Serendipity: Peshtigo Fire Quilt

Everyone has a “small world” story, or an amazing example of serendipity.  I love these stories, when a series of random decisions bring two people together who absolutely need to meet. One of my favourites involves the god-daughter of very close friends in Adelaide Australia, her last night in North America, me not wanting to cook dinner in our RV in Yosemite Park in California (in February!), her wearing sweat pants with “UBC” on the backside, and our address and phone number in her book. I’ll tell you that story in full sometime……

Those of you who know me have heard me say that the “meat and potatoes” of what I do is discovering actual historic stories of quilts that changed lives.   The Wisconsin quilt that was used to protect the train engineer as he transported townsfolk to Lake Michigan during the fire in Peshtigo (still the worst disaster in American history) is one of those amazing stories. I wrote about it in 2004 and it’s on the “A Quilter’s World” cd. By wetting the quilt down, and wrapping it around himself, he was able to keep himself safe as he saved many people’s lives on that horrific day.

I had been in touch with the owner of the quilt via mail to get permission to use the photograph on the CD package, but had never met her.  We have just returned from Wisconsin, singing in Oshkosh as well as Kenosha, and it was there I was able to finally meet Elinor.

Just before I was to start teaching two back-to-back one-hour classes at the quilt expo, two women came into my room.  The lead woman told me there was someone I had to meet: Elinor!

She had been standing in the lunch line beside Elinor, who hadn’t been to our concert the night before. She told Elinor about the show and songs, including the Peshtigo Fire quilt song that I sang (because we were in Wisconsin!).  Elinor knew the story VERY well – because she owns the quilt!

They didn’t know where to find me – but right beside them in line was someone who had signed up for my class, and she told them the room number.  And so, that’s how they showed up.  It was wonderful!

Elinor and me in Oshkosh

Elinor and me in Oshkosh

The next day John and I were heading for Racine for our next performance.  We had oodles of time, and decided to drive a bit out of our way to visit Elinor and see the quilt.

It’s quite large, and obviously someone got a bigger bed, because they added an extra strip along one edge.  It’s all wool, in wonderful shape, considering that it’s from the 1870s.  There is only one fabric that is in strings. The rest are fine.  It’s heavy!

003 Peshtigo fire quilt and Elinor small

Elinor bought this quilt from a member of the family of the engineer.  Amazingly enough, the steam engine that he used to ferry the people to safety had MELTED by the end of the fire, but the quilt survived!

I love my life.

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2 Responses to “Serendipity: Peshtigo Fire Quilt”

  1. brandylynndesigns Says:

    What a great story! I love it when life, history and serendipity come together to surprise us in wonderful ways. Cathy, I cannot wait to hear you sing in person this fall. To echo your sentiment, I love my life too!

  2. Marg Wallis Says:

    That is just fantastic! Thanks for sharing, Cathy

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