I’m not a quilter. Susan is, though, and that’s why we attended the Minot Historical Society’s Civil War Days on Saturday, July 27: to hear Connie Benwitz talk about Underground Railroad quilts.
Little did I know how much I would enjoy a program about quilting!
The weekend featured re-enactors from Co. A, 3rd Maine Infantry; Co. E, 5th Connecticut Infantry; and Co. G, 15th Alabama Infantry camping at the historical society’s home, the “Historical House” at 493 Center Minot Hill Road. Built around 1830, the house served as a parsonage for a church located diagonally across the road. Reverend Elijah Jones, his wife Bathsheba, and their children moved into the house immediately after its completion.
The Center Minot Cemetery lies across the road.
A Minot resident and a member of West Minot Grange 42, Benwitz is well known for her quilting and artistic skills. In 2012, she won first place in a Maine State Grange competition with a paper-piece wall hanging depicting a wintry scene in which a horse-drawn sleigh moved past a traditional Maine farmhouse. Benwitz’s art competed at the Big E in Massachusetts that September and took a red ribbon for second place.
In 2013 Benwitz took first place in the Division A Class Quilts in the CWA Contest sponsored by the Maine State Grange.
Early Saturday afternoon, people gathered outside the tree-shaded front entrance to the Historical House for Benwitz’s talk. Referring to the books Hidden in Plain View and The Underground Pattern, Benwitz displayed various quilt patterns affiliated with the Underground Railroad. She explained their individual messages.
According to the folktale (and some modern historians dispute it), mid-19th century whites operating “safe houses” for escaping slaves would hang quilts on fence rails or other visible locations. The slaves watched for these quilts, because particular quilt patterns relayed pertinent messages that might spell the difference between capture and freedom.
For example, the Wagon Wheel pattern meant “get your things together” and carry just enough stuff so the slave and belongings could hide in a wagon bottom, Benwitz said. The Shoofly pattern marked “a safe house.”
Usually clad in tattered farm clothing, slaves were easily recognized, she noted. The Bow Tie pattern meant that at a particular house, slaves could obtain better clothing to help them blend better into society.
Benwitz held up a square depicting the “Drunkard’s Path,” resembling two jagged lightning bolts crossing each other. This pattern warned slaves to zigzag rather than travel in a straight direction, perhaps to avoid slave catchers suddenly operating in the area.
The quilters in the audience listened with rapt attention as Benwitz spoke. A pattern called Follow The North Star was a directional pattern, as were the patterns called Birds In The Air and Jacob’s Ladder.
The Bear’s Paw pattern supposedly warned escaping slaves to follow the path of the bear, especially in southern mountains. The Log Cabin pattern originally had a red square at its center; according to Benwitz, a black center square meant a particular place was a safe house.
“A lot of messages were transmitted between groups by black churches,” particularly in the North, Benwitz said. Fugitive slaves especially wanted to reach Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan, cities that offered good access to Canada.
The peak years for the Underground Railroad were 1830 to 1865, Benwitz said.
To close her program, she unfolded a large, intricate Civil War quilt that she had sewn. Gasps of admiration erupted from audience members. Explaining that “each pattern tells a story about the Civil War,” Benwitz held up the book Civil War Sampler (written by Barbara Brackman) and opened it to pages providing the names and stories of particular patterns.
Susan thoroughly enjoyed the quilting program — and I did, too … unbelievable!
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.