I was never surprised at the abilities of my paternal ancestors.
These people born in the mid-1800s were from the mountains and had learned artistic and survival ways long before I was born. What actually surprised me was the fact that something that had been made in the early 1900s would be coming to me.
Before revealing the gift of heritage, I want to reveal something about the generation of my grandparents, especially of my grandmother and her multi-talented sisters.
These ladies were born into a large family in the mountains of nearby Gilmer County. This was before any towns were developed, and it was a do-it-yourself situation for survival. This generation farmed and raised their own meat and made their own clothing. They did not waste anything, and the ladies learned their handwork abilities from their mother. They raised their own sheep for wool and dyed cloth with seed pods, leaves and other things from nature.
To bring this story closer to the present, after years of survival, most of this family moved into town in the late 1800s and began their gifted works. There were two men in this family, and one became a doctor in our town and established the first pharmacy, while the other became a businessman with a car dealership. This family came to our twin-city town of Copperhill, Tennessee to begin their work in the early 1900s when this was a copper mining town in its infancy.
My grandmother, Nancy Malinda Akins Holden (1875-1955), had already married as well as another sister Zona, while her two sisters, Myra and Edith Akins, like their brothers, began a business. To my knowledge, these were the first ladies ever to be in business by themselves in this town. This was a rare situation during this time period. These women never married, and my Great-Aunt Edith died years later leaving my Great-Aunt Myra to run the business and operate a boarding house. It was on this same boarding house property that some years ago I had an antiques business, thus making my heritage even more meaningful.
It was no surprise that they opened a millinery shop near main street in Copperhill. There they made beautiful cloth and velvet hats for the ever-demanding ladies of that era. They also did quilting, crocheting, tatting, and other popular artistic work. This was a lucrative business in that era.
As I was writing this story, a friend of mine posted on Facebook some 1931 newspaper ads for businesses during that time. Among these was the ad for the Hat Shop. “Ladies and Misses hats, gloves, hose, notions, picoting, embroidery, tatting, Edith Akins.”
Not only did they do for the community, they worked hard for their church, too. During this time they embroidered the names of local people on a spread for 25 cents each. The purpose was to raise the money for the pews in the new First Baptist Church building.
I knew this piece existed somewhere in the family. After years of searching I located this priceless spread in the home of another relative, and it had been lost to us for about 70 years. It has about 415 names of locals and is now approximately 100 years old. The workers were excited, and it now has a permanent home in our church Heritage Room inside an antique glass case. My heritage had come home again.
Now, it was in that shop that my own heritage gift had its beginning. Naturally, they had scraps of velvet and other cloth left as they cut away for these stylish hats. Now, what to do? My grandmother, being the artistic and frugal person that she was, saw a use and began her work.
In the early 1900s she gathered scraps and pieces, and in her visionary mind she wanted to turn it into a beautiful quilt Which she made later into a masterpiece. Her artistic work began when she cut small pieces from the hat scraps. The colors were not vivid but included many bright colors. Most quilts are made by cutting squares or a certain pattern, but she made this one from several sized squares, rectangles, diamonds, strips, or whatever would fit from the scraps. This was called a crazy quilt, which I am sure was difficult to assemble.
Because of family work and care, this was not quilted until the early 1930s during the Great Depression. During this time when my father had lost his job along with thousands, we had to live with my grandparents when I was about 2 years old. At this time my mother watched her mother-in-law do the quilting stitches. When I asked why she used an unusual color for the lining, the reply was that she was lucky to have a piece that big because she could not afford to buy material.
Normally, quilting stitches are done with tiny thread stitches in a line across the seam. My artistic grandmother took embroidery threads and did fancy stitches to make the quilt even more beautiful and valuable. It was said that she had no idea nor pattern to go by but simply let her fingers decide the kind of stitch which came in the next square. There are hundreds of made-up stitch patterns across this huge quilt. Winter times were slower on the farm, money was not even a spending consideration, and this was truly a joy and pastime for my grandmother.
I can see her in my mind as she sat with a quilt frame attached to the ceiling, always close to the fireplace in the living room, and with only a light from the old oil lamp. She probably dipped into her scrap threads each time her needle was empty and was excited at the color she found to match. I’ve seen her quilting so I know how she enjoyed this artistic ability. As with other handmade items, when finished this was put away for safekeeping. As far as I know, I did not know it existed.
Moving on past 50 years, I finally saw it for the first time! It was a surprise to me, and certainly a surprise that my family would let go of it so soon. Actually, it was in an old cedar chest of my Great-Aunt Myra who had made the hats and caused the quilt to be made in the first place.
This great revealing and surprise came some years after the death of my grandmother and my great-aunt. In my family home, my mother was going through some things in this cedar chest and found this.
I came into the picture when we had just moved into our new home, and I was antique crazy and grabbing everything to fill my new home. My mother called me and asked if I wanted this old velvet quilt that my grandmother had made. I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I drove frantically to the house to see it.
Here is where I got the quilt and the precious story behind it. It had been folded for years in a chest and was wrinkled, but that did not stop the awesome beauty of it. I stood in total awe as it was unfolded along with the story of its origin. I knew it was a family heirloom that could never be replaced. More than that I certainly wanted it.
It did not take me any time to know where I would put it. It was going in our family den, behind the sofa, on the dark wall. What? You are not putting it back in storage for keeping. No! I want it to be the focal piece of my den for all to see and enjoy. I thought it might fade or decay over time, but for then I had to see it every day. Well, after about 45 years on the wall, attached at the top with a tacked carpet strip, it is still just like it was except for one small unnoticed decay. Hundreds have admired it, but I’m the one who cherishes it and its story. Isn’t it wonderful that talents are passed on from one generation to another? All of my grandmother’s family could make beautiful things with their hands.
It never surprised me that her daughters, my talented now deceased aunts, could do the same. Among these three, they could knit, crochet, quilt, embroidery, and any other type of needlework. One of my aunts became a first-class artist and painted many pictures which we cherish on our walls today. She also learned to do ceramics doing all the steps from pouring clay to firing and painting. She taught many in the family and others to do this.
There was nothing that these ladies would not tackle if they wanted to learn it. How about learning to weave on an antique loom while being self taught and making up the design!
Some of these same mountain talents have been passed on to my generation and beyond, and some have more talent than others. My generation is too near in time, so we are not yet to be mentioned with the subject of antiques and heritage, but we are grateful for our heritage passed down and that our heritage came to town.
What will happen to this masterpiece when I am gone? It is my hope that future generations will enjoy it or put it where others can see and enjoy the old arts and crafts that have come down out of the mountains to town through our ancestors.
My greatest joy is that we are in the lineage of great workers and artistic craftsmen who thought enough to make art, and to pass it on to the next generation. Love and joy is not only for the project but for the love and appreciation of the people and arts of days gone by.
Truly, this portion of my heritage came home to me. It has been in view for almost half a century in my home.
May this and other received talented heritage continue to follow this generation from poor but talented mountaineers who came to town bringing with them memories and other important aspects of heritage to future generations. May our tribe increase!