A Very Old Quilt Sleeps in a Lighthouse
by ADDIE BROYLES
There’s a quilt that sits on the end of a bed upstairs in the lighthouse at The Ridges Sanctuary.
Built in 1869, the Baileys Harbor range lights are two buildings 930 feet apart that, together, function as a navigation tool to guide boats through the nearby harbor. They are the only lighthouses of this design that are still on range and functional in the whole country, and since 1935, the land around the range lights has been designated parkland, which is why most people visit The Ridges today.
That’s also why I was there in December 2021, visiting Door County for the first time. I’m a travel writer, mom, Missouri and quilt lover who lives in Austin, Texas – far from the majestic Great Lakes that I was seeing for the first time.
During my visit to The Ridges, our tour guide opened the upper range house for us to explore.
Most of our group headed up the narrow wooden stairs to the top floor to see the famous lights, but en route, I got waylaid by this unassuming, unsuspecting piece of folk art sitting on the bed. I always stop to look at quilts because I think of them as holders of memories, quietly waiting for us to ask them for a story.
This particular quilt is dark and moody, made with wool and corduroy, silk and linen fabrics pieced together without a pattern. It’s a “crazy quilt,” made popular during the early 1900s, when women were starting to free themselves from more than corsets. I noticed that the quilter used a thin yarn – possibly reused feedsack string – to tie the quilting together with the batting.
I asked Sandy Miller, who manages the range lights with her husband, Ed, about the quilt. She had to do a little digging, but she got back to me to say that the quilt is on loan from one of The Ridges’ docents, whose husband’s grandmother, Emilie Runge, made the quilt more than 100 years ago, in their estimate.
Thanks to a little digging around on Ancestry.com, I found out that Emilie was born in Austria in 1859 before her family immigrated to the U.S. and that she lived in Sauk City near Madison, where she died in 1935.
What was her life like in the Upper Midwest during those years? What was it like when she was a girl traveling from Austria to the U.S., unsure of practically every detail of her future?
Emilie tufted this quilt more than a hundred years ago, before Door County became the tourism destination that it is today. Before you could drive to a fabric store to buy any material you wanted. Before you could search for your ancestors online. In the years before modern heating, when the cold in Sauk City (and in Baileys Harbor) likely felt a lot colder.
As I stood there, touching the scratchy fabrics and then the soft ones, admiring the small ties that held the quilt together, thinking about the person piecing these colors and patterns together, I felt sad that this quilt likely sleeps alone these days.
But then I thought, maybe the quilt isn’t alone. Not when someone on the other side of the country, all these months later, is still thinking about it and the woman who made it.
Addie Broyles is a Texas-based writer and former newspaper columnist who publishes a weekly newsletter about life through a generational lens. Find it at thefeministkitchen.com.