Monday, July 6, 2015

The Des Moines, Iowa Quilt War

© Kathy Duncan, 2015

I was wondering what made quilts newsworthy in the nineteenth century, so I went to a newspaper database and simply used the keyword "quilt" and narrowed my search by decades. After skimming through several articles, besides those listing premiums at various fairs and competitions, one of three factors seemed to make quilts noteworthy: 1.) the number of pieces in a quilt, 2.) the age of a quilt, or 3.) the age of the quilter.

The quilt of Orpha Adkinson (Adkison) of Madison County, Iowa drew considerable attention in 1868. It started out simply enough with a notice that her quilt of 3,150 pieces had more pieces than a recently reported California quilt that contained 550 pieces. 

The Daily Iowa State Register of Des Moines, Iowa dutifully reported the exhibition of Orpha's quilt with an added twist. Note that the California quilt is reported as having 2,600 pieces which is more believable since 550 pieces seems more like an average quilt. The twist, though, is in the editor's attitude - he believes that making elaborate quilts is a waste of time, advocating that women make a comfort instead. He does, though, grudgingly express in the "fair lassie" of Madison County who made the quilt.

Within a couple of weeks, a farmer wrote to the Daily Iowa State Register to claim that an unnamed woman in Jasper County had made a quilt of 3,780 pieces. The editor's response is that the girl in Jasper County would be better off making utility quilts "instead of fooling away so much time on one."

The matter did not drop there. Two weeks later, on Octpber 20th, a quilt with 7,010 pieces turned up in Decatur.

Within the same article, the editor reposed that he did not "want any quilt kivering us, which is red with the blood of murdered time." He criticizes the "girl who will wear out a bundle of years and a gross of needles in making such quilts."

Finally, on November 7th, the last comment in the Des Moines "war of quilts" was made.

But what of Orpha Adkinson, the "fair lassie" who was the brunt of this war against intricate quilting? When she submitted her quilt to the Des Moines, Iowa fair in 1868, she was 16 years old. One would guess that she had probably started her quilt at least two years before. 

Orpha Susan Adkinson, daughter of Andrew J and Annie (Wilcox) Adkinson, was born 6 September 1852 in Illinois. Her mother was the widow of Preble when her parents married in 1846. They moved to Vermillion County in 1847, where Orpha was born. Her family moved to Winterset, Madison County, Iowa in 1856. In 1860 and 1870, she appears on the census in her parents' household in Winterset, Madison County, Iowa. I have not located her in 1880. When she appears on the 1885 census with her parents, she is classified as divorced, but is using Adkinson as her last name. On 12 November 1874, an Orpha S. Adkinson married Henry C. McMillen in Madison County, Iowa. I have not found a divorce record for this couple yet. 

In 1892, Orpha's mother died after twisting her ankle on her walk home from church. This caused the long bone of her leg to break. She died two weeks later. In 1894, her father died after a lengthy illness. In 1895, Orpha is found in her sister Annie Witherall's household. In 1895, she is still listed as divorced.

By 1910, Orpha is living with a nephew, Warren Benge, still in Madison County, but now she is termed a widow. In 1920, she is with her sister Eudora Benge. In 1920, Orpha's last name is Adkison, and she is once again designated as divorced and is still in Winterset, Iowa. Orpha last appears on the 1930 census as a lodger in Murrell household in Winterset and is once again listed a widow.

Orpha S. Adkinson began teaching by 1885. She was active in her church. She seems to have married only once and was never publicly associated with quilting again. One can not help but wonder if the quilt war discouraged her from continuing her quilting or if she stopped entering her quilts in fairs.

Orpha S. Adkinson died on 3 September 1934 and is buried in the Winterset City Cemetery, where her parents are interred. Her obituary appeared in The Winterset Madisonian on 6 September 1934:

Winterset Woman was Leader in fields of Religion and Education

Orpha Adkison, prominent Madison county woman, died at the home of Mrs. Fred Murrell on Sep 3 after an illness of about a year. Had she lived until Friday of this week she would have been 83 years old. 

Miss Adkison has long been identified with educational and religious activities, both here and elsewhere. She was a veteran member of the Madison county W.C.T.U., being one of its first secretaries. She spent several years on the Woman's Mission board at Dayton, Ohio, and for eight years she taught in a school for Indian children at Clamath Falls, Washington. Most of her life,however was spent in Truro and Winterset.

Orpha Adkison was born on September 6, 1851, in Vermillion county, Illinois, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Adkison, with whom she came to this county at an early age. Here she affiliated with the Christian church, but a few years ago she changed to the Church of Christ.

The deceased is survived by three nephews, B.M. Benge of Grand Junction, Colorado, Harry Adkison of Long Beach, California, and W.P. Benge of Winterset.

Funeral services were conducted from the Tidrick funeral home Wednesday at 2 p.m. under the Rev. H.L. Olmstead, of the Church of Christ. Burial was made at Winterset.

Other souces:
Obituary of A.J. Adkison
Obituary of Mrs. Anner Adkison

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