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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

DeWitt County Museum adorns a historic home with quilts — and the stories they tell

Each June, the DeWitt County Museum in Clinton has stunning textiles tucked in every nook and cranny. Handmade quilts adorn century-old furniture in the stately Victorian home once owned by C.H. Moore.

Quilted Keepsakes has been an annual attraction for decades, a quilt show and competition culled from the DeWitt County Museum's collection and community contributions loaned to them for the month.

“In fact, a couple years ago we had one lady that was just putting the final stiches in when she loaned the quilt to us,” museum director Joey Long said. “These ladies create these amazing pieces of art.”

Long’s favorite quilts are family heirlooms, on display after years—or decades—in storage. They’ve never turned away a quilt, even if it’s in suboptimal condition.

“Bringing it out here and letting us display it for a month gives an opportunity for everyone to admire what that lady created and realize how resourceful they had to be,” Long said.

Visitors are invited to vote for their favorite quilt, with the winner awarded “Best in Show” for the year. Sometimes, the most tattered are among the most popular.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to share your family heirloom, which is usually passed down with a story, which represents a person,” Long said.

A cozy study features a green felt-topped desk with papers and a letter opener, surrounded by wooden bookshelves. Quilts with intricate patterns hang on a wall and drape over the desk. There's a wicker chair, a globe, and a wooden rocking chair in the room.
Emily Bollinger
C.H. Moore's original library desk, center, adorned by a quilt, was stored until the DeWitt County Museum took up occupancy in his home in the 1960s. It had been rented prior to that and they renovated one room at a time with money raised from the Apple and Pork Festival. Museum Director Joey Long said the marble fireplaces had been painted purple when they moved in.

Secret messages in quilts

Pre-Civil War folklore says quilts were used by abolitionists as a secret code signaling directions and resources on the Underground Railroad.

On Sunday, storyteller Connie Martin is scheduled to give a talk on the topic, sharing replicas of patterns thought to send messages to enslaved people traveling north to freedom—and her personal familial connection to the Underground Railroad.

“It was such a common thing to have quilts,” said Long, suggesting that the placement of quilts was also used to send messages.

“You need to wash your quilt and hang it on the fence or wash your quilt and hang it on the line,” she said. “It was just a part of life. It’s a utilitarian thing. I’m sure it was one of those things where you can’t see the forest through the trees, where these people were giving these coded directions to those that were fleeing North.”

DeWitt County connection

Martin’s talk, titled Pre-Civil War Quilts: Secret Codes to Freedom on the Underground Railroad, was years in the making, as part of Illinois Humanities’ Road Scholar initiative bringing arts and culture programming to communities across the state.

Long—who for decades wrote a newspaper column on DeWitt County history culled from C.H. Moore’s newspaper archives—ensures every program at the museum has a local connection.

“While this is the big picture of history, it does pertain to DeWitt County,” she said.

Like C.H. Moore, Eliza Ann Argo was among the first white settlers in DeWitt County. Originally from Ohio, her obituary states that her parents were slave owners who “at the beginning of the anti-slavery movement, liberated their slaves.”

Argo and her husband were abolitionists whose house on Railroad Street on what was then the east edge of Clinton was a stop on the Underground Railroad. She had five sons and a daughter. Argo died in April 1899 at age 83.

“As a mother, she instilled into the lives of her sons that true patriotism possessed by abolitionists,” reads her obituary in The Clinton Public. “When the war of rebellion broke out she bade all her sons go and fight for freedom. Four enlisted, but of that number only two were accepted.”

Pre-Civil War Quilts: Secret Codes to Freedom on the Underground Railroad takes place at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 9, at the DeWitt County Museum at the C.H. Moore Homestead, 219 East Woodlawn St., Clinton. The talk is free and open to the public. Quilted Keepsakes will be on display through June 30. General admission to the museum is $5.

Updated: June 7, 2024 at 7:56 AM CDT
This story has been corrected to contextualize that scholars disagree about the veracity of hidden codes communicated in quilts prior to the Civil War.
Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.