May 2015

There’s a Big Story behind these little squares…

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2015 / ,

Writer: Nancy White / Photographer: Josh Shortsleeve 

There’s a Big Story behind these little squares…

May 2015

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2015 / ,

Writer: Nancy White / Photographer: Josh Shortsleeve 

Bourne exhibit to showcase historic town quilts

There's a Big Story behind these little squares

Courtesy of: The Bourne Historical Society

Jane MacDonald was perusing one final booth at a flea market in Charlotte, North Carolina in the year 2000 when she spotted them—a pile of about 30 multi-colored quilt squares, faded with age. A resident of Lake Wylie, South Carolina, MacDonald inspected the squares and noticed an interesting detail. About half of the nine-by nine-inch pieces had signatures on them, written in ink in the center. In addition, written beneath the signatures in careful script were the words “Monument, Mass.”

An avid quilter, MacDonald knew these old bits of fabric were special, but she wasn’t quite sure what she would do with them. “I recognized the history involved,” she recalls, adding that she paid $150 for the lot. MacDonald turned to the Internet, as well as genealogists and historians she would come across in the next few years, in an attempt to learn the history behind the squares. She was advised to contact the Bourne Historical Society, and in 2003 she sent the organization a letter. By a stroke of monumental luck, Thelma Loring, a historical society volunteer, was on the receiving end.

Loring, you see, is the great granddaughter of Mary C. Wing (1825-1906), a local woman who was widowed at the age of 38, who lived at the corner of Keene Street and Sandwich Road, and whose name was signed on one of the quilt squares. “It was a stroke of luck through the Internet that brought me to Thelma,” MacDonald says. “I could not believe it,” added Loring, “when Jane told me [my great-grandmother’s] name was on the quilt.”

In September of 2014, MacDonald donated—or “returned,” one might say—all 30 of the quilt squares to the town of Bourne, and the pieces are now in the historical society’s care. This summer, the society will exhibit the squares alongside two other local quilts that also date to the 19th century. Organizers hope additional historical connections will continue to unfold as more and more visitors have the chance to see the squares. “These quilts are a great little piece of history,” says Mary Sicchio, the society’s collections manager. “It tells us who was living here, how they kept busy and entertained, and that they all knew each other.”


Courtesy of: The Bourne Historical Society

The exhibit, “Antique Quilts of Bourne,” will be on display from June through September at the Jonathan Bourne Historical Center. The dominant colors in the various fabric pieces are brown and pink, and several patterns typical of the era—dots, paisley, calico and stripes—are featured. The society is currently planning an opening night gala in early June. Though the exhibit is self-guided, knowledgeable volunteers will be available to answer visitors’ questions.

The quilts in the exhibit are older than the building that houses the historical center, which dates to 1897. Also, several of the squares are inked with the date, March 19, 1863. At that time, the country was in turmoil as the North and South battled in the Civil War. Though far from the fighting, Cape Cod was heavily involved in the action, and many local residents fought on behalf of the Union.

In the town of Sandwich—which in 1863, and through the year 1884, included present-day Bourne—approximately 400 men served in the Civil War, with 54 of them losing their lives in the fighting. “All were very young,” Sicchio says. “It must have been very shocking.”

While the men fought, the women remained on the home front, charged with keeping the home and family together. The women also did what they could to aid the soldiers stationed on the front lines. Sicchio says life in the military was very different in those days, and resources were scarce, so soldiers left home carrying many of their own basic necessities such as blankets, linens, clothes, and bandages.

Several Cape Cod organizations shipped necessities to local soldiers, Sicchio says, and the quilt squares could very well have been among these items. If in fact the pieces were sent to a soldier or soldiers serving far afield, that could explain why the squares resurfaced, more than a century later, in the South.


Photo by: Josh Shortsleeve

According to Sicchio, the United States Sanitary Commission—a civilian organization established in 1861—collected donations for Union soldiers including clothing, food, and other items. Churches and Ladies Aid Societies, including one based out of the Bourne Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Bourne United Methodist Church) on Sandwich Road, also helped with the effort. Sicchio says an advertisement published in The Barnstable Patriot at that time requested donations and contributions on behalf of the troops. “Most of the Cape towns were very active [in war efforts],” Sicchio says.

Other theories exist about the quilt squares, which were never sewn together, though it appears they were at one time intended to be joined to make a single, large quilt. Sicchio says the squares could have been made to be part of a friendship quilt, which was common during that era.


Courtesy of: The Bourne Historical Society

Twelve of the individual squares bear the signature of local women, including Thirza A. Keene, Susan E. Perry, Rebecca Atkins, and Martha F. Rowell; one square, however, is signed by a man, Henry W. Weeks. Loring says Weeks’ signature on the square could indicate that he had made the quilt for someone he knew or for someone special. “It was quite unusual back then for a man to do any sewing,” Loring says. She adds that one local battalion, Company D, 29th Regiment, saw action in the South, and records show several local soldiers had the family name, Weeks. Loring says it is nice to think that the quilt may have been carefully crafted with someone special in mind.

Another clue may also point in this direction. Loring says one of the squares features the short phrase, “When this you see, remember me,” and the signatory is Hannah Blackwell. “It’s a personal touch that means, to me, that it was someone she knew,” Loring says.

Sicchio, however, says the theories about the Weeks square have not been substantiated. “It could very well have been made for a specific soldier,” she says, “but I’ve never found the smoking gun, so for now it is just speculation.”


Courtesy of: The Bourne Historical Society

Additional unanswered questions about the squares remain. It is unknown, for example, why the pieces were never sewn together. As individual pieces, they would do little to help warm a solider at night. However, to preserve the integrity of the fabric and its historic significance, Sicchio says the squares will never be sewn together. MacDonald, who owned the pieces for more than a decade, abided by this philosophy even before she knew of the quilt squares’ history. “I knew it had to remain as it was [in individual pieces],” MacDonald says. “Doing anything to the squares would ruin the legitimacy of it.”

Little is known about the individuals whose names are signed on the squares, however, many of the same surnames appear on an 1857 map of Monument, which was then a village of Sandwich. Census data from the period provides some basic details; for example, in the 1860 census, Henry W. Weeks is listed as a 23-year-old laborer married to Susan H. (Wing) Weeks, the daughter of Mary Wing, Thelma Loring’s ancestor.

While some of these questions may never be answered, the historical society is doing what it can to ensure the quilts are preserved. After receiving the quilt squares from MacDonald last year, the society showed them to a conservationist, who rated the pieces in “fair to poor” condition. For Sicchio, that only heightened the need for their preservation, and in recent months, she secured a $750 grant from the Massachusetts Arts Council to have the fabric properly preserved. The squares are now stored on thick, acid-free mats with Mylar windows to protect them from any degradation.


Courtesy of: The Bourne Historical Society

The upcoming exhibit will also feature two additional quilts created in the 19th century. The first is a fully intact signature quilt made by members of the Scusset Methodist Meeting Church, circa 1890. The congregation exists today as the Swift Memorial Church and worships just across the street from where the original church building once stood. This quilt consists of a variety of floral, check, and striped fabrics, all fashioned in the same crossed pattern, with a bright, red fabric border. At the center of each square is a white diamond design featuring four signatures, and in total, there are 228 names on the piece. “It’s basically a who’s who of Sagamore and Bournedale at the turn of the century,” Sicchio says.

The other quilt is what’s known, Sicchio says, as a “crazy quilt.” Common in the late 1800s, this style gets its name from the way in which scraps of fabric of all type, color, size, and texture, are sewn together. Credited to a local woman, Lydia Crowell, the quilt may date back as far as 1870 and features colorful stitching and a rich velvet trim. Crowell, who worked with her husband as a shopkeeper at a local general store, is also the mother of one of the Cape’s most adventurous women of her time, Hannah Rebecca Burgess. Burgess spent four years at sea with her husband, Captain William Howes Burgess, and chronicled her adventures in a series of journals.

Together, the quilts in the exhibit stitch together a small glimpse into the lives of Cape Cod residents in the mid-to-late 19th century. “There is a lot of history,” Sicchio says, “in these little scraps of fabric.”

The Bourne Historical Center, at 30 Keene Street in Bourne, is open Mondays and Tuesdays, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call 508-759-8167 or visit

Nancy White

A native of Hingham and a graduate of Boston College, Nancy White works in Boston as a writer for a digital marketing agency and lives in Hull with her husband and beloved Westie, Duncan. In recent years she has written many articles for Cape Cod LIFE including a piece on the history of Brewster’s Stony Brook Grist Mill as well as the ascension of a popular new sport in the area: Pickleball!