through Labor Day 2019.
But even before that, Sweeney was inspired by the work of Kansas City artist Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin and her Common Threads project from 2016. The art piece brought textile artists and amateurs in the city together to express emotional wounds to national and personal violence.
“It was this interesting moment of people with lots of different skills, lots of different ways to communicate about this, come together and give some sort of expression, through fabric, of how they felt about the world,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney, who admitted he’s not a quilter, knew a similar project for the bicentennial could pull the state together, but he couldn’t organize it alone.
He wasted no time getting in contact with the Missouri Star Quilt Co., an internationally recognized quilt store in Hamilton, Missouri, that attracts an average of 8,000 tourists a month. Forbes magazine dubbed it the “Disneyland of Quilting.”
Courtenay Hughes of the Missouri Star Quilt Co. helped Sweeney plan the quilt. Their only guidelines: keep each contribution 6.5 inches by 6.5 inches and tell a story about your county.
“We said, basically, ‘you tell me how you want to represent your county and who you are and what you’re about,’ ” Sweeney said.
Hughes said she was skeptical that anyone would mail in a square when the call went out to quilting guilds across the state. She was surprised when 203 quilt squares were submitted from 91 of Missouri’s 114 counties. Some quilters made squares for counties other than their own, and others were submitted from people outside of the state.
“It brought the state together,” Hughes said. “Because when (Sweeney) said we needed all of these quilt blocks from all of these counties, I was like, ‘there is no way we’re going to get them,’ and we did.”
From there, Hughes, Sweeney and a member of the Missouri State Quilters Guild judged the squares and narrowed it down to what we can see in the quilt today.
Sweeney took the selected squares to Hughes (after scanning them all into a digital exhibit) and she got to sewing.
A day later the quilt was finished. Sweeney said he picked up the finished quilt the day before Missouri Star Quilt Co. was forced to close its doors with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
“I could not have done that project without them,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney’s state tour of the quilt’s exhibition was delayed several months because of the pandemic. But since May 2020, he’s been on the road with the fabric storybook. His goal is to get it to every county that played a hand in its creation.
“We had people who were kind enough to take time and energy to create something,” Sweeney said. “We’d like to try and get it back to them as much as we can.”
He recalls when the quilt was on display for one day in Paris, Missouri, and Mary McMorris, who made the Monroe County square, brought her whole family to see the quilt. It wasn’t a lot of people, but it was a family there to share in the story of their town and the artistry of a loved one.
“Maybe in the grand scheme of things, that may have been a waste of driving time and gas. But for Paris, Missouri, it (was) a big darn deal,” Sweeney said. “That’s the best response possible is when we’ve been able to get it to small places and it’s been well received.”
Not only has the quilt generated tales of its own, but each block has something to share about the state.
Robyn Gragg submitted 13 quilt blocks to be considered in the Missouri Bicentennial Quilt. Seven appear in the finished stitching.
Gragg, who lives in Lone Jack, Missouri, started making blocks for counties that she had a personal connection to.
Her square for Cass County, is based on a mural in the Pleasant Hill, Missouri, Post Office. The square, and the mural, represent General Order No. 11, when families near the border with Kansas were forced to leave the area during the Civil War. The mural shows a couple returning home to their farm after it had been burned down, but Gragg decided to make her square the before scene, and to show the farm on fire.
Pleasant Hill in Cass County is only about five miles away from Gragg, who said the histories of the two counties are closely tied.
“It’s very much a part of the history of this area,” Gragg said. “It’s just a really important story in the Cass, Jackson County area.”
Gragg also made the square for her former home of Cape Girardeau County. She took to the internet for research and found the designer of the Missouri state flag, Marie Elizabeth Oliver, was from Cape Girardeau, so she used that as inspiration for the square.
“I learned all kinds of things,” Gragg said.
Gragg also made the square for Webster County, which, she learned, has the largest Amish population in the state. The block she made shows two children in Amish garb, playing on the floor.
When she saw no one had submitted squares for these counties, she kept researching them and finding stories to tell about them.
“I found several counties that were very interesting, so I went ahead and made blocks for them and submitted them, and some of them were selected,” Gragg said.
Gragg said she hopes when people see the quilt, they’ll get an idea of just how diverse the 200-year-old state is from one end to the other.
“A lot of people only know Missouri by flying over it, or driving I-70 through it, and you don’t get a flavor for what Missouri really is,” Gragg said. “You’ve got the Ozark Mountains in the bottom to the savannahs in the middle, it’s very diverse with people, and with architecture and kind of everything. It’s just a very diverse state.”
When looking at the quilt, people usually look for the counties they know first, and then they start looking around and wondering about all of the other colorful squares.
At least, that’s what Steve and Calene Cooper did when they visited the quilt’s exhibition in their hometown of Columbia.
Calene Cooper pointed excitedly at the square for Callaway County, which is a simple marigold crown on a red background. What looked like a simple quilt square was immediately recognizable for Calene Cooper as her home region, “the Kingdom of Callaway.”
Steve Cooper pointed out the county his parents grew up in and the two scanned the geographically arranged squares to find stories of the places they’d visited in their past year of COVID-friendly day trips.
Calene Cooper said she liked the originality of the squares and that they didn’t show typical landmarks. The couple noted that the St. Louis counties didn’t have the obvious symbol of the Gateway Arch, but instead, Grant’s Farm and the converging rivers.
“I like the fact that it’s not so typical,” Calene Cooper said.
Vicki Borer had a similar mindset when she made the selected square for Jackson County, which tells the story of the Oregon and Santa Fe trails rather than a more recognizable Kansas City landmark.
“It’s a bicentennial quilt, it should represent Missouri’s past,” Borer said. “So that’s where I got the idea to do the covered wagon thing on it.”
Borer said her quilting style follows traditional blocking patterns, so she started with a Missouri star block and added a covered wagon, designed by her daughter, on top.
Through the colors, Borer adds to the story. The brown at the bottom represents the trails and the yellow star is akin to the western sun. And of course, the sign post directing the wagon completes the story of the block.
Before this project, Borer said she’d never submitted a quilt for judging or competition and didn’t think her block would be picked, but the unique story she told stood out.
Given its diverse sourcing, the quilt is remarkably cohesive. Some blocks follow traditional styles like Borer. Others are more modern and pictorial like Gragg’s, and still others are fully embroidered or drawn with fabric markers.
The thread holding it all together: Missouri.
The range in skill and style didn’t affect how the quilt came out, but rather enhanced what Sweeney had hoped would happen.
“It’s a great representation of the state because it’s lots of different styles, it’s lots of different contexts, it’s lots of different levels of skill, and somehow it all works together,” Sweeney said.
It ends up being almost a metaphor for the diversity of the state. No region is really alike, but has this shared “Missouriness.”
“It’s a fairly fragmented state,” Sweeney said. “It’s beyond an urban, rural divide, or the Kansas City, St. Louis thing. You know, every area is doing it’s own thing. Our thing was, how can we use the bicentennial to, not fix that so much, as try and think about our shared somethingness.”
More than just Missouri, the quilters were able to share their passion for this hobby that’s been around for centuries.
As Statehood Day approached, Sweeney became more reflective about the project he’s worked on for nearly two years. While he’s happy with the quilt, he said it’s of course not perfect.
“In no ways does it tell you the entirety of the state,” Sweeney said. “What you see on the quilt are some stories of Missouri. It’s a rendering of Missouri, but by no means would I say it’s the whole.”
A final resting place for the quilt has yet to be established, but Sweeney said it will remain the property of the Missouri Historic Society, and on special Missouri occasions, it’ll be brought out to show its colors.
“There’s no point in having the quilt just sort of rolled up in the archives, so there will be some sort of discussion about where we might be able to do a long term loan,” Sweeney said. “But that’s not been determined at all.”
Borer said she knows future generations will see the quilt and get to learn its stories.
“It’s kind of neat to think that someday, somebody will say, ‘Well who did that block?’ So, it’s a part of history now,” Borer said.
Visit the Missouri Bicentennial website to see all of the quilt blocks and other bicentennial celebrations.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.