"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

From the Field:
EXPLAINING ECCENTRICITY: 
THE JOHN BROWN QUILT

By H. Scott Wolfe *

     Autumn is coming to the Upper Mississippi valley. The maples clinging to the river bluffs are beginning to show their flashy colors…the Virginia creepers entwine their trunks like red snakes…and there is the continuous plop of black walnut and hickory nuts on the leaf-strewn forest floors. The wild turkeys are packing their crops with acorns, and every squirrel seems to be carting provisions to stock their winter larders. 
      The air, particularly at night, is becoming quite bracing…while the tinge of smoke is beginning to burn the nostrils. The He-Men of the town are gathering to talk of hunting and to oil their shotguns…while the pumpkins, squash, Osage oranges and stalks of bittersweet are beginning to stock the farmer’s markets. 
     And the tourists…ah, the tourists…are beginning to flock to my historic town. All seek that last respite before the snow begins to swirl. They come, unfortunately for us of a historic turn of mind, not to view our nineteenth-century architecture, visit the home of General/President Ulysses S. Grant, or observe the ghosts of steamboats-past on our river. They come, rather, to visit the local wineries, marinate in hot tubs, populate the day spas, and gorge themselves on Italian food. (Which seems quite foreign to a town which never possessed an Italian immigrant. As they say, “The customer is always right.”)
     
      But to this humble John Brown researcher, autumn means it’s time to bring out the “John Brown Quilt.” Yes, I said the “John Brown Quilt.” This eccentric pursuer of the Old Man and his men must have his toys…and in my study can be found John Brown statuettes, John Brown dolls (one actually given to me dangling from a rope), a John Brown sculpture (replete with a sign asking, “What can Brown do for you?”), and a number of Brown-emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps from businesses ranging from Harper’s Ferry eateries to Lawrence, Kansas breweries. I once ate pancakes at “John Brown’s Family Restaurant” in Nebraska City, Nebraska. They peddled shirts showing the wild-eyed Curry image of the Old Man…but instead of clutching a Sharps rifle and Bible, he toted a tray of breakfast entrees. Such are the joys of capitalism!
     But the cool of autumn means quilts. And the “John Brown Quilt” is a monument to the sewing skills of my long suffering spouse. It’s not easy to be married to a historical researcher. It means numerous vacation stops at obscure cemeteries, battlefields, museums, and record repositories. It means paper-littered kitchen tables, book-covered chairs and a faraway look in one’s eyes when it’s time to take out the garbage.

But my wife has been a loyal trooper. She has soldiered through many of the Brown-related sites stretching from Maine to Kansas. She can recite, with sufficient prodding, most of the names of the members of the Old Man’s Provisional Army. She can recognize and properly identify images of both the Maxson farmhouse in Iowa and the Kennedy farmhouse in Maryland. What a girl!!  My wife is also a historian in her own right…being quite expert in the field of vintage ladies’ clothing and accessories. And being of an old fashioned turn of mind, those newfangled electric sewing machines are verboten in this household. 

So a while back, while she pondered a new sewing project, I suggested she attempt a quilt honoring John Brown and his men. Her agile fingers began to fly with scissors, needle and thread…the classic 30s and 40s movies began to glow on the TV screen (my wife cannot create unless viewing a vintage film)…and Voila!! It was finished.
She had created an appliqué quilt consisting of twenty-five squares, each containing her own representation of the armory fire engine house at Harper’s Ferry. Each square also included the name of one of the men who “marched to the Ferry” with Brown on that fateful October night in 1859. In addition, one square shows “Harpers Ferry 1859,” and another, “Provisional Army…United States.” The accompanying images give several views of this, our family monument to historical eccentricity.
So some people can read John Brown…some write John Brown…some talk John Brown…and some travel and visit John Brown. But how many can SLEEP John Brown? All praise to the John Brown spouses…male and female!! Thanks to all of you…and stay warm and cozy this winter! I myself have visions of some woolen John Brown pajamas. H-m-m, where is she??

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes. 

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