Shortly after I became a director of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, Colorado, I asked the board president why there was no quilt book on Colorado. After all, many other states had them. She fired back, “Why don’t you write one?” I agreed to do that, figuring the project would take only a few months, because I would use the museum’s archives. Then I found out the museum had no archives. No problem. I could do my research at the Western History Dept. of the Denver Public Library and the Colorado Historical Society, which were within walking distance of my home. But they had only a dozen or so listings under quilts. Still undaunted, I decided to use my own library, because over the years, I’d collected hundreds of books about western women. Then I discovered those books must have been indexed by men, because only a handful had the word quilt in their indexes. I went through the books page by page, looking for quilting and sewing references. That turned out to be a good thing, however, because almost all of the research in The Quilt That Walked To Golden is original to quilt history. The most exciting reference was personal. My mother died shortly after I started the book, and among her effects was a journal she’d kept as a young woman. She writes about the summer she spent on my Dad’s family farm at Harveyville, Kansas, where as a young bride, she became a member of her mother-in-law’s sewing circle. (My folks’ summer in Harveyville inspired my novel The Persian Pickle Club.) Because The Quilt That Walked To Golden goes beyond Colorado, I was able to include Mom’s diary excerpts.
“This quilt not only walks, it talks. And no quilt could have a better author to make it ‘talk’ than Sandra Dallas. A great book.”
—Pat Schroeder, President,
Assn. of American Publishers and former Member of Congress
The Quilt That Walked to Golden
BY SANDRA DALLAS
Take a journey back in time and across America’s prairies. Preserving a unique slice of the history of the American West, Sandra Dallas recreates the arduous westward trail for women settling the emerging mining and farm communities of Colorado Territory.
A master storyteller, Dallas captures the spirit of adventure and drive for survival of America’s pioneer women, who often recorded their lives in the quilts and personal documents they left behind. Heart-rending accounts of life and death on the Overland Trail include stories of mothers who lovingly wrapped their children in quilts as burial shrouds. Little-known journals record the day-to-day trials of frontier women, who sometimes relied on their skills with a sewing needle to help scratch out a living. Letters home tell of sewing and quilting circles that provided momentary release from the isolation of remote farms and mining camps.
As the land became settled, sewing bees fueled a growing sense of community. With increased availability of “fancy goods”—thread, store-bough fabrics, and quilt patterns—women quilted for comfort, and sewing bees became anxiously awaited social events. As time passed, Dallas tells, quilting helped women cope through the difficult days of Depression-era America.
After a decline in needlework following World War II, women rediscovered quilting during America’s celebration of its Bicentennial (and Colorado’s Centennial.) Revealing that quilts and quilting traditions serve as an unbroken thread between past and present, Dallas tells how today, thousands of Colorado women—and some men—quilt for pleasure and for artistic expression.
The Quilt That Walked To Golden is beautifully illustrated with colorful quilts from the collection of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum. Wonderful vintage photographs of early Colorado and of women quilting, along with contemporary photos by Povy Kendal Atchison, bring the rich needlework traditions of the American West to life. As a special bonus for quilters, the book includes four complete patterns for traditional quilts.
AN EXCERPT FROM
The Quilt That Walked to Golden
In 1864, Mary Jane Paulson Burgess, about twenty-six, packed up her household belongings for the long trip across the prairie from Columbus, Ohio, to Golden City, Colorado Territory. Mary Jane’s husband, Thomas W. Burgess, thirty-four, had recently returned from a trip west where he had prospected for gold. The precious metal was discovered in Colorado just six years earlier, and Thomas had hoped to make his fortune there. But Thomas fell ill, and when he recovered, he concluded that he was not cut out for the manual labor of a prospector, working outdoors in the cold and rain. He looked for something more to his liking and discovered Golden (“City” was dropped in 1872.)
Located at the edge of the mountains, Golden was a supply point for the mining towns farther west and was so important that from 1862 to 1867, it was the territorial capital. The Civil War had deprived the town of money for growth, however, and Burgess saw a prosperous outlook for a man who could provide Golden with necessities. His future, as the saying went, was not in mining but in mining the miners.
So Burgess returned to Ohio, and he and Mary Jane and their daughter Alice, two, along with Thomas’s brother, Jacob, and his wife, another Mary, prepared for the trip west. Thomas purchased building materials to construct a business block and loaded them into a covered wagon (or perhaps, because two families were going west, there were two wagons.) The conveyance was crowded with doors and windows, hammers, saws, and kegs of nails, leaving little room for necessities, let alone luxuries. As a space-saving measure, Mary Jane packed her china plates and cups in barrels of flour. The two women sold or gave away prized possessions that were too bulky to transport. Even then, there was no room in the wagon for trunks of clothes, and Thomas told the women that they could take along only the apparel that they could wear.
Unwilling to leave behind their clothes, the two Marys layered their dresses and skirts, blouses and petticoats. Bundled up in their entire wardrobes, they made the journey from Ohio to Golden, much of it by foot.
In the 1860s, an era that offered scant leisure in the Colorado towns, Mary Jane kept busy in her new home, and if she had spare time, she sewed. As the red and blue calico dresses she had worn on the overland trek wore out, she ripped them up and put the pieces aside for quilts. Later, she used the cotton fabric from her pioneer wardrobe to piece a Lone Star quilt top. Perhaps she picked the pattern because it reminded her of starry nights on the Great Plains, or maybe she selected it because stars were the most popular 19th century quilt patterns. The top most likely was quilted after Mary Jane’s death, possibly by her granddaughter, Marion Burgess Geick. The family dubbed the bedcover The Quilt That Walked to Golden.
There is disappointingly little information available on Mary Jane Burgess. The tale of the quilt came from her granddaughter, Marion, who gave both the story and the quilt to the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in 1991, not long before she died. She never told her children about the quilt. Nor did she elaborate on Mary Jane’s trip west. Did Mary Jane and her sister-in-law travel with other female relatives or women friends who also wore their layers of clothes? And did Mary Jane©ˆs daughter, Alice, scurry along the Overland Trail in dress upon dress? What happened to the second Mary and her husband, Jacob? They are not listed as Golden residents in the 1870 Colorado census, so they must have moved on. Like the quilts themselves, the stories of their pioneer makers are made up of fragments.