Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Quilt Making Great-Grandmother

While I wait for records of my grand-uncle Dan Troutman to arrive from the Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute, I'll write a few lines about his mother America Pratt Troutman.

The two most prominent traits of hers that I heard growing up were her hot temper and her pipe-smoking. But she was more that that. She was the wife of a Confederate veteran who may have suffered throughout his life from the trauma of battle, of seeing his brother shot and killed, of a wound that took months to heal, of six months imprisonment in an over-crowded, hell-hole of a Yankee prison. She was a mother of ten children, five of whom died before she did. She was a caregiver of sick neighbors. She sat by their bedsides, washed and fed them, nursed them back to health or watched them take their last breath.[1]  One woman she cared for had her light her pipe; thus America developed a taste for tobacco and the habit of pipe smoking, she said.

Merky, as she was called, lived her last decade after her husband died mostly in Smyth County Virginia where she had lived all her life, but she spent a year in Nebraska with her son Clint's family. The story goes that Clint went to Virginia on a train and brought her back with him. She was quiet, the children recalled, often sitting in a chair reading her Bible and smoking her pipe when they came home from school. The year must have been about 1925 or '26. My dad remembered that he and his siblings were a little embarrassed about their grandmother's pipe-smoking. Once when they went to town, Merky's son Clint would not let her take the pipe with her. Then when Clint was smoking his cigarette, his mother asked for a drag. "It tastes good," she said.

America Troutman in Nebraska with three of her grandchildren: James, Virginia, and Neville, children of Clint Troutman. c. 1926. Photo from the Troutman family scrapbook in the possession of a cousin in Nebraska.

After her trip to Nebraska, she lived at Glade Spring with her son Dan and his family.  When she died, 14 January 1929,[2] she left a will naming Dan as her sole heir “for his kind care and attention to me.” She said she had already “given the others all I can give."[3]

Merky and a neighbor child at the Glade Spring home of Dan and Carrie Troutman, c. 1928.

But there's more to this feisty, pipe-smoking great-grandmother. She also made fabulous quilts. To my good fortune, I have one, the only one in existence, as far as I know. It’s a crazy quilt.

I received the quilt via my father’s cousin, Lois Faris, the foster daughter of my grandfather’s brother, Dan Troutman. Growing up, Lois was known as Lois Troutman. When she became an adult, she reconnected with her birth family and began using her birth name, Bethel. Then she married Gale L. Faris.

Though she dearly loved the Troutman family who raised her, she recognized that the blood ties were not there. That’s one reason she gave the quilt to me. The other reason was my interest in quilt making. At the time she brought it to me, about 1980, I owned a quilt shop in Chilhowie, Virginia, called The Quilt Corner. I made quilts and gave lessons on quilt-making and other types of needlework, a life-long passion all mine. One day, Lois walked into my shop carrying a folded quilt. Unfolding it on my worktable, she said, “This was made by your great-grandmother, and I want you to have it.” I'm sure I gasped! Based on my work in the shop, she thought I would appreciate it. What an understatement! I felt stunned, thrilled, awed, and humbled—all at the same time.

As I looked at this quilt, my great-grandmother’s creative nature spoke to me. Using wool and other fabrics, probably cut from suits and dresses, some dark and some bright, the maker’s practical side prevailed, but it was also a quilt of impeccable detail and artful whimsy. Perhaps, the contrast of dark and bright fabrics also revealed her moods. Perhaps, the irregular shapes echoed the mountains and valleys of her home.

Close-up sections of America Troutman's crazy quilt, c. 1900.

Many of the pieces were torn or threadbare, but it was the stitches that caught my breath. Intricate webbing connected each piece with threads in subtle colors of the sand in a mountain stream, the pink of a baby’s skin and the blue of a heron. Chain stitches formed circles interwoven like the Olympic games symbol, four on one patch and five on another. A row of six linked circles joined a triangle of brick-red wool with a tiny navy stripe to a tan and brown striped shape; some stripes in the fabrics were set at right angles to each other. Two chain stitch hearts intertwined on a navy background; a chain stitch formed the base for a wreath of daisy-like flowers on red; chain stitches formed the stem of a figure that looked like a lollypop. There were chevron stitches that looked like a split rail fence, fishbone stitches arranged like a row of tiny pine trees; feather stitches and fly stitches; blanket stitches that flipped direction every fifth stitch with star stitches inserted in the spaces; herringbone stitches and flat stitches. More star stitches were splashed here and there, one in the center of a patch. Some stitches, I could not find in my catalog of embroidery stitches. 

America Pratt Troutman's great-great-great-granddaughter studies the crazy quilt, 2013.
The quilt reminds me that our personalities are many faceted. Spunky America refuses to be labeled one way or another without all things considered.

[1] Faris, Lois, Glade Spring, Virginia. Interview by Zola Troutman Noble. Notes. Privately held by Z. T. Noble, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] Anderson, Indiana. 29 April 2010.
[2] Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014, database ( : accessed 20 Oct. 2015), America Ann Troutman, 1929.
[3]  Washington County, Virginia, Wills and Inventories, Book 33, p. 458, America Troutman; County Clerk’s office, Abingdon.