Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Quilts and Stetson Mansion a dream combination

Photo of antique sewing machine, quilt and chair
How perfect is this? I sat down to write this post about the historic Stetson Mansion and the Quilt Showcase featured there. A new-old Antiques Roadshow episode from 1998 was on TV. As I started typing, the appraiser on TV displayed an 1880s "Boss of the Plains" Stetson made while hatmaker John B. Stetson was still alive. The new aspect of the episode was a comparison of then-and-now values of the featured antiques. The Stetson hat was worth $600 to $1,000 in 1998, and $800 to $1,200 in 2014. But can you really put a price on history?

That's a segue for me to say the Stetson Mansion is priceless. I'm sure the owners differ on that. What is priceless is the combination of quilts and the house built by John B. Stetson in 1886 as a winter home in DeLand. And that's for a major reason (besides the obvious) you might never expect. I certainly didn't. The detailed patterns of the wood flooring mimic quilt designs of centuries gone by. That's amazing, particularly because the mansion's floors are artistic gems. Apparently Stetson's wife, Elizabeth, enjoyed quilting.

The Stetson Mansion Quilt Showcase and Tour drew me back to the house for my most recent tour. Vintage and contemporary quilts became featured accents throughout the 9,000-square-foot structure, with some quilts made with material from the Downton Abbey fabric line. Not that the house needs accessories. Stetson Mansion is one of a kind, and you must visit if you like historic homes - and even if you don't, just to see how a National Register building can retain its architectural integrity while functioning as a 21st century private residence and a tourist destination. You'll be in awe of the house's bright, airy feeling, the layout, woodwork, floors, stairs, furnishings, decor, and of the restoration done by owners Michael Solari and JT Thompson. I've now been lucky enough to have been on tours led by each of them.

Images of quilt and the patterns in the wood floor
The floors in Stetson Mansion are patterned
after quilt designs. 
The portrait of 1880s life that emerges on tours is obviously one of luxury. Stetson was a wealthy man. He donated so generously to the local university it was renamed John B. Stetson University in his honor in the late 1880s and today is known as Stetson University. (Disclaimer: I work there.) Stetson's winter estate was originally 300 acres and is now a more manageable 2+ acres. The distinctive house has details such as thousands of panes of leaded glass, different wood-floor patterns in each room, stained-glass, and designs carved into the woodwork. Stetson's friend and fellow Florida winter resident Thomas Edison installed electricity, a rarity at the time. The Stetsons entertained royalty and robber barons alike during their winters in residence.

It's hard enough to envision Edison hanging out in pioneer DeLand, much less Vanderbilts, Astors, and King Edward VII and his entourage. How I wish that a Stetson servant had left behind a diary! Many servants lived in the mansion, on the third floor. The first-floor kitchen had a call system similar to the one in Downton Abbey. The servants were able to tell which room was ringing for service. Which is one reason why, I'm sure, there is no diary. What servant would have had time or energy to write after a day of cleaning, cooking and serving the owners and their guests? Still, it's nice to dream that somewhere, sometime, written recollections will turn up. Imagine what we would learn.

The quilt portion of the Stetson Mansion Quilt Showcase and Tour is hosted by the Quilt Shop of DeLand. The showcase continues through August 2, 2014. A few tour spaces remain available as of this writing. Make reservations online at the Stetson Mansion events page

Monday, July 21, 2014

Heirloom quilts: fabric, thread tell time

I'm coming up against deadline to finish a quilt square for the NASA star-themed quilt project. The entry deadline is Aug. 1, 2014. When digging in my closet for complementary scraps of red, white and blue fabric, I was sidetracked by an old journalism portfolio that hadn't been opened in a while. In it were newspaper clippings of articles waiting to be pasted into a scrapbook. Old articles. Not quite antiques, but ... close. One was a 1987 story I wrote about a Florida Quilt Heritage Discovery Day at the library in New Smyrna Beach, a coastal city in Central Florida.

So, what does that have to do with Florida frontier? My young reporter self was fascinated with the stories told that day about the quilts brought in for documentation. I shared as many as I could in the article. Most of the quilts were family heirlooms sewn in the 19th century and early 20th century. And even though they belonged to Floridians in 1987, the quilts almost all originated somewhere else.

The quilts were beautiful, tangible evidence of the past. They illustrated the way people brought personal treasures that mattered when they migrated to Florida, whether they made the trek in 1880 or 1980. Homemade quilts, stitched with love, warmed both body and soul of new Florida settlers in need of roots.

More than 60 quilts were documented that day, including the following. The 1987 owners' names and relationship to the quiltmakers are in parentheses:

  • red, white and green Mariner's Compass quilt, made in 1847 by Mary Ann Wilson in Pennsylvania (great-granddaughter Mrs. Newell Adams of Daytona Beach);
  • a quilt made in Ohio in 1888 by Alice Hutchins, who sewed into it her own image in silk (grandson Bill Hutchins of Edgewater); 
  • Mennonite quilt made by Mary Roth in 1920s in Nebraska, that included part of her 1892 wedding dress (granddaughter Kathy Meck of New Smyrna Beach);
  • feathered-star pattern quilt made by Fannie Lord Grimshaw in 1901 in New York, and exhibited at the New York State Fair in 1975 (daughter-in-law Harriet Grimshaw of Daytona Beach).
Fannie made a deliberate mistake in her quilt because she said, as her daughter-in-law related, only God is perfect. Imperfections, to me, make quilts authentic, real ... human. They often outlive their makers and subsequent owners. The Quilt Heritage Day took place 27 years ago. Some of the quilts' then-owners may no longer be alive. But the quilts likely still exist.

Learn more about the Florida Quilt Heritage Project and see images of some of the 5,000+ quilts documented all across the state, at the Museum of Florida History website.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How's this for dedication?

St. Helen Church, Vero Beach, built in 1919.
Credit: Images of America - Vero Beach, which gives photo
credit to the Indian River County Historical Society.
Today's post grows from a photo caption. I just got back from a family mini-trip in Vero Beach. One night, we ate at the Ocean Grille and I found a copy of  Images of America - Vero Beach in the gift shop. If you're into history, chances are you're familiar with the Images series by Arcadia Publishing. I love the photo books because they provide such great slices of local history. The Vero edition is by Teresa Lee Rushworth and, like the others I've read over the years, is a great time capsule.

My point in bringing up the book here, in a Pioneer Catholics blog post, is because of this photo from page 16. It is the first St. Helen Church in Vero Beach. The caption explains that the wooden church was built in 1919 after the congregation raised enough money. Apparently, there was one priest available to say Mass at the new church. Vero was not his only parish. The book says a lone priest was assigned to tend souls from Rockledge to Okeechobee. Google tells me that's about 100 miles.

That's one example of dedication. The other is found among the parish members who resided in the Vero area, which was still a frontier in 1919. (I see, once again, that I'm going to have to expand the parameters of my blog beyond the 19th century because so much of Florida's pioneer days stretched into the early 20th century.) Before they scraped up enough money to build their tiny church, the Catholics in Vero had to make an effort to attend Mass. Teresa Lee Rushworth explains in the photo caption: "Prior to 1919, Vero's Catholic residents had catch a 6:00 a.m. train every Sunday morning in order to attend the 8:00 a.m. Mass in Fort Pierce."

Train travel wasn't exactly luxurious in 1919 Florida. Those pioneers rode the rails two hours there, and two hours back, for a service that was probably an hour or hour-and-a-half. That's how important the spiritual sustenance of the Mass and Eucharist were for those long-ago Catholics. It's something to think about, the next time the short, air-conditioned ride to church seems like a burden. How important is spiritual sustenance to you?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Digging into citrus cultivation

Citrus from my yard, before
citrus greening moved in.
History filters down to us in a funnel. A wide world of people and events trickles through comparatively few sources. Sometimes forgotten is just how many diverse practices and opinions existed, even about something as seemingly homogenous as citrus cultivation.

Correspondence by a 19th century writer named Mrs. Leora B. Robinson of Orlando dispels any notion of past practices being narrowly defined. She comes across as plain-speaking and straightforward in the concise guidebook she wrote for Florida newcomers in 1884.  Living in Florida consists of letters Leora wrote for a Kentucky publication, Home and Farm, in response to readers' questions. And they had questions aplenty, particularly about the gold rush so peculiar to the Sunshine State: orange fever.

Everybody wanted to get rich quickly with
an orange grove. This one belonged to
Count Frederick deBary. Credit:
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Readers wanted exactitude: how much to spend, what kind of land to buy, what rootstock to use, how many years until a profit would surface. Leora pushed back. It all depends, she said, on whether a homesteader worked the land or hired a manager, and on numerous other variables. "Before I begin estimating the cost of an orange grove I would call attention to the fact that the methods of cultivation and procedure are almost as numerous as the owners of the grove..."  she wrote. Among the citrus theories floating around Florida in the 1880s are the following, which she itemized:

  • Orange trees do best on low ground.
  • Orange trees die on low ground.
  • Land that is too high is as bad as land that is too low.
  • Don't use budded trees; always used seedlings.
  • Never use seedlings.
  • Don't transplant nursery-grown budded trees into your grove.
  • Do transplant nursery-grown budded trees.
  • Shaddock is the best rootstock.
  • Sweet orange is the best rootstock.
  • Grapefruit is the best rootstock.
  • Lemon is the best rootstock.
  • Don't plow the grove.
  • The more the grove is plowed, the better.
  • Don't plow in summer.
  • Only plow in summer.
  • Plant trees densely - no more than 15 feet apart.
  • Plant trees 20-, 30-, even 40-feet apart.
Leora overflowed with practical common sense, some of it derived from the groves she managed for others. One of her takeaways from the conflicting advice was this: "You can hardly make a mistake." And if one did? There were other ways to make a living in pioneer Florida. She suggested the homesteader "...  plant arrow-root, raise melons, split rails at $1 per hundred, build cabins for your neighbors at $1.50 per day, raise chickens, catch fish and eat them, make fertilizers, shoot alligators on Lake Kissimmee and sell their hides .." For a person willing work, Florida was a paradise in more ways than one.