LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES: The stories Kansas quilts tell

J.T. Knoll
Hand-stitching a quilt around the frame

Before I left for Chicago in 1973 to find a new life I could write home and describe, I had the good sense to spend a night and day with Grandma Ada Fowler in Arcadia.

The most memorable part of my visit is, to this day, when she gathered her sewing basket and I drove her to the church bungalow to sit around the frame and trade the local news as she quilted with other ladies from the community.

The afternoon spawned a poem in which I sang out the quilt names.

Lover’s Link, Flower Garden, Bowtie and Friendship                                                                                                                                                                                                       Water Lily, Rose, Pansy, and Tulip

The Great Circle, Ocean Waves, Goose Tracks                                                                                                                                                                                                           Road To California, American Beauty, Drunkard’s Path

Pinwheel, Four Patch, Star, and Necktie                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Wedding Ring, Sun Bonnet, Fruit Basket, Butterfly

This Sunday, July 25 at 2:00 p.m., Miners Hall Museum in Franklin will host “Sharing Patterns, Sharing Lives: Kansas Quilts,” a free presentation and discussion by Deborah Divine. The program is made possible by Humanities Kansas.

In the early 20th century, Emporia was home to a group of innovative quilters that included Rose Kretsinger, Charlotte Whitehill, and Hannah Haynes Headlee. Today their quilts are housed in art museums and revered internationally. The presentation will explore Kansas quilts from this time period and the unique collaborations that sparked “the Emporia, Kansas, phenomenon.”

It’s the first event of a speaker series culminating in a Sunday, December 12 presentation by my wife, Linda, which will coincide with the centennial anniversary of the Amazon Army march, when thousands of local women — the wives and family members of area coal miners — marched on area coal mines in protest against unfair labor practices. 

Miners Hall has had a compelling exhibit up since the beginning of the year highlighting the Amazon Army. It recently added an interactive station that allows visitors to see video and hear narrative and songs about the Weir-Pittsburg Coalfield, and the Amazon Army march. The museum is open 10 a.m. — 4 p.m. Monday thru Saturday.

This Sunday’s Miner’s Hall speaker is the first since Covid-19 cancelled the final program of the Music of the Little Balkans series in March of 2020. I know many in the area are excited about getting back to live presentations — so pass the word.

As for the museum in general, here’s a quote from a visitor taken from the museum’s Facebook page. “This place is like nowhere I've ever been. People come from all over the world to trace family history of the immigrants and miners who came before them. Our ancestors sacrificed so much, it's nice that they're remembered here. The staff and volunteers are patient, helpful, and kind.”

Speaking of volunteers, another thing Covid-19 interrupted was the flow of locals needed to keep the museum open six days a week. People are needed for everything from greeting and registering visitors, to helping with set up and refreshments at events. If you’d like to be a “patient, helpful and kind” volunteer at this historical treasure, call 620-347-4220 for more information.

Getting back to quilting, Ada wasn’t the only grandma that practiced the art. Grandma Mary Knoll did too. She made crazy quilts, which are comprised of random patches of varying sizes, shapes, colors, and fabrics.

To be sure, there’s something sacred in quilts and quilting. One of the quilters Devine will discuss in her program is Rose Kretsinger, who was born in Hope, Kansas, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and Europe, and returned to Emporia with her husband after marrying. In 1926, she made her first quilt, initially finding the handwork a consoling form of therapy after her mother’s death.

As with all works of art, I’m of the belief that the personality, energy, love and comfort of the quilter is passed into the fabric of the quilt. Indeed, years past, when going through difficult times, I would wrap myself in one of grandma’s quilts for solace.

No doubt, with a title like “Sharing Patterns, Sharing Lives: Kansas Quilts,” Deborah Devine will be exploring and discussing quilting stories much like mine - and yours too. See you Sunday.

Finally, a reminder to art lovers out there: Mark your calendars for the return of the Little Balkans Quilt Guild Quilt Show September 4th and 5th 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. at Memorial Auditorium in Pittsburg. The artistry and craftsmanship of the quilts in this show is unparalleled in the Midwest.

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309.