MERNA - - A piece of history has returned home to Custer County, in the form of a hand-made block quilt. The story of the quilt and its travels are nothing short of amazing.
Some of the details remain a mystery, but for residents of Merna the important details are all there.
On the quilt are stitched many familiar names in our area, some of whom still have family members living here. For them the quilt is like a family heirloom - more like a community heirloom if you will. And it was one woman’s curiosity and generosity that brought that heirloom back where it belonged.
Arline Crowley, of Princeton, Ill., enjoys traveling. Several times a year she and some of her friends would take trips around Illinois and neighboring states in search of American made baskets and antiques.
On one such trip, Arline came across a quilt that caught her eye. She says she knew as soon as she saw it that the quilt must have been done for a special occasion, so she bought it. When she got home with her quilt she put it away. It would be 20 years before Arline got the quilt back out and examined it.
She noticed a few blocks on the quilt that mentioned Merna. However, she was unsure of the state. After all, there is also a Merna, Ill., so naturally Arline associated the quilt with that state.
Last year Arline got the quilt out and looked at it again. This time she noticed one particular block that said Merna, Neb. She went on the internet and conducted a search of Merna, Neb., where she found the Brenizer Library and its phone number. So she called, and reached librarian Vickie Burnett.
Unsure of just what she had, Vickie told Arline they would be interested in looking at the quilt if she wanted to send it to them. A few days later the quilt arrived, and what Vickie found was a wonderful record of early Custer County residents captured in a piece of artwork.
Merna historian and Custer County Historical Society president Dee Adams was thrilled when she saw the quilt, and has since almost become obsessed with learning the history of both the quilt and the families it portrays. There are 14 blocks on the quilt dedicated to Merna businesses and 31 more blocks that list whole families or groups of individuals.
The stitching on the quilt looks as if it was done yesterday - all in bright crimson thread on white cotton. All together there are 230 names on the 70 by 80-foot quilt.
It took only a few minutes to determine the approximate date the quilt had been made. The block listing “The Merna Reporter Edited by A.L. Lazenby” dates the quilt 1892, as referenced by the Merna Heritage Memories Book.
Adams continued her research on the quilt by contacting the Custer County Historical Museum looking for old copies of The Merna Reporter. However, she was disappointed to learn there were no copies on file.
But that did not stop her. Adams traveled to Lincoln to the State Historical Society where she learned that The Merna Reporter had been sold in 1893, and that Editor Lazenby had moved away. The whearabouts of the old copies of the paper remained unknown until 2000, when a number of them were found in an attic in Wyoming and sent to Lincoln.
Adams scoured the old issues, in which were recorded the events and information she had been looking for. She learned that it was a series of revival meetings that led to the making of the quilt. The Ladies Aid Society of the Methodist Protestant Church decided to put together a quilt which would be sold at auction, with the money being used to pay the church debt.
Unfortunately, there is no further mention of the quilt or auction in any later issues of the paper. Therefore, it is unclear just how the quilt got from Merna to Illinois.
Meanwhile, Adams, Burnett and the other residents of Merna are thankful to Arline Crowley for giving them back this lost piece of history. Arline will be a special guest at this year’s Merna Heritage Days festival this weekend.
The quilt will be on display this weekend at Merna’s Brenizer Library.
We will have more on this story next week.