Piecing A Legacy: A 1930’s Dust Bowl Quilt

With the perspective of youth, Dennis McCann observed, “Those must have been depressing times, those long ago days of bread and milk, of feedbag clothes, and canned tumbleweed dinners. Of little or nothing.” Jane Tamse countered in her feeble, quivering voice, “Those were frugal days, but they left us with a happy childhood.”

Making of Memories

I ran across this piece of advice in a sewing book. “Stitch together scraps of family love into a warm memory quilt that cradles in its folds encouragement and truth that still apply.”

When my mother passed away, I was thirty-three years old. My mother endured the struggles of living in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. A creative woman, she gathered what she could to keep body and soul together, leaving behind a legacy of frugality and resourcefulness. One of the bags in her back closet held muslin feed sacks cut into 12 inch squares with a stack of 48 state bird/flower transfers to be ironed onto the material for embroidering. The makings of a vintage quilt. With three small children, I started the project, embroidering the grainy squares. As responsibilities and activities increased, I laid down the needle and thread for thirty years.

Decades later, I retired from teaching. My granddaughter, Kaeley, started attending Stitchers, the local quilting club, with me. I finished embroidering 24 of the squares, making a State Bird/Flower Sampler. Under the guidance of master quilters, Kaeley chose reproduction material, measured, cut borders, then sewed the feed sack squares into a thing of beauty. As a college student, Kaeley sleeps under a quilt started by her great-grandmother of the 1930’s, embroidered by her grandmother, and stitched by herself. A lot of love wrapped up in one comforter.

Ramona Clark and Cleo Lampos with finished quilt started by Cleo’s mother in the Dust Bowl with feed sack muslin squares and transfers from newspapers.

The finished quilt started by Cleo’s mother in the Dust Bowl with feed sack muslin squares and transfers from newspapers.

Piecing Together a Life

Quilts remind me that all the scraps and pieces of shredded longings and tattered lives can somehow be stitched together into a beautiful display. The people who endured ten years of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s experienced brokenness. The dreams of their youth were unfulfilled by the circumstances that hammered them like the unrelenting dust storms, and tore their aspirations into shreds. Drought ridden farmers lost their livelihoods under mounds of dirt, shattering their dignity. For the first time in American history, middle class workers lived one paycheck from destitution. Homemakers gathered scraps of materials to create the necessities of life. Relationships grew ragged under the strain of constant deprivation. Hope frayed into thread strips of despair.

But God, the ultimate source of Creativity, views this brokenness as pre-art. God uses the patterns of repentance-forgiveness and trust-obey as He hovers over scrappy lives with a heart of compassion itching to make art out of every tear, every shredded dream, every unfulfilled desire. From these ragged scraps, He creates a design of usefulness and beauty from our messy lives. Those children who grew up in the deprivation of the Great Depression were pieced together with patterns that shaped them into adults who took on responsibility without flinching.


The Greatest Generation

From the challenging childhoods of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl emerged a group of young adults who met life headlong without fear. They grew up with President Roosevelt’s words: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  The children of the Depression became the force that fought World War II, then came back home to marry, raise children, volunteer, and build a nation. We call them the Greatest Generation. We live in their legacy.


I don’t  believe in any Greatest Generation. I believe in great events. They sweep up ordinary people, expose them to extremes of human behavior and unimaginable tests of integrity and courage and then deposit them back on the home front.”    -Phil Klay

Meme photo credit

Dust Between the StitchesDust Between the Stitches tells the story of Addie Meyers as she tries to save the family homestead from foreclosure while teaching in a one room schoolhouse for script. Each chapter of the book starts with a quilt pattern, many of them based on Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Sam. A picture of life in the Dust Bowl emerges in this novel that will warm your heart and inspire your faith.

One Comment:

  1. Frela Summerlin

    I was born at the end of the depression and dust bowl but I know enough that it wasn’t an easy life by any means. I was still wearing feedsack dresses in the fifties,
    they just wouldn’t wear out. Too bad we can’t find them today.

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