PIECING TOGETHER A QUILTMAKER'S LIFE Quilts from all around the U.S. led historians to Maryland matriarch


"Anonymous," feminists like to say, was a woman.

Before this century, much of the artistry created by women was appreciated only within their own family circles. These home-front artists of the past have left their exquisite, hand-stitched quilts and embroideries, if not their roasts and apple pies and dandelion wines, as their legacy to us. But too few have left their names.

One such artist has refused to remain anonymous, though. Her name was Anna Catherine Hummel Markey Garnhart, and her handiwork is being given its own retrospective at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington. The exhibition, "A Family Legacy: The Quilts of Catherine Garnhart (1773-1860)," on display through Aug. 30, includes nine quilts, color photographs of a few others too fragile for display, and an assortment of objects made by or owned by the Maryland-born quilter and her family, and dutifully passed down through generations of her descendants.

During her long life, which began shortly before the American Revolution and ended shortly before the Civil War, the Frederick mother of three (by her first husband, David Johann Markey) and grandmother of 11 stitched numerous quilts -- mostly the "medallion" type, with a central motif of an eagle or a basket of flowers surrounded by flowers and birds. She was also known as a healer, who served her neighbors and her family through her knowledge of herbal medicine.

Worthy achievements, of course. But how did Mrs. Garnhart -- however skilled she may have been as a needlewoman, however well-respected as a citizen -- merit the kind of recognition denied so many of her fellow quilters?

Mrs. Garnhart's rediscovery can be credited partly to the fact that her quilts, executed in a complicated and rare technique called reverse applique, were so cherished by her descendants that they managed to make their way through numerous generations practically unscathed.

But a lot of it was just happenstance. Mrs. Garnhart's quilts, and her descendants, are all pieces in a historical jigsaw puzzle that just happened to fit together at the right time.

According to Nancy Tuckhorn, the DAR Museum's associate curator of textiles, the saga began in 1974 when the Daughters received a bequest of an early 19th century quilt, a photograph and a sampler.

The eagle-motif quilt was a glorious creation; its designs were worked in roller-printed glazed chintzes on a white ground -- a popular style of quilting at the time -- but the colored designs were not stitched onto the background, as in conventional applique. Instead, the white fabric was cut out and stitched back to reveal the pattern underneath.

The photo depicted the quilter, a stern-faced older woman: Catherine Garnhart. The sampler was not her work, though. It had been stitched by her granddaughter Ann Catherine Markey, the same granddaughter for whom the eagle quilt had been made.

"The DAR has a genealogical library of about 82,000 books, and whenever we get any object we research its history," Ms. Tuckhorn explains. "So we went to the library here and found a book, a family history written in 1917."

The book, by Mrs. Garnhart's great-grandson Frank Markey Gibson, mentions Mrs. Garnhart's skill as a quilter and herbalist, and lists several of her possessions, including an eagle quilt and a jug made to commemorate the death of George Washington in 1799. The jug also bore the Federalist eagle, the design of which, Mr. Gibson wrote, Mrs. Garnhart used as a pattern.

In 1985, a second Garnhart quilt turned up. When the bequest quilt was exhibited in the museum's show of Maryland quilts, a curator at the Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum in Oklahoma spotted its similarity to an eagle quilt in that museum's collection. Sure enough, the Oklahoma quilt was by the same hand. It had been made for John David Markey, Mrs. Garnhart's eldest grandson, and went west with him in the 1850s.

Two quilts, two pieces of the puzzle. But more were soon to be discovered. One of the last remaining Oklahoma relatives directed Ms. Tuckhorn to a distant cousin in North Carolina, Eleanor Hope Newell Maynard, who owned two Garnhart quilts as well as the Washington eagle pitcher mentioned by Frank Gibson in his family history.

When Judy Profitt, curator at the Frederick Historical Society, bought a note card with a picture of the DAR museum's quilt, she too spotted a similarity to a quilt she recognized; it had been included in the state quilt documentation project sponsored by the Maryland Extension Homemakers Council. Thanks to this lead, Ms. Tuckhorn located Theresa Michel of Frederick, who had inherited three reverse applique quilts: a crib quilt with a paisley border, a quilt in an all-over pattern called "mariner's compass" and the eagle quilt that resembled the DAR quilt. Mrs. Michel knew their history, too. The eagle quilt, she revealed, was made for yet another grandchild, Lucy Emma Russell Markey Lester, and taken by her son Louis Lester, a musician, to Italy in 1904.

"It hung for 50 years in a 14th century monastery in Siena, Villa LaFontanella, which he had bought," says Mrs. Michel, Catherine Garnhart's great-great-great-granddaughter. "Then it was taken to Montreal by his daughter, Anne Lester Node. My mother got it from her. It was Anne Node's wish that everything from Frederick come back to Frederick."

The documentation project turned up another Garnhart quilt as well. Some of the choicest quilts uncovered by the project were displayed last summer at a show at the Timonium fairgrounds. At the show, Ms. Tuckhorn gave a slide presentation which included four of Catherine Garnhart's quilts.

"A lady came up to me afterwards who said, 'My brother has a quilt just like that eagle quilt! You have to call him!'" she remembers.

She called, then visited, the quilt's owner, Willard Markey, in Pennsylvania, and discovered the biggest prize yet: a quilt in near-perfect condition, signed "Anna Catherine Garnhart, 1849." It is the only signed and dated quilt, and is in such superb shape that the chintzes still have their original shiny glaze.

"This was the only one that was handed down through the male line," Ms. Tuckhorn says. "It was made for a man, and it was given from son to son."

It became clear that Mrs. Garnhart would have to have her own show.

The quilts themselves are worthy of a showcase, because of their rarity as well as their age and beauty. In her research of quilts of the period, Ms. Tuckhorn has discovered only three other reverse applique quilts. Mrs. Garnhart's quilts also were also made from some of the choicest fabrics available, chintzes imported from England and France and purchased in Baltimore. Letters from early owners of the quilts indicate that Mrs. Garnhart paid $1 a yard for her fabrics -- an ample day's wage at the time.

In addition, other material contributed by the families form a revealing document of American life. Here is the trunk that family patriarch Philip Jacob Grundler, Catherine Garnhart's grandfather, brought from Germany to Frederick. Here is a hand-painted New Year's greeting card received by her father when he was a Revolutionary War soldier. Here is the wide-mouth green bottle in which Mrs. Garnhart stored brandy-soaked lily leaves, her home remedy for burns. Family letters are included, too, including one from a granddaughter to her sister, written in a mock-countrified dialect ("What a delight-fully gresy time hog kilin is") that has made family members chuckle for 135 years.

Interestingly enough, though, most branches of this particular family tree did not know each other until they were brought together for a reunion reception at the DAR museum earlier this month.

Although it is romantic to think of generation after generation being born and expiring beneath these quilts, this was often not the case; the condition of many of the heirlooms indicates that Mrs. Garnhart's heirs have watched over her work with the devotion of professional museum curators.

"They have always been regarded as works of art, as well as having sentimental value, and admired and preserved with great care and love," Mrs. Michel says.

For one of the families, though, the legacy of Mrs. Garnhart and her heirs was the stuff of everyday life. In the home of Eleanor Maynard, the journals and antique newspapers were kept at hand, where visitors and family members could read and enjoy them. The eagle pitcher was kept in a hutch, where the children could see (if not touch) it. The large Garnhart quilt spent many years on her parents' bed, and the crib quilt will go back on her daughter Ellie's bedroom wall when the exhibit is over. Before Mrs. Maynard died in April, she encouraged her seven children to rally around with their treasures, which had been distributed to them according to their interests. The exhibit is dedicated to her memory.

"The neat thing was that they really shared our family history with us, and made us proud of our names," says her daughter Ellie Maynard Barbour, who lent her Garnhart crib quilt to the exhibition.

Mrs. Barbour's sister Suzy Brett, a North Carolina journalist who researched the family's history when she lived in Frederick, admits to being "flabbergasted" when she learned how much these familiar things were worth on the antique things were worth on the antique market. But, she says, "We've always had family heirlooms in our homes. I personally wouldn't think about selling them. They're part of our heritage. That's what's important, not the price."

"I think this is pretty wonderful that this is a woman's achievement that is being celebrated," Theresa Michel states. "She must have been very respected by her family and friends because of all the memories that have come down, which make her out to be a very substantial person, in character, money, abilities and talent. I'm very proud of her.

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