What do New York City, Gee’s Bend, Alabama and Eureka, Montana have in common? Beautiful handmade quilts. On a recent trip to the Big Apple, I was fortunate enough to see an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Souls Grown Deep. Part of this exhibit featured quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. In 1998, folk art collector William Arnett happened to be going through a small town in southern Alabama and noticed quilts on clotheslines. They were so striking, he stopped to get information about them and eventually bought some. Later he arranged for over seventy quilts made by the women in Gee’s Bend to be part of an exhibit that traveled nationally. They were shown in art museums from Washington, DC to San Francisco, from Houston to Boston. There are books and videos about these quilts and the women who made them. In 2006, the US Postal Service even came out with a set of postage stamps that featured images of the quilts. So for me, it was a remarkable moment to stand in the Met and see six of them displayed. I was so tempted to touch them, lift a corner to see what the back quilting looked like, run my fingers over the colors. But of course I didn’t.
Standing there brought so many thoughts and emotions about the women in Gee’s Bend, about the women who sew quilts in the Historical Village, about the fabrics used in all of these quilts, the friendships as quilters sit together sewing, the designs, the stitches, the talk. Especially this time of year as fall sets in and the quilters at the Historical Village begin meeting on Fridays, we get into a rhythm that will take us through the winter and into spring. Here in Eureka, those of us who quilt with this group are ready to start up again. Whether our quilts will ever grace the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn’t matter. Mostly we want our stitches to be even and the knots hidden.
This past Friday it snowed. A lot. And it didn’t look good. It wasn’t just the fact that most of us are tired of winter by this point, but the concern that bad roads might hamper people coming to the fundraiser in Trego on Saturday afternoon. Saturday though dawned better with a bit of sun and so our anticipation became more optimistic. But you never know do you with these community events if there will be enough people, if its possible to even make the costs of putting the thing on let alone raise funds to help support the Historical Village? On top of the weather and other unknowns, there were questions about the event itself. We hadn’t really done anything quite like this before. A concert with a band from out of the area (actually The Wardens are from Canada so out of the country!) with a potluck and community jam to follow. We had decided to do it in Trego because the hall there is so nice with great acoustics and a large kitchen, plus enough space if we did get a real turn out. But would we? Would people drive from Eureka on snowy roads to support the Historical Village and enjoy this potentially great event?
Al went out early that day to get a fire going so the hall would be warm. He also plowed the parking lot (thank you so much!). The band arrived around 1:30 to start setting up. Quilters and John Linn came a little later to hang quilts and set up tables for selling some handmade items. With the concert scheduled to begin at 4:00pm, one might hope people would start to show up at 3:30ish but it started very slow. Finally around 3:45 cars began to pull in and then more cars. We had to set up extra chairs. When people were still coming through the door at 4:00, the band decided to start a few minutes late. What a fabulous turnout! Over seventy people came to listen to great music, potluck with neighbors and then hang a bit for the jam. Some people played music, some danced, some talked with friends, some met new people, some tried new foods (Dawn’s outrageous Bhutan momos).
It isn’t only the wonderful turn out but the energy people brought to the event that made it such a great evening. Lots of laughter and hugs. We sold a quilt and a box of Mary Louise’s homemade chocolates. Some folks generously wrote checks to support the Historical Village. Others asked for information to learn more about the Tobacco Valley Board of History. And the help that made this all possible! From John climbing his 10′ ladder to hang quilts to Mike washing dishes and Mircea mopping the floor. Everyone pitched in to set up chairs and then at the end of the evening, to put chairs away. Ray got the jam circle going, Ed helped the band carry their things out to the van, Patty and Darrell took trash bags to the dumpsters. What a special evening…what a special community. Thank you, Eureka!
This time of year in northwest Montana, any glimpse of blue sky has everyone smiling. Even while focused on stitching, the women look up in unison when light through the old school house windows gets slightly brighter with a break in the clouds. January not only brought us a few snatches of sun, but also three new Tobacco Valley Board of History volunteers. Not quite enough for all that needs to be done but certainly a good start. Magdalena is new to the area and a great fit for helping with displays as she wants to learn more about local history. Michelle has the energy to help out with the grounds and the shrubbery once we get into spring. Ya’aqov, a retired librarian, is learning to maintain the archives from Cathryn. And having these three awesome individuals step up, encourages us to think there just might be others in the community who want to help maintain our local heritage.
Perhaps though people have other ideas about what to do with their spare time? Maybe they see maintaining artifacts, photographs and historical buildings from the Tobacco Valley as frivolous. Why think about the past when there are sufficient worries for the present? And don’t even mention the future! But our past has a lot to offer, not only to school children who come each spring to visit the exhibits or the tourists who pass through on summer afternoons, but to all of us.
Some locals lament about lack of business in the area and how the town is going to dry up. The old newspapers in the Historical Village files tell of the same sentiment numerous times throughout the town’s history. But there has always been something new that came along. Eureka was once the Christmas tree capital and there was logging. There were the years when the Libby dam and the train tunnel were built that brought many new people and jobs to this area. There were opportunities and change and dry spells and then new opportunities appeared.
The files show how the Tobacco Valley News, our local newspaper that still comes out weekly, got started. There are articles telling about how the valley first got internet and the volunteers who helped set it up. A computer shop now occupies the building where the office supply store used to be (a business now farther up the road in a larger space), and the same building that used to house the newspaper (which moved behind the bank). Things change for sure but there are things to be learned from the changes. How can we make transitions easier? Where do new ideas for our town come from? How have great additions to the valley come about in the past? What can we use from those experiences to continue to make this a place where we want to be?
Where does summer go? It seemed we just finished quilting in May and now we are already sliding into August. The volunteers at the museum are busy every afternoon greeting visitors and telling them about the history of this valley. Other volunteers did some work on the playground so the area under the swings and slide won’t get so muddy in the future. It is temporarily fenced off but will be available soon for all the children who enjoy playing there. Last week four of us got together in the morning to give all the buildings in the Village a good dusting and sweeping so they continue to look their best for the summer season. And of course other Historical Village fans are busy planning the annual Dinner on the Lake. The lovely fundraiser for the Tobacco Valley Board of History is always a treat for the forty people who attend. This year’s menu includes a four-course meal featuring French cuisine and wine. Imagine eating this scrumptious meal while looking out over Dickey Lake in the evening on August 13th. Tickets are already sold out but Carol does have a waiting list if you are tempted. Call her at 889-3427.
As always, I am astounded by the time and energy people give to maintaining the Historical Village. They recognize that this is not just a museum but our heritage. It contains the history of the people who settled here, the lives that created this community and those who give it their heart to continue. Perhaps you will have time this summer to stop by and amble through the buildings, or give Carol a call to attend the Dinner on the Lake, or maybe think about how you can help to make the Tobacco Valley Board of History even stronger. Thanks.