Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Cut-Throat Competition in Kentucky #1


Kentucky embroidered quilt

Years ago when Merikay Waldvogel and I drove through Kentucky looking for information on the Kentucky winner of the 1933 World's Fair quilt prize we were struck by how the older ladies bragged on Kentucky quilts. Kentuckians seemed to have the reputation for America's best quilts.

I thought I'd revisit that idea after I noticed this reprint of an 1881 Missouri fair account.

 "Articles exhibited by the ladies [at the Buchanan County Fair] ...would reflect credit upon the best fairs in Kentucky."

Apparently Kentucky was the gold standard.

That confirmed an idea our mentor Cuesta Benberry used to expound upon. Kentucky Fairs were the most competitive arena in quilts and Kentucky quiltmakers would enter and win fairs all over the country. You did not want to find them competing with you in Missouri, Indiana or Tennessee.

With all the current internet access to newspapers and genealogy I have identified a few women I wouldn't want to see coming at the AQS show in Paducah (which my friends and I are going to win hands down in the group quilts category whenever it's held again).

I'm going to focus over the next few days on the years 1885-1900.

Let's see if we can identify some of the talented competitors in Kentucky at the end of the 19th century. Those years were the heyday of the embroidered silk quilt, with American mills selling scraps of their relatively inexpensive silks cheap.

1892 ad in Ivanhoe, Kansas newspaper

Kentuckians, however, had been making heavily embroidered quilts on silk and wool for decades before they became a nationwide fad. Kentucky needleworkers really seem to have specialized in a regional style, particularly in the Bluegrass County around Lexington, great farmland full of successful families. Lexington thought itself quite the sophisticated Western city in the mid-19th-century. They had money, access to good schools, imported fabric and an attitude (attitude perhaps exemplified best by native Mary Todd Lincoln.)

Looking at the newspaper fair accounts we find several Kentuckians mentioned over and over. One is Lida Finnell.

In 1893 she won first in the Worsted (wool) Quilt
category at the Central Kentucky Fair.

Perhaps with this wool embroidered crazy quilt...

which also took first at the 1890 Lexington fair.
Miss Lida Finnell was about 23 in 1890.

And in 1891
Her name was hard to spell. It's not Leonta.

This must be her prize-winning quilt, which fortunately is well-identified
in the Smithsonian's collection although they were given her name as Lydia when
it was donated by a relative in 1996.
"Lydia Pearl Finnell was born March 3, 1867, to William and Sarah Irvine Finnell in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. At the age of three, she was sent to live with her Aunt Lize (Eliza Finnell Terhune) and Uncle Boley (William Terhune). They taught her the social graces as well as housekeeping skills, cooking, animal husbandry, and some rudimentary doctoring skills. At the age of 14 or 15 she attended Daughters College in Harrodsburg, where she received an excellent education for the time. This included plain and fancy needlework and the fine arts of canvas and china painting. Lydia married Bushrod Allin (1871-1942) of Harrodsburg on November 8, 1899."

Her husband's obituary spells her name as Lyde, as does her tombstone. She was born and lived in Harrodsburg, a town in the Blue Grass region. Father Bush Allin was a successful politician and lawyer and the Terhunes must have been well-to-do also if they could afford to send her to Daughters College.

Harrodsburg is in Mercer County (pink above), ten miles south of Lexington,
the heart of the Bluegrass country.

The 1880 census found Lida Finnell 13 years old living with her adopted parents the Terhunes and servant Mary Nelson and her two children.

Her grave: 

Tomorrow, another competitor from Harrodsburg.

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