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Emma Whiteley's Quilt posted: 6/5/2005
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Category: General Method: All Series: In The News
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Amateur historian Carl Steinweg has researched the history of this "crazy quilt," crafted in the Reedsburg area by Emma Whiteley in 1886. Christina Beam/Times-Press

By Christina Beam
Reprinted with permission from the Reedsburg Times-Press

February 2, 2005
Reedsburg, Wisconsin

REEDSBURG - Carl Steinweg found a patchworked piece of Reedsburg history and art in an unexpected place.

Twenty years ago Steinweg, a lifelong Reedsburg resident, was willed some antiques by an elderly woman. Steinweg had befriended the woman after her husband died, helping her with yard work and other chores, but he didn't know the sort of treasure he would discover in her attic after she passed away.

Packed away in a steamer trunk in the attic of her South Dewey Ave. home, Steinweg found a crazy quilt. Crazy quilts first became popular during the last two decades of the 19th century, and earned their name by being a random assortment of patches and fabrics instead of a traditional quilt pattern. The Victorian-era women who made them sometimes embroidered personal details right into the quilt, resulting in visually bold examples of self-expression.

The quilt Steinweg found is a stunning assortment of randomly shaped patches, with various patterns and textures of fabric, and finely detailed hand-stitched seams. Embroidered throughout the quilt are scenes from nature - a leaping buck, a coiled snake, birds, insects and flowers - and images from everyday life in the last decades of the 19th century - a pitcher, a hammer, men's and ladies' boots in the style of the day, a woman's left hand with a wedding ring.

"It's fantastic," Steinweg mused. "Every piece of handstitching is different. How she came up with all the different ideas..."

One patch of the quilt is embroidered with the name "Emma," and another with the date May 26, 1886. To Steinweg, the quilt's details were like pieces of a puzzle, inspiration for him to patch together the mystery of the quilt and the woman who put so much time, energy and skill into creating it.

Steinweg had some experience in uncovering things from the past. He's an avid collector of Reedsburg-related antiques, books and personal records, and he has documented his own family's genealogy and century-long history in this area.

The trunk that the quilt had been stored in all those years provided some initial answers. In there, Steinweg found two "Reedsburg Graded School" enrollment receipts for the 1882-83 school year with the name Emma Whiteley on them. (Incidentally, school cost $4 per semester that year.)

With Emma's full name in hand, Steinweg turned to a book his father had given him, "History of Reedsburg and Upper Baraboo Valley," published in 1929. The book included some interesting information on Whiteley: she was originally from Winfield Township, she had been a schoolteacher for many years and she was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Methodist Church. The book also stated that Emma Whiteley married George Seamans in 1900, a year after Seamans purchased the "Reedsburg Free Press" newspaper, which he was publisher of for 30 years. This information only inspired Steinweg to investigate more. He referred to an old cemetery register his sister owned, which listed Emma and George as being buried in Greenwood Cemetery. He visited their graves and learned that Emma was born Jan. 26, 1865 and died Jan. 27, 1939.

Although he now knew more about Emma, many questions about the quilt remain that may never be answered. "Why did she never finish the quilt?" Steinweg asked. Although it looks completed from the front, Steinweg said that when he found the quilt it had no backing. He showed it to his daughter, a quilter herself. "She said, 'My, you've really got a prize,'" Steinweg recalled. His daughter carefully applied backing to it, and Steinweg now has it displayed in his home.

Steinweg also wonders why the quilt was in the attic of the house on South Dewey in Reedsburg, since he knew Emma was from Winfield. But he has his own theory on that. "In those years they didn't have school buses," he said. "In my own mind, I think she was from Winfield Township and she came and boarded here, in that house, to go to school." What Steinweg can't fathom, however, is why Emma would have left a quilt so beautiful, that she toiled over for so long, to sit in an attic. "She was only 21 years old when she made the quilt," he said, "and didn't marry until she was 35. You would think that once she got married she would want that quilt in her home." He shook his head. Steinweg is a cautious caretaker. He said he brought the quilt to a local quilting party once, but everyone wanted to handle it. It's astonishingly well preserved for being nearly 120 years old, and Steinweg wants to keep it that way.

He may not be a quilter, but he knows the historic and artistic value of Emma Whiteley's quilt. The quilt would be valuable to collectors but invaluable to Steinweg. "I kept it as a keepsake of my friend," he said.

2005 Christina Beam and the Reedsburg Times-Press
126 S. Walnut St.
P.O. Box 269
Reedsburg, WI 53959
Phone: 608-524-4336
Fax: 608-524-4337

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