ASHLAND -- Because paper then was so fragile, Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell began a graveyard quilt top of the cemetery in Woodsfield, Monroe County, Ohio, where two of her sons were buried.
It was the best way she knew to make sure the family, which was leaving Ohio to go to Kentucky, would not forget the location of the final resting place for her boys, John V. Mitchell and Mathias (Bub) Mitchell.
The year was 1836.
Against all odds, the fragile quilt top has survived and is in the permanent collection at the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland.
To honor the Appalachian tradition of graveyard quilts, and the Mitchell family's love for family and its heirlooms, the quilt lives on for all to see. Denise Spaulding and her team at Make A Scene Murals just finished up a quilt block mural of the textile on Ashland's floodwall.
Located behind the historic depot and next to the "Salute to Veterans" quilt block, this is the 13th quilt block that is part of the ABC (Ashland, Boyd County and Catlettsburg) Quilt Alley that paints quilt patterns on barns, buildings and floodwalls.
The Quilt Alley is part of the National Quilt Barn trail that was founded in Adams County, Ohio, by Donna Sue Groves to honor her home and long-time quilter, Nina Maxine Green Groves.
Measuring about the size of a king-sized quilt (113 inches by 138 inches), the Mitchell quilt project was paid for in part with an Arts Builds Communities grant through the Kentucky Arts Council. Other support came from the Boyd County Extension Service, the city of Ashland, the ABC Quilt Alley volunteers and others.
Made at a time when quilts were one of the few ways for a woman to tell her story and her family's history, the quilt and now the quilt block tell an important part of history, said ABC Quilt Alley coordinator Nancy Osborne.
"What is amazing is that she started this quilt because they did not have pictures," Osborne said. "Her daughters Sarah and Elizabeth helped on the quilt, they did some of the cross-stitch, so they worked on it and it was a way of grieving and remembering. It was a way to get through it. They were moving to Kentucky and they didn't know if they would go back."
Osborne said her group is excited to share the quilt top and its story with the community since the original, the second oldest textile owned by the Highlands Museum, is so fragile and is rarely on display.
The last time it was displayed was a national Quilt Trail conference in November.
"That is why we wanted to do it and why the Kentucky Arts Council supported it," Osborne said. "That quilt is 172 years old and it's really fragile, almost crumbling. So now people can see what it would look like and it looks really good. They reproduced it like it would have looked if it was new. It was as close as we could get to being the real quilt."
Interestingly, the quilt top was set aside by its maker because she felt like it had flaws and wasn't big enough.
The finished quilt would have been laid across a body and then after burial, hung over a chair during mourning.
The quilts were then passed down to family members like a family Bible to keep records and the family's history.
Like paper, the fragile nature of textiles means that this Mitchell quilt and another she made are two of the oldest American examples of graveyard quilts.
Mitchell ended up making a bigger graveyard quilt that included her 11 children and the names of all 13 members of her family.
That quilt was donated to the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Ky., in 1959 by Nina Aura Mitchell Biggs, who wanted a permanent home for her grandmother's quilt. It is one of the top visited artifacts at the museum.
The quilt was also preserved for time and eternity in Linda Otta Lipsett's book, "The Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell's Graveyard Quilt: An American Pioneer Saga."
It was when Lipsett was in the area researching the book that she discovered that the Highlands quilt top was related to the Kentucky Historical Society quilt.
Jo Ann Biggs West, the quilter's great-great-granddaughter, had donated the quilt top to the Highlands Museum in Ashland in the 1980s.
Melanie Osborne, who has helped Spaulding paint murals in both Catlettsburg and Ashland, said they were all touched by the story of the quilt top, which was made in part from clothes that belonged to Mitchell's sons.
"What made it neat, too, was part of the quilt top was made from the children's clothing," Melanie said. "I think that it is very touching that someone would do that."
Osborne said she hopes other folks will come forward and sponsor murals of other special quilts important to their families for the Ashland flood wall quilt blocks that could run from the Depot toward the now green-and-blue Ohio River bridges.
"People can now see it and know that this is how the women spoke then by putting things onto their quilts," Osborne said. "She (Elizabeth) spoke through her quilt...We want people to view it as a beautiful part of our history."
A flood of history
The Ashland Riverfront has added another quilt block to its floodwall murals.
Here's a little more about the murals, the mural painting team and the quilt they painted:
WHAT: A floodwall mural of the Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell graveyard quilt top from 1836.
WHERE: The Ashland Boat Ramp, on the floodwall behind the historic depot.
WHO DID IT: Denise Spaulding and her Make A Scene Mural Team (fellow Pendleton Art Center artists Melanie Osborne and Gary Preston) and other volunteers primed, sanded and then painted the 13th quilt block now on display as part of the ABC (Ashland-Boyd County-Catlettsburg) Quilt Alley. Three more quilt blocks are going up this summer.
WHAT'S NEXT: Denise Spaulding's Make A Scene Mural team is now headed to Catlettsburg this summer to paint murals of the old Highlands Farm Dairy (that used to be near where the Marathon Refinery sits) and the Christian Church that was demolished for the Boyd County Courthouse. They will also do some touch-up work on the riverboat mural as well.
MORE ABOUT THE QUILT: The Highlands Museum and Discovery Center, 1620 Winchester Ave., houses the 1836 quilt top, which is rarely on display. The museum store sells Linda Otta Lipsett's book, "The Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell's Graveyard Quilt: An American Pioneer Saga."
ON THE WEB: Visit www.herald-dispatch.com for more photos of the Ashland Floodwall murals.