Something Made To Last

At 89, Georga Umberger no longer drives. She moves with the aid of a walker. But her fingers are as nimble as ever. She still gets five tiny stitches mn her needle before pushing it through the thick quilt with her thimble.

These days, Umberger lives in Topeka, but she sometimes returns to Harveyville, 35 miles away, to quilt with the Harveyville United Methodist Quilting Ladies.

"It's the friendship," she explains, rocking her needle back and forth through the layers of the quilt so she can build up stitches on it. How long has she been a member of the group? "My stars, I wouldn't have any idea!" She guesses it might be 50 years.

The bee itself has been going strong since the 1920s. Its core group of 15 seamstresses shows up regularly on Monday afternoons to stitch on quilts that they and their friends have made. On the afternoon I attend, they work on two quilts. One is a colorful mosaic called Maltese Circle. The other, nearly finished, is a Friendship quilt in peach, plum, and green. Popular at the turn of the century, Friendship quilts were made from squares embroidered with the names of friends, then assembled into a quilt and presented as a gift.

Each of the quilts is rolled around two long boards, similar to a scroll, leaving a few feet of work surface. The ends of the boards are propped up on perpendicular boards, forming a frame. The ladies sit facing each other across the quilts, with one hand holding the needle, the other underneath to guide it back.

The quilts are fabric sandwiches: a pieced top, a thick batting, and a back. After the top has been sewn, the Harveyville ladies stitch the layers together with intricate patterns of hearts, swirls, and curves. They turn out about one quilt a month, charging about $100 for each. Last year they made $1,337, which went to the church for vacation Bible school and building repairs.

I am connected to this group by threads of my own: My father, born a few miles away in Snokomo, grew up on a farm just north of Harveyville. As a child, I visited there often, sleeping on a feather bed and walking barefoot along the dusty road to town. My grandparents, Howard and Faye Dallas, sold the farm about 1950, but it's still known as "the old Dallas place."

My grandmother did not belong to this group, but she quilted a little; I slept under a Sunbonnet Babies quilt she made. The ladies remember my grandmother better for her cooking. Grandma gave Umberger's mother her prize recipe for sour cream raisin pie, she says. Nadine Akers' husband bought a fine sorrel horse named Roxie from Grandpa. Many recall that Grandma was bitten by a rattlesnake when out picking green beans. I ask how they can remember nearly half a century later that it was green beans. "The beans were awful good that year," Frances Tobler says.

I've always known that Harveyville women quilt. My mother prizes an appliqued quilt she bought for $7.50 in 1933. It was made by two women who lived across the road from my grandparents. They had asked $10, but times were hard, and Mother didn't have it.

That summer, Dad and his brother drew straws to see which one would--for $1 a day--get to help a neighbor with the threshing. Daddy won and worked so hard he finished by noon and was paid only four bits. We heard that story so many times that in our family, 1933 is known as "the 50 summer."

THIRSTY MEN. A half-century of hard times and good times has bonded these women. They talk today about the weather and crops. Hard freezes may have damaged the winter wheat. But the roots are hardy, explains Mary Sue Phillips as she snips off a thread. "We'll have our wheat," she says. "It's like a bad woman. It always comes back."

I ask about the old days, and Gladys Bruce tells of the harvest crews that traveled the countryside: "We'd load big cream cans of water in the buggy and go across the field to give the men a drink. The women had charge of making dinner for about 20 men."

"All those dishes!" exclaims Rita Converse.

"And some of them stayed for supper, too," adds Umberger.

Back then, Harveyville boasted two dry goods stores, a millinery shop, two banks, three cream stations, and a Chevrolet dealership. There was even an outdoor theater: Lawn chairs were set out on the street, and a movie was projected on the side of a building. The population has remained about the same, around 250. But now, the town has only a bank, a cafe, and a grocery. Farming is still going strong, but quick highways have everybody going to Topeka.

"Sometimes, we're tempted to call it Hardlyville," says Roezetta Keim, 49. She has a master's degree in clothing and textiles from Kansas State University and is the youngest of the quilters, whose average age is 77. Most of her contemporaries hold jobs, or they would be here, too, she says.

"This is a way of life everybody wants," says Keim. But it's slipping away. With high costs and a trend to larger farms, it's almost impossible to start farming without family help. Converse's three sons, for instance, formed a family corporation with their parents. Her daughter, however, is an optometrist in Florida. Weekend farmers with jobs in the city are moving in. "This is going to be suburban Topeka," says Bobbie Hodgson, who everyone says is the best quilter. She has won state awards, and one of her quilts was on display at Bloomingdale's in New York.

TWILIGHT HOUR. "Ready to roll," someone calls: It's time to expose a new section for stitching. "I don't know how many quilts I've made, but I'm ready to quit," says Florence Smitha, as she helps roll. Her pink face and springy white curls remind me of Grandma.

"You'll be making another one," Lena Ginter tells her.

"People come to the door and say: 'You got any old quilts?' " Smitha shakes her head.

"Tell me why people's so crazy about old quilts. If I was going to buy a quilt, I wouldn't buy an old one," Phillips says.

"We've got the teakettle on," announces Marjorie Baxter, who is in charge. After refreshments, the women begin to leave. A few stay to finish up the Friendship quilt. After Umberger takes the last backstitch, they remove the quilt from the frame. They admire the front, but it's the back that shows off a quilter's skill, so they examine it carefully.

"Any places we missed?" asks Baxter.

"We're not looking," Phillips says.

By now, it's suppertime, and the last quilters leave the little white church on the hill. Some live in the country and have farm chores to do as well as the evening meal to prepare.

A few of them hug me as I leave, accepting me not so much for my sake as my roots, I suspect. I drive through the spring twilight, past the old Dallas place. The house burned down 20 years ago, but Grandpa's barn is still there. As I pull out from the section road--now paved--onto the interstate, I remember that Grandma's 1929 Modern Priscilla Standard Cook Book was passed down to me. I'll check to see if it contains her recipe for sour cream raisin pie.

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