Saturday, September 19, 2009

Back to School

It's the middle of September and that always means back to school at my house, although technically school began last month. Somehow it doesn't seem like it officially begins in the Midwest until the weather cools off and the air gets crisp. Because of the school connection, to me September always means a fresh start, much more so than Spring or the New Year. (It's also my birthday month--another reason for a fresh start.) Being in "back to school" mode gives me structure, organization and routine. All good things since I'm on a schedule to write a quilting book.

Back to school on the prairie in the 1800s

Little Red Schoolhouse quilt from Prairie Children & Their Quilts

When I lecture, I love to tell the story of how I became inspired to write my second book, Prairie Children & Their Quilts. The town we live in has an original one-room log cabin, which is the oldest standing building in Lake County, IL, dating back to 1837. It is a part of a small historic village that also houses a replica of a one-room schoolhouse.

Every year the fourth-grade elementary school students study a unit on the pioneers and also learn a little about the town's local history. When my kids were in that grade, their teachers had them write a daily diary or journal from the perspective of a child emigrating from a European country to the U.S. in the 1800s. They were supposed to write every day and "recall" things like the trip on the boat as well as describe where they settled and the homesickness they endured after they left their old homes and began new lives in the U.S.

My son wrote: "Dear Diary, the boat rocked so much I threw up 40 times on my folks before we arrived in the new land."  Ha ha, always the humorous writer, even at age 9. He's taking a creative writing class at college this semester, let's hope his writing has improved.

The unit culminated with a field trip to the local historic village to spend a day in the one-room schoolhouse to experience what life may have been like for schoolchildren during the pioneer era. The children were encouraged to dress up for the full effect.

My little prairie girl, sad at leaving behind her old home for a new life

My daughter really got into it, especially the dress-up part. I found an old dress packed away in the basement for her to wear (yes, folks, I actually WORE that Laura Ashley prairie dress  myself in the '70s and saved it!), made an apron and gave her a basket to hold her lunch (pioneers didn't have zip-lock bags, the teachers reminded them!).

Always a prairie girl at heart

I don't drink, but now I wonder what was in that cup to make me think I could get away with that look. Frye boots completed the outfit. It really WAS popular to dress like that, wasn't it?? I THOUGHT I was on the cutting edge of fashion when I was in my 20s. I'm so old now I can't remember.

That diary project of my kids got me to thinking--were there REAL diaries from the 1800s written by children about their experiences traveling west? What kinds of quilts would the children have made? There it was--I had an idea for a book I would write several years later, again inspired by my kids.

Turns out there WERE diaries and letters written by children during the 1800s and I was eventually able to track some down and incorporate excerpts from a few of them into the book, along with patterns for small quilts based on popular quilt designs of the time. In 1846, 12-year-old Virginia Reed, of the ill-fated Donner party, wrote a letter to her cousin Mary describing her experiences: "O Mary, I have not wrote you half of the truble we have had but I wrote you anuf to let you know that you don't know what truble is. . ."  Other than that entry, my editors wouldn't let me include some of the somber details of the Donner party excursion into the book. I wonder why not, LOL. My husband agreed with them and said that when he read my first draft, he felt so depressed he didn't even feel like quilting anymore! (He doesn't really--wondering where my son gets his humor?)

A schoolhouse featured prominently in my next book--

Adelia Thomas, from  Remembering Adelia, lived in McHenry County, IL, in a town called Cary Station, which is now just called Cary. While I was working on the book, I met a woman, Shirley,  who had written a book about barns in the area and who was very interested in local history. She took me to the spot where she thought the Thomas farm may have been situated. It was a rainy day and, as we stood on a bluff overlooking the Fox River, I got chills thinking that the rubble below us was where Adelia's actual farmhouse may have been and where she lived and wrote in 1861.

As we drove away I noticed a street sign—"Thomas St"—so I knew we were in the right place and that the street had been named long ago for her family.  A few months ago, almost a year later, I coincidentally met another woman who attended one of my lectures who had not bought my book yet and never heard of Adelia but actually LIVED on that very same THOMAS St in Cary, IL and remembered playing as a child in the ruins of an old building down in the woods at the end of the street. What are the odds of THAT?? We think it may have been what was left of Adelia's farmhouse and I'm wondering if I should go and take a closer look myself someday. Read about more coincidences while I was writing Remembering Adelia here.

Then we drove a few more blocks and Shirley pointed out the local funeral home, which was built around an original school building from the 1800s. I looked up and saw a bell tower and knew it was probably the old schoolhouse that Adelia mentions in her diary--where she went to "singing school" and "spelling school" every week and where Mr Bennett knocked over the kerosene lamp that almost burned the place down. I feel lucky to have read and reread the original dairy many times. Much was cut from it (she wrote every day) and you have only a smattering of the entries to read because Remembering Adelia is a QUILT PATTERN BOOK above all (my editors had to keep reminding me) and there wasn't room for most of the history.

Here's the original schoolhouse building from Adelia's era (1860s) as it stands today with the funeral home addition built around it.

Here's a midwestern prairie schoolhouse from the 1800s:

"Schoolmarm" doll

1 comment:

Ingrid said...

Love the background information and pictures! The one room log cabin looks almost identical to the one here in downtown Skokie, which was home to a large family in the 1800s. I saw the inside of it, and am amazed at how many people they fit into such a small space. Really makes me appreciate the space and "creature comforts" of my little condo.


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