Bread and Butter Days
by Trisha Faye


Many American women quilted their way through life. Especially in the days following the Great Depression.

BBD_athelstan signThe women and girls from Athelstan, Iowa were no different. Quilts to stay warm. Quilts to bring beauty. Quilts as a community activity, joining the women together in a creative and useful activity.

When the women and young girls sat down in 1934 to create blocks with Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Bill (or Sam), I doubt they knew what would happen 80 years later, long after they were gone. Little did they know then, that a set of 30 blocks would remain together for so many years. They sat, stacked in a pile. Doris married. Doris raised a family. Doris moved to the California desert, where she died in 2005.

Families usually don’t keep all of Grandma’s possessions. Much ends up being passed along. To friends and neighbors. Local thrift stores. Local charities. Alas, much ends up in yard sales, as these quilt blocks did. One day, around 2005, I stumbled upon this set of blocks, nestled in amongst three quilt tops at a yard sale in Palm Springs, California. It took several years to discover where the names on the square originated. The names led to a small, now disincorporated, town of Athelstan, Iowa.

Another four years of talking to the Taylor County Historical Museum finally culminated in a get together at the museum. Seventy five people attended a program to view these quilt squares from the past, many of them from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and other family members.

Stories were shared. Photographs were passed around. People met each other, hugged, chatted and shared memories.

Carol LaChapelle wrote, in Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories, “… people die twice: when they physically die, and when we stop telling stories about them.” The stories shared that day, and in the days surrounding this visit, have kept these women’s memories alive.

GAK_Leona Mae ByrnsOne of the questions (among many!) that arose was about an Athelstan quilting group. Leona Stephenson, Leona Mae Byrns at the time, was 18 months old, according to the square her mother, Eva Marie Byrns, made for her. Leona recalled her mother being in a quilting guild. That was as much as we knew at the time.

Until … Helen Janson and her daughter, Jeanne Janson walked in. Helen, the past museum director, was initially involved with discussions about bringing the quilt squares to the museum. Helen and Jeanne researched past copies of The Bedford Times Press from 1934 and found five days where the newspaper mentioned the Athelstan quilting group.

BBD_Bedford Times PressDuring the presentation, I read one of the articles, but not all of them. In the flurry of activity that afternoon I didn’t read them all, until after the program was over and everyone had gone their separate ways. Reading the other articles, I realized that I was remiss in not reading them all during the program. These little snippets are fascinating and shed a brighter light on the Athelstan women and their quilting activities.

Helen and Jeanne discovered the following snippets that show the importance that quilting played in the lives of the Iowa women in 1934. And now, more than just the people that were at the gathering can also enjoy the history of the women and this tiny town.

Thursday, September 6, 1934
FORM NEW CLUB Elect Officers – Harriett Frazier is President
A group of Athelstan ladies have formed a new club, which will be known as “The Stitch and Chatter Club”. The following officers were elected: President, Harriet Frazier; vice president, Alma Lyons; secretary, Katie Kemery; treasurer, Katie Fidler. Mrs. Frazier was hostess to the club today, September 6.     …

The ladies of Athelstan and vicinity finished the second of two quilts Friday they had pieced and quilted for the F.S. Fidler family who lost their household goods by fire recently.

Thursday, October 18, 1934
Club Knots Comforts
The Stitch and Chatter club met Thursday at the home of Mrs. Ida Bownes. The afternoon was spent in knotting comforts. Mrs. Marjorie Book became a new member of the club. Mrs. Hilda Rusco will be hostess at the next meeting.

Thursday, November 15, 1934
Club has Quilting
The Stitch and Chatter club met with Mrs. Jennie Rusco Thursday. The day was spent in quilting. Guests were Ruby Jenkins, who became a new member of the club, Mrs. O.P. Pettigrew and Ethel Sickles. The next meeting will be with Mrs. Ida King.
Donate to Church
The ladies of the Stitch and Chatter club served lunch and dinner election day, clearing twenty dollars which will be applied to the fund to repair the Athelstan Baptist Church.

Thursday, November 29, 1934
Ladies Clean Church
The ladies of the Stitch and Chatter club, who had the Athelstan Baptist church repaired recently, met Tuesday afternoon and again Friday and cleaned the church.
Club Has Quilting
The Stitch and Chatter club met at the home of Violet Woods Thursday. Fourteen members were present. The afternoon was spent in quilting. An all day meeting will be held at the home of Bess Rusco, Friday Nov. 30.

Thursday, December 13, 1934
Mrs. Rusco Entertains
The Stitch and Chatter club met at the home of Bess Rusco, Thursday, Dec. 6. The day was spent in quilting. Verne Books and Mrs. J.D. Brown were guests. Mrs. Ruby Treece will be the next hostess.

Many thanks to Helen and Jeanne Janson for their time in researching this and adding this piece of history to the story of the people of Athelstan.


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