Investigating Signature Quilts:
The 1933-1935 Schuyler County Illinois Album Signature Quilt Story

Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, Illinois



     There is one characteristic about a signature quilt which separates it from crazy, indigos, linsey-woolsey, and myriad other quilt categories out there; with a signature quilt you have the best opportunity to trace it’s roots.

     Via the signatures on the quilt’s top and some investigative skills, you have an excellent chance of learning the history of your quilt and to document the stories of the individuals who had a hand in creating it.  This information, once gathered, is known as a quilt’s provenance.

    Why do it?  The search for a quilt’s provenance will not only be fulfilling fact finding mission for the “quilt detective” who embarks on the journey, but the information gathered, if kept with the artifact, adds to the value of the quilt and a piece of textile history is documented and saved. 


What is a Signature Quilt?

     Unlike a signed quilt, which has only one signature, a signature quilt has multiple names on it. According to the 1995 Pepper Cory and Susan McKelvey book THE SIGNATURE QUILT, these types of quilts fall into one of the following classifications:


Friendship – a signature quilt with the same block pattern repeated throughout the quilt; created by friends or family as a keepsake.


Album – a signature quilt with different block patterns repeated throughout the quilt; created by friends or family as a keepsake


Presentation – a signature quilt made by a group of people to be “presented” to the important person such as a clergymen or teacher to “celebrate a special occasion or a leave taking.”


Fundraising – a signature quilt made to “raise money for causes of interest to the maker/makers” such as hospitals or organizations.



Finding a Signature Quilt

     This antique quilt came to me in March 2003, but not in the usual manner I obtain an antique quilt.  I did not go to a private seller, a quilt broker, an antique quilt shop, an antique mall, or an estate sale; I took a chance and purchased this quilt off of E-bay.

    My maiden name is Parks and one day while I was searching E-bay for a birthday present for my husband, who collects artifacts from the Pre-WWII Hand Corn Husking Contests, I typed “Parks quilt” into the search engine and I was delighted when an antique Schuyler County Illinois Album Signature Quilt from the Rushville, Illinois area popped up on the screen.

     In 2002, I had bid on another E-Bay quilt, a turn-of-the-century Signature Friendship Quilt from the Macomb, Illinois area, which did have the signatures of four of my Parks ancestors on it.  I bid on the Macomb signature quilt hoping to bring a piece of my family’s history back home. At the last minute, I was outbid, but it appeared I was about to get another chance to reclaim a family artifact when the Rushville signature quilt came up for auction.  This time I won the auction.


     Before my father’s people moved to Monroe County, Iowa in the late 19th century, a large branch of the Parks-Carlin family resided near Macomb, Illinois which is about 30 miles from Rushville, Illinois so I had hopes the Algerena Parks on this quilt would be an ancestor of mine.  After some investigation and consultations with our family genealogist who has the Parks family traced back to the English crossing, I discovered the chances of Algerena being a relative were slim, but it was too late, I was hooked and needed to know the history of my Schuyler County Illinois quilt and the stories behind the thirty women who came together to create it.


Setting Research Goals

Before you embark on a research project it is important to decide what it is you wish to accomplish.  My main goal in researching this signature quilt is to tell its’ story.  Along the way I hoped to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Verify it is a Schuyler County Illinois Quilt
  • Date the Quilt
  • Research and document background information on each of the 30 ladies who created and signed the quilt
  • Obtain photographs/scanned images of each of the 30 ladies
  • Document the quilt patterns they choose for their block
  • Discover why these women came together to create this work of art
  • Document and save this quilt’s story


Prep-Work for Researching a Signature Quilt

     You approach researching a signature quilt the same way a genealogist conducts a family history search by creating a plan, making hard copies of EVERYTHING you encounter along the way, and keeping the information you gather in an organized and easy to access fashion.

     I purchased my first of what would become 4 – 2” 3-ring binders, subject dividers with white tabs you can write on, top loaders for items you don’t want to 3-hole punch, and research worksheets I created on my computer. 

    My first worksheet is a vital information sheet, which contains the following information:

Quilt Name:  Schuyler County Illinois Album Signature Quilt

Quilt Date:  Unknown at the time (Research would reveal it was created between 1933-1935)

Acquisition Source:  E-Bay auction – March 2003 – Antique dealer and dealer’s name if you know it.

Quilt Dimension:    72” x 88”

Quilt Block Dimension:  11”

Quilting Sashing Around Each Block: 3” x 11”

Quilt Corner Blocks: 3” x 3”

Quilt Method:  Hand-pieced, Hand quilted - 7” to 8” stitches per inch and quilted in a diagonal fashion in continuous lines ¾” apart.

Quilt Color Scheme:  Backing/Binding – Pink, Sashing – white, Corner blocks – pink, and Quilt Blocks – various colors of material.

Fabric: Cottons

Number of Blocks: 30

Block Patterns:  Sampler (patterns listed on separate worksheet)

Signatures on quilt:  30  (names listed on separate worksheet)

Signing Method: Embroidered signatures – embroidery thread


     The second worksheet is a list of the names of the 30 women who created and signed a block, listed as they appear on the quilt.  Worksheet number 3 is a list of the 30 women’s names and the name of the quilt pattern they used for their block, listed as they appear on the quilt.  My fourth, a family group worksheet, was created when I discovered many of the women on this quilt were related and could be broken into family clusters.

      I took 35 mm photographs of the entire quilt from three different angles and then a photo of each of the 30 signed quilt squares, scanned those photographs into my computer, and saved them to jpeg files.  I did this because I didn’t want to send my original photos out to potential research sources and I could print off copies of these photographs from my computer as many times as I needed them for my mailings.  Using the subject dividers with tabs, I created an individual section in the 3-ring binder for each of the 30 women with their names written on the tabs and put a copy of the photograph of their square in their sections. System set up, I could finally begin the research process.

Researching a Signature Quilt

When doing this type of research work there are three excellent resources available to you: individual, Internet, and organization contacts or research resources.

Internet Contacts

     The Internet is an amazing tool, giving online access to research information and searchable databases without ever having to leave your home.  Don’t have the Internet at home, do not despair, unless you live in a remote location, there is an excellent chance your local library or historical society has it and their doors are always open to researchers.

      Where to begin?  Looking at the names on my signature quilt I turned to Algerena Parks because of her unique first name.  In two different Internet sessions I typed “Algerena Parks” and then “Schuyler County Illinois History” into the search engine Google (http://www.google.com) and up popped a potential list of hits.  The three most promising sites for me with online searchable Schuyler County History databases were:Schuyler County-Illinois GenWeb Site – Robin Peterson - Coordinator

(http://www.rootsweb.com/~ilschuyl/), Illinois Trails History and Genealogy Site – Sara Hemp – Coordinator (http://www.iltrails.org/schuyler/), and Rootsweb Site – Schuyler County – Greg L. Croxton Family History Site (http://www.rootsweb.com).

     Through a “Surname Page” on the Schuyler County-Illinois GenWeb Site, I e-mailed the people listed under the last names similar to those appearing on my quilt.  I e-mailed the 5 people listed under Tomlinson asking if they were related to Grace Tomlinson and kept this up until I had searched through the entire list of 30 women who had signed the quilt.  Through this source, I struck up an e-mail/letter correspondence with ancestors/family history researchers who would help me take my research to the next level.  I owe more than I can say to Louann Cameron, Kraig Tomlinson and the entire Tomlinson Family, Kelley (Bedenbender) Thompson, Lynn Headley, Leslie Ward, John Armel, and Greg Croxton, and Iva Peters, who took more than a passing interest in my project.

     I also discovered four more general Internet sites with searchable databases: Rootsweb Site – Home Page (http://www.rootsweb.com) Free Site, Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints Site (http://www.familysearch.org.) Free Site, Illinois State Archives Site (http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/archives/databases.html) Free Site (check your state for their archive site), and Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/)

This site has a membership fee and searchable census records 1840, 1860, 1880, 1920, and 1930, which are valuable research tools for finding information. When working with the census records, be aware name and spellings can vary from census year to census year (e.g. Algerena Parks, in one census might be listed as A Parks in another).  Some people might even go by their first name in 1920 and their middle name in 1930 or the maiden name in 1880 and their married name in 1920.  There is also another factor to consider when dealing with censuses, some of these individuals were first generation Americans, so depending on who gave the census taker the information and if the census taker recorded the name information correctly, name variations are something a potential researcher needs to be aware of.

Individual Contacts

    Writing the dealer who sold me the quilt on E-bay a detailed e-mail about my research project, I requested any additional information she had on the quilt.  With her help I discovered the quilt came from the Eldora (Cady) Green estate in Rushville, Illinois.  The quilt had been stored in a trunk with three others and had originally belonged to her parents Reverend Harold Milton Cady and his wife Mabel (Calvert) Cady.

    Placing an ad in the largest newspaper in Schuyler County THE RUSHVILLE TIMES with a description of my research project, the names of the ladies on the quilt, and my contact information, I asked people to contact me if they knew any of these ladies. With photos, obituaries, family stories, and relative contacts the information started pouring in. Individuals who no longer lived in Rushville, Illinois, but still got their hometown newspaper, were sending information to me on behalf of their ancestor too.

    Through the efforts of Lenora Stivers, Letha Gillette, Lillian Hoover, Neva Peak, Julia Hynek, Josh Brierton and Family, Portia Brierton,  Christine Payne, and others, who contacted me via e-mail, phone calls, or letters offering information or pointing me in a direction, my research was growing by leaps and bounds.

     Several people, who contacted me with short notes, shared one very important piece of information; one of the ladies on the quilt was living. As of 2004, Wilma (Gaddis) Long is in her nineties and living in a nursing home, but due to health issues Wilma was unable to help me with any information about the quilt.

Organization Contacts

     Once you discover the origin of your quilt, the next step is to contact organizations in the county the quilt came from.  Where do you start?

My favorite place is the public library.  I sent a letter to the Rushville Public Library, Rushville, Illinois explaining my research project and asking them for their advice on the best place to start my research in their county.  They recommended the Schuyler County Historical Museum-Restored Jail and Genealogical Center, 200 S. Congress, Rushville, Illinois 62681.  You want to know something about Schuyler County history and genealogy; these are the people to see. As of 2004, they are not computerized, but have  excellent in-house reference materials and have compiled “subject” booklets for researchers about vital records for Schuyler County, Illinois concerning marriages, cemetery listings, etc which can be purchased through the mail.  The 1918 PRAIRIE FARMER RELIABLE DIRECTORY OF FARMERS AND BREEDERS OF BROWN AND SCHUYER COUNTY is a listing of Schuyler County Illinois farmers, their wives by first and maiden names, their children, and the location of their farm.  This directory was an excellent helpmate to me after discovering the majority of the women on my signature quilt were farm wives.  The Schuyler County Courthouse – County Clerk Office in Rushville, Illinois was another valuable tool; for a fee you can obtain birth, marriage, and death certificates.  Certificates no longer housed at the courthouse were found at one of the Illinois IRAD Depositories at the University Library, Western Illinois University, 1 University Circle, Macomb, Illinois 61455-1390.  You contact the WIU – IRAD Department with an information request and a graduate student or WIU staff member looks up the information you need – they do not charge for research, but they do charge for copies (http://www.sos.state.il.us/departments/archives/irad/wiu.html)

     As my research progressed I would also contact the following organizations:  Schuyler County Churches, Schuyler/Cass County Unit Office of the University of Illinois Extension, Cass County Courthouse – County Clerk Office, Brown County Courthouse – County Clerk Office, Quilt History List – Kris Driessen – Site Coordinator – an online quilt study group, and various Schuyler County Women’s groups whose organizations can be traced back to the 1920’s and 30’s.

Research Results

     As of January 2005, several of my research goals have been met.  This quilt is from Schuyler County Illinois and created by women in Bainbridge, Camden, Rushville, and Woodstock Townships.  It has an approximate date of 1933-1935 verified by the fact Gladys (Tomlinson) Gaddis was married in 1933 and Bessie (Walker) Shaver passed away in 1935.  Like me, the majority of these 30 ladies were farm-women with the exception of Mamie (Fey) Howard, who was a school teacher who lived on a farmstead with her husband, who was an automobile salesman during the Depression. 

   My information on Alice (Hainline) Stout is very sketchy, I haven’t been able to find conclusive information on the identity of Iva Davis, and I might never know the name of one quiltmaker who only signed her name with three letters “Ora” or “Ara”.  Of the 30 women on this quilt, I have ten “scanned” photographs so far – Grace (Haber) Tomlinson, Amadore (Kelly) Bedenbender, Gladys (Tomlinson) Gaddis, Agnes (Young) Walker, (Sarah) Florence Ward, Ruth (Milby) Ward, Laura (Tyson) Ward, Margaret (Lashbrook), Mary (Strong) Armel, and Martha (Rinehart) Ward.

     There are several family groups and multi-generations within these family groups who contributed to creating this quilt.  As of 2004 Wilma Gaddis (Wilma (Gaddis) Long), is the lone surviving quiltmaker.  My first 3-ring binder has expanded to four as I continue to discover new information about each of these quiltmakers and add it to their individual sections.    



     Anyone with additional information about Mary (Strong) Armel, Elva (Clayton) Avery, Hattie (Miller) Avery, (Mary) Amadore (Kelly) Bedenbender, Lizzie (Kelly) (Fey) Bedenbender, Lorene (Ashbaker) Bedenbender,  Iva Davis, Nona (Yates) Davis, Bertha (Stambach) Gaddis, Gladys (Tomlinson) Gaddis,  Mamie (Fey) Howard, Margaret (Lashbrook) Lawson, Viola (Pippenger) Lee, Wilma (Gaddis) Long, Algerena (Isabell) (Shannon) Parks, Louise (Schramm) Persinger, Minnie (Illman) Persinger, Eva (Crawford) Pippenger, Nellie (Shannon) Rinehart, Bessie (Walker) Shaver, Alice (Hainline) Stout, Amy (Kendall) (Paisley) Taylor, Grace (Haber) Tomlinson, Agnes (Young) Walker, (Sarah) Florence Ward, Laura (Tyson) Ward,  Martha (Rinehart) Ward, Ruth (Milby) Ward, and Nettie (Ayers) Warrington, who lived in Schuyler County Illinois between 1933 and 1935 are welcome to contact me: Susan Wildemuth, 18621 US Highway 6, Atkinson, Illinois 61235, 309-936-7455, ksandbcw@geneseo.net. 

     I have not discovered why this quilt was created and whether these ladies got together and quilted on a regular basis.  Many people have sent me their “theories,” but so far I have not been able to verify them with concrete evidence. My research of this quilt is not over, I’m collecting and hope to continue collecting various “oral histories” and concrete information about the women who participated in making this quilt via their ancestors, family friends, and neighbors, and I hope, one day, to have this wonderful artifact’s complete story.