Generations of local quilts in Charleston
Some things are so valuable they must be given away.
Alice Harris Rathbone had quilts in her home in San Diego, CA, that were made by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She sent several of them to a museum in Charleston to be preserved for generations to come.
A 1952 graduate of Parsons High School (PHS), Alice Rathbone knew that many of her family, school friends, former neighbors and local quilters would be pleased to know they are where they will last for many more generations.
Alice is the younger daughter of the late B. F. and Pauline Rightmire Harris (1905-1995) and a granddaughter of Ella Orr Rightmmire (1881-1973) and a great-granddaughter of Alice McKinney Orr (1890-1952). Their quilts were saved from the Nov. 4-5, 1985 flood that devstated more than half of West Virginia. At the time, Alice’s mother and grandmother’s homes were side-by-side on Pennsylvania Avenue in Parsons and were too badly damaged to be salvaged. Fortunately, Mrs. Harris had stored the quilts on the second story of her home and they were not damaged.
James Mitchell, curator of the WV State Museum within the Cultural Center in Charleston, praised Mrs. Rathbone for being willing to part with the quilts, at least one of which was designed and made in 1863-64. He described in detail the tedious processes needed to preserve fabric arts.
Mitchel was especially pleased with the red and white Deer Antler quilt which Mrs. Rightmire and her mother made more than 150 years ago in Reedsville. Alice was told that this quilt was a “great example of folk art” and that other colors may have been used, such as green or brown. The red appliques are “Turkey Red,” named for a 15-step process perfected in Turkey for color-fast red. Part of the process involved boiling in oil.
The curator said five pieces of the family’s hand made and painted porcelain, three tiles and two paintings, have also been donated. Mitchell hopes others will be willing to contribute more of the family’s art. The porcelain, he said ,was given by Chris Kidwell of Morgantown, also a native of Parsons. Kidwell compiled the 389-page A Pictorial History of Tucker County, West Virginia that was printed in 2011 by McClain Printing Company in Parsons.
Mitchell said preserving the quilts will involve a long process of writing a history of each of the quilts, who made them and where; always wearing gloves to protect the fabric from protein and oils on hands; and–most of the time–keeping them in a dark room where light will not damage them. Eventually, a few at a time, the quilts will be displayed in The Great Room of the Cultural Center for the public to see–but never touch!
In addition to the red and white Turkey Antler quilt, there are more red and white ones, but their histories have been lost. They include a Bow Tie quilt that is very old.
At least one of the quilts, a brown and blue one made in the Log Cabin pattern, was made by Mrs. Harris.
Many present readers of The Advocate will remember Alice’s mother. During World War II, many school teachers were drafted into the armed forces, leaving vacancies in classrooms throughout the nation. Mrs. Harris was asked to teach chemistry at PHS and laughed when she said, “I learned chemistry along with the kids!” She also taught public speaking, and was a volunteer in many local good causes. Her mother, Mrs. Rightmire, was a charter member of the First Baptist Church of Parsons where Mrs. Harris, too attended until the death of three family members in the early 1970s. Her mother, her older daughter, Sarah Harris, and her husband–all died within a year, leaving her with obligations at home.
In the 1980s, Mrs. Harris joined Parsons Presbyterian Church where she was frequently a Bible study leader.
At least one of the quilts now being processed in Charleston is a brown and blue Log Cabin pattern made by Mrs. Harris. Her home was filled with hundreds of pieces of china she and her mother had made and painted as well as hand hooked rugs, knitted items, souvenirs the family bought in their trips to western states, and items she bought because she found them fascinating and wanted a chance to see if she, too, could make them.
Mrs. Harris was one of 250 Tucker Countians who appeared as featured Senior Citizens in The Advocate. Each was at least 80 years old and had lived all or most of their lives in Tucker County. The first 150 of the features appeared in a book, . . . and live forever which was compiled by Mariwyn McClain Smith and printed in 1974 (and now out of print). The book included a story about Mrs. Rightmire, written by Valerie Cuonzo. Mrs. Harris was also featured in the 2005 Goldenseal magazine in a story, “Saving Pauline,” written by Jerry DiBacco.
Some of the quilts Alice remembers being made when she was a child such as the Texas Star, Double Wedding Ring, and one top that was made by her grandmother’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Harvey (Pearl) Orr of Morgantown. The finished top was then quilted at Tucker County Senior Center in Parsons.
Alice and her husband, the late Rhett Rathbone, met at Potomac State College in Keyser. Following their marriage they moved to California where she and their two dhildren, Andy and Wendy, still live. Both of her children are writers. Like generations before her, Alice Harris Rathbone is an artist.