Bread and Butter Days
by Trisha Faye


GAK_From Mother to DorisEighty years ago Nellie Morris, of Athelstan, Iowa, had an idea.

She wanted a special Christmas gift for her daughter, Doris. But in 1934 there wasn’t a lot of extra money for gifts. The idea of ‘disposable income’ didn’t exist. Any money the family had went towards necessities. Families made every effort to avoid joining the thousands who had lost their family homes or farms since Black Friday in 1929.

Nellie’s idea became a reality. Family, friends, and neighbors stitched a muslin square with Sunbonnet Sues and Overall Bills. They added their names – a way for Doris to remember them.

On August 9, 2014, 80 years later, the set of 30 squares are coming home to Iowa.

The squares stitched by women and children so long ago, were never pieced together into a quilt. But, they remained together as a set. Through Doris’ marriage to Clarence Shackelford in 1944. Through children. Through grandchildren. Through a move to California. The squares outlived Doris, who died in 2005.

These pieces remain, a testament to a frugal life in Iowa. Doris’ friends, Doris’ neighbors – they stitched a piece of history over the days and weeks they spent creating their addition to this special gift.

Two squares represent Betty and John Balch. Stitching and fabrics are the same on both pieces. I assume 11 year old Betty made both; one for herself and her younger brother John.

Beverly Ruth Barnett and Dorothy Barnett each made a square.

Darlene and Leona Booher each created a square using a sewing machine on theirs.

Georgia Older croppedThe Bownes family is well represented, with squares for Charles, sisters Evelyn and Maxine, and one for Minnie and Josie. Mrs. E. J. Bownes (Eliza Jane) has a square. The fabrics and stitching on hers is similar to her daughter, Georgia Older, who probably created both pieces.

Leona Mae Byrns was only a toddler that winter of 1934. Her mother made a square for her, and added her age – 18 months. Leona’s square is the only one with an age added to it.

More squares were added to the collection. Jean Marie Carroll, Lelah Clark, Kate Fidler, Katie Kemery, Norma Gean Kemery, Grace Murray and Deliliah Rusco.

Berneice Scott and Thelma Weaver each have a square. With the matching fabrics and similar stitching, it appears that the same person made each one. One of the (many) mysteries all these years later is who sat and spent the hours lovingly creating the quilt blocks.

Dean Weese, also a toddler at the time, ended up with two quilt blocks – one Sunbonnet Sue and one Overall Bill. Madelyn Weese added a square. She was creative with hers and added a flower outlined in a blanket stitch and crafted her own unique pattern for her applique work.

DSC00222Three squares were given for this gift that didn’t have any names. The colors are reminiscent of the traditional Amish solid cottons. My own personal guess, and one that will probably never be confirmed, is that they came from one of the Amish families in the area.

A square for Rex Miller, Doris’ brother added to the collection. And then, the final touch, Nellie signed her square ‘From Mother, To Doris’ and added ‘1934’ in the embellished bonnet.

These muslin and calico blocks remain from the past, reminders of a time when life was different. Athelstan was a farming town and community. Neighbors knew one another. Times were tough, but people stood together.

Time passes. Life happens. Children grow up and have their own families and lives. People move away. Progress continues. Roads are paved. Farms are sold and houses built in their place. Towns are disincorporated.

Yet sometimes, small fragments of the past continue on, outliving the people they were meant to be remembered by.

We invite anyone with an interest in the Athelstan quilt squares to join us for a program and tea. Join us at the Taylor County Historical Museum on Saturday, August 9th at 1:30 p.m.

Please RSVP to Rosalyn Cummings, 712-427-0173, which will help with planning the day’s events.

The Taylor County Historical Museum is located at 1001 Pollock Blvd, Bedford, IA. Phone (712) 523-2041. The hours are 1 pm to 4 pm, every day except Monday.


Do you know any of these people? Do you have any stories about ‘the good ole days’ that you’d like to share? Contact Trisha Faye at




  1. Pingback: Q: Quilting | Bread and Butter Days

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