Quilt history has been questioned, but discussion garners interest

MARSHALL – At the Lyon County Museum this week, more than 50 quilters and history buffs gathered to learn about the secret symbols depicted in quilt blocks that were used in the Underground Railroad. The engagement, cosponsored by Fabrics Plus and the Thread Benders quilt guild, featured speaker RoJean Cummins of Park Rapids.

Cummins first became interested in the history of Underground Railroad quilts when a shop near her brought in Civil War era reproduction fabric. With the materials, she created an Underground Railroad sampler quilt that tells a story in each block.

The Underground Railroad was running long before the Civil War, Cummins said, and that those initial escapees were the ones that “laid the first tracks.”

Quilts were thought to be used a signals and signs to direct travelers and signify safe places to harbor. More than a dozen quilt patterns were thought to send secret messages that went unnoticed by authorities.

Cummins said a colorful wagon wheel pattern she used in her sampler was her favorite to make.

“I love the dresden plate, the wagon wheel… it was my favorite,” Cummins said. “When the slaves escaped to freedom they often went to Dresden, Ohio.”

A pattern that looked like railroad tracks – often referred to as Jacob’s Ladder – is considered to be a directional block used to signify which way to go. Other common patterns were believed by some to signify safe houses and places to obtain food and clothing.

Patterns like the Monkey Wrench, Log Cabin, Shoofly and North Star were thought to hold special significance to those traveling on the Underground Railroad.

The idea that quilts were used to send messages has been questioned by some scholars, Cummins said. No quilts or testimony have been found to support the theory, but the messages told in the blocks of fabric still make for a good story.