The hardest times, the softest quilts: Remembering Mama’s handiwork
By Bill Shepard
I spent my childhood years in the ’20s and ’30s. Those were some of the hardest years in American history. The historians labeled the times as the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover was serving as president and he was blamed by many for the condition of the nation. I do not believe that, but he was the president and blame had to be placed somewhere. I do know that money to buy food was scarce and jobs were hard to find. I could stand in my front yard and count the hobos on the freight trains as they passed by. Those men would be in search of a job to feed their families. There was no such thing as unemployment checks, nor food stamps from the government, nor any of the present-day ways of getting help in times of need. You were fortunate if you had a neighbor who could loan a cup of rice or meal or flour and you would pay it back when you could. Yes, that is the way it was during the awful period of which I write. During this depressed time, children created their own games with the few cheap toys they had but mostly with those things that they made. Wagons, marbles, kites and slingshots, to name a few things the boys made, were some of the most popular. A boy could do a lot of things with a wagon and every boy wanted one. The best place to go in search for the wheels needed to make one was to the iron pile behind the big mill. The iron pile was the place where discarded old machinery from the mill was carried and left to rust away. In the early springtime when the wind blew strongly, we made our kites that would sail as high and as far as those that were sold at the stores. I made the clay marbles that I played with and colored them with pieces of broken crayons that I found at school. The melted wax crayon made a good covering for my marbles. Then in the wintertime, I made my slingshot that I used to hunt for birds and other things that moved. I learned by watching Dad make the things he needed that I could also, and I did. If it could be made with nails and boards, Dad could make it. It might not be as pretty as the things that one could buy, but if it could serve the purpose, being pretty or not would not be a hindrance. Like the day I heard Mama say that she wanted some quilting frames; Daddy heard her too! I knew right then that Mama would have her want. I knew that if quilting frames could be made with nails and boards, Mama would have her quilting frames. Sure enough, I saw Dad go to his scrap pile behind the old car shed and start moving things around. He found four long strips of board that he could use for framing and before that day was over, he had them nailed together and they were ready to hang up. No, they were not as pretty and fancy looking as those sold in the stores, but they would do and Mama could get the word out to the close-by neighbors that a quilting would start right away at our house and help was welcome! The house we lived in only had three rooms, so the beds where my brothers and I slept had to be taken down so that the quilting frames could be hung from the ceiling. We would sleep on the floor underneath the hanging quilt until it was finished. We did not mind since during the summertime, we often slept on a quilt spread on the floor. Often there would be as many as five or six women seated in chairs around the hanging quilt. They would usually come to the quilting after their supper was over and their kitchens cleaned. The mill workers were at the mill long hours before the eight-hour workday went into effect – 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. That determined when the women would be able to begin their time together. During the day, if Mama had the time she would go and sit by the frames and work alone. I liked watching best when all the women were there. The quilting was a good time for the women to get together for a visit. I liked to listen to them laugh, especially Mama and to hear them talk as they sat around the quilt and sewed. Mama did not laugh often; I guess there was not much to laugh about. After a few nights of sitting around the frames, a new quilt was ready for use. I always hated to see the quilting frames come down. Mama’s quilts were not pretty like the ones you see today, but they kept our family warm. Some nights when in bed under the quilt spread over us, my brother and I liked to identify the scraps on the quilt. I would see the piece of cloth that matched my shirt or a sister’s dress or skirt. Sometimes a scrap was from Mama’s dress or apron. Mama always saved scraps from what she was sewing, and she was always making something. The old pedal-type Singer sewing machine was usually busy. The quilts Mama made outlasted her. She has been gone a long time, but a few of her quilts are still in use in our homes. My sister Jenny just got hers out in preparation for the winter.