Collecting American Quilts: An Interview With Merikay Waldvogel, Part Two

November 24th, 2009

In part two of our interview with her, Merikay Waldvogel discusses how she got into quilts and offers advice for collectors (see also part one, on The History of American Quiltmaking). Waldvogel is an internationally known quilt historian, lecturer, and author. Among her books are “Quilts of Tennessee: Images of Domestic Life Prior to 1930” and “Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking and the Great Depression,” which is regarded as the key work on mid-20th century quilts and quiltmaking. She is on the board of the Alliance for American Quilts and the American Quilt Study Group, and is a fellow of the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In May of 2009, Waldvogel was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame.

The beauty of quilts is you can live with them. You can sleep under them. I have a quilt library, too. I not only collect quilts, but also fabric, patterns, old magazines, and paper ephemera. That stuff is still out there. People have overlooked it. Museums and libraries have overlooked it, maybe rightly so. It is hard to take care of and to catalog. But it’s like archaeology. It’s the archaeology of quilt making.

If I find a diary from the Civil War and it mentions a quilt being hidden because the owner is afraid somebody’s going to come in and steal the silver and the valuables and the quilt, and they put it down deep in a well, someplace out of sight, or in the trunk of a tree—that tells me about the importance of quilts. I hear that story. I love to listen to people’s stories that have been handed down, but I also like to read their written stories. I became a collector of quilts, as well as a collector of stories.

There were no quilts in my family when I was growing up. I was born in 1947, so I’m a baby boomer. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis. My parents were young. Our country had just gotten out of World War II, and my mother had just moved from Minnesota. There wasn’t a heritage of quilt making in my family on either side, but there were some sewing and knitting traditions. I grew up with very modern ideas. I was going to be a mathematician.

I went to college in Illinois. It was a small liberal arts school. I had a broad education, although I did not like history. There wasn’t anything like the women’s-studies classes of today. I was a French major. I went to France for a year and ended up getting a master’s degree in linguistics at Michigan. All of this opened my eyes to how different people live.

I became an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Chicago, and I traveled to Mexico to learn Spanish because most of my students were Spanish. I saw weaving in Mexico, and back in Chicago, I took a class in weaving. I had a loom in my apartment. I began to knit. The women’s movement was starting up, and I found myself going back to a more traditional kind of life than I had known growing up. I felt a connection to women’s studies and to women of the past.

Collectors Weekly: How did you start collecting quilts?

Waldvogel: One day, I was looking for something to hang on the wall in my apartment. I walked by this display window—this is Evanston, Illinois—and saw a small quilt that I really liked. I don’t think the word “patchwork” had crossed my lips until then. Quilts were totally unknown to me until that day. I walked in, I liked it, and I was just drawn to it. It had an unusual, asymmetrical layout. I had questions about it. Why did it look like the woman—I’m assuming a woman made it—gave up on the project about two-thirds of the way through and then reconstructed it on the right-hand side in a bizarre, out-of-control format? The colors were not typical quilt colors, although I didn’t know that at the time—beer browns and greens on a white background.

I paid the money. It was quite a bit of money. And I came home and I put it on the wall, and it became a piece of art. And right away I felt drawn to it and I thought, what are these fabrics? I was excited about owning a piece of history. I felt like it might be a hundred years old. I may have been told that at the store, but at the time I didn’t ask who made it or where it came from.

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Cornelia Keys Kennerly sewed this flannel quilt sometime in the 1890s.

I credit that quilt with changing my life. I quickly began buying quilts. I realized that there were a lot of old quilts available for $30. I went back to Missouri at holiday season, and I went to the antiques stores out in the country and I found quilts for $30, $35. That year, right about that time, I met Jerry Ledbetter, who became my husband. He was going to school in Missouri and he knew where a lot of antiques stores were. And so we’d go and I’d buy four, five quilts. He would come right behind me and buy a couple more that I discarded. I liked the dark fabrics. I liked the riotous prints. I was not really interested at that time in who made the quilts. That was the beginning of my quilt collecting, and it was furious. I just felt like I needed to have more.

Then, in 1977, we got married and moved to Tennessee. There was this mystique about the Appalachian Mountains, the Smoky Mountains. I was assuming I would see a lot of quilts there. And I arrived and I realized that people were treasuring their quilts. There were stories about antiques dealers coming down here and knocking on doors and offering to buy people’s quilts.

In the early ’80s, I displayed my quilt collection at the Knoxville Women’s Center, where I was the executive director. We were helping women find jobs, write résumés, transfer traditional homemaking skills to the paid job market. People also came in for information on health and reproduction, and we’d refer them to lawyers and doctors in the community. Sometimes, people in pretty sad situations would walk in the door, and see the quilts on the wall in our offices. They softened the atmosphere, and they always prompted stories. I loved that.

Collectors Weekly: Have you ever made a quilt yourself?

Waldvogel: Yes, but it’s not my forte. I really like working with other people. I will participate in a quilting. We used to do that a lot in the 1980s. We’re not as organized anymore. Somebody would finish a quilt top while we basted and quilted. Nowadays people are turning their quilt tops over to machines. It’s called long-arm machine quilting. You don’t see people sitting around a quilt form anymore. But my quilts are often small quilts. I do sleep under a quilt. It’s a full bed-sized quilt. My husband put together a quilt project with the family. His mother is a hand quilter, and so she put it all together with family names on it and it’s a really great quilt.

I know how to do it. I don’t know how to do all the shortcuts. Rotary cutting is still hard for me, and I still like teasing by hand and quilting by hand. I still have a lot of stories I need to write, so when that ends, I’ll take up quilting.

Collectors Weekly: What kinds of quilts do you collect, and do you have a large collection?

Waldvogel: I probably have 150 quilts. Some of those are quilt tops. I recently bought one quilt while I was out in California, and it was the first quilt I had bought in a year. So I’m definitely slowing down, but I buy quilts that fit some research topic that I’m working on. The one I bought recently was probably made in the 1830s. I’m working right now on chintz medallion quilts. I already own one from North Carolina and then I sought out another one in California, felt like I had to have it.

From the very beginning, I wanted to collect something “different” from others. I’m attracted to quilts that make me wonder, make me go back and look again. And I like quilts that are handmade with a lot of fabrics. They have to have some kind of personality. There needs to be something unusual about them. Now, that being said, when I give lectures, I focus on things like kids quilts, and so I need examples of kid quilts. So I do buy for the purpose of lecturing. In the end, after almost 35 years of collecting, I’ve ended up with a collection that spans 1830 to 1976. The bulk of them are 19th-century quilts.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have a favorite quilt in your collection?

Waldvogel: That’s like asking who would be your favorite child, although I don’t have children. There are lots of quilt stories, though. There’s one about a Knoxville crazy quilt, which was made by a woman named Lily Harvey. And we know that because it has a handwritten tag on it—she must’ve entered it in some contest—with her address on it. Someone bought it for the local historical society. I’ve researched it for about 10 years. It’s a crazy quilt with lots of people on it and lots of pictorial vignettes, some of which are of soldiers in tents, we think from the Civil War. There are little vignettes that seem to be advertisements for businesses in Knoxville. There’s a bread company that’s mentioned, and there are little people sitting at a table, eating a Christmas dinner. It’s just a fascinating quilt.

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Crazy quilts, such as this circa-1900 example by Martha Frazier Brewer, used whatever materials were handy. In this case, the quiltmaker made the most of cotton, silk, and wool, with wool thread for embroidery.

But in the course of finding out about Lily Harvey, I discovered that her name is printed in court records in Knoxville as a property owner in the late 1800s. She had a paper trail. It turns out that her father was a marble dealer here, and he went through a divorce with Lily’s mother. Lily encouraged her mother to get a divorce, it made headlines in Knoxville papers in the late 1800s. So I found out all kinds of information about Lily and her background and her family from the divorce records. This is what I’m working on right now. It’s probably the next book. I know where she’s buried, I know she got married, but there’s no tombstone and I don’t have a picture of her. The quilt stands alone. It’s a really interesting crazy quilt.

Another story is about a quilt that I actually own, called the “Bird’s Eye View of the Chicago World Fair Site,” which had been entered in that Sears quilt contest that I mentioned. Barbara Brackman and I had a black-and-white picture of that quilt. We got it from the archives of Sears Roebuck & Co. We looked for that quilt because it’s so unique, but we couldn’t find it. After the book came out, the actual quilt showed up in Georgia, near me, two hours away, at an antiques sale. I went to see it and ended up buying it. And when the auctioneer handed the quilt to me, he said, “By the way, there was a piece of paper with this quilt.” And it was from the owners who had given it to the auctioneer, and it says, “This quilt was not made by Mrs. Louise Rowley,” whose name was on the entry tag, “It was made by her son.” He was an architect, a draftsman.

So that put me on another detective search that went all the way out to California because the son moved from Chicago to California with one wife, and ended up retiring back in Georgia and died there in 1968. And the son and daughter-in-law gave up that quilt. I gave a talk about that quilt, and I brought it with me. I think there’s an iPod presentation of it at the International Quilt Study Center site. I love tracking down the stories, I guess. That’s really what I’m interested in, the detective search.

Collectors Weekly: So each quilt has its own story?

Waldvogel: Yes. Even with the anonymous ones, you can tease a story out by looking at the fabrics. Sometimes when you turn a quilt over and it’s just a white background, there might be some trademark visible, a shadow of a trademark of a milling company. And sometimes you can find out from there at least where the sack cloth came from. You can look for evidence of sewing machine work on quilts to help date a quilt. Often now on a Sunday afternoon, a museum will invite me to come in, and they tell people to bring their quilts and learn some of the details that make their quilts historically interesting. Most families know something about their quilts, but many of them have never noticed these details.

Recently, I was up in Greenville, Tennessee, where there’s a long heritage of really, really good quilts; families that go back a hundred years are living there. So I always like going up there and seeing what comes out. But it’s also an area that’s attracting a lot of retirees. And so there were quilts from other states that came in, and one woman brought in a pile of stuff. Her brother had closed out the parent storage unit in upstate New York. She thought she was getting a quilt from her grandmother that she remembered as being just a beautiful crazy quilt.

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Cynthia Hartsel Hurst and Nan Hurst worked together on this early 20th-century quilt, which they called “Gentleman’s Bow.”

So she opened it up and she said, “Just look at this. It’s not what I remember. But whose quilt is this?” She was hoping I could help her date it. I couldn’t see a visible date, and I thought it was interesting. It probably had been washed. It wasn’t a beautiful, pristine quilt. We noticed embroidered names on it. And then there was, crayoned on, just a trace of a name. It hadn’t been embroidered. It was an odd name, and I started spelling it out loud. I said, “W-H-I-M-N,” and she said, “Oh, my gosh, that’s my grandmother’s maiden name.” And then I said, “Well, what was her first name?” She said, “Elizabeth,” and I said, “Well, here’s Lizzy. Yes, it is the quilt you liked as a child.” And then we looked closely, and there was a souvenir ribbon with the date 1889 on it from Saginaw, Michigan. And I said, “Did they ever live in Saginaw?” “Oh, yes.” She was just thrilled that this quilt was the one.

Somebody else came in that day with a quilt made of blue and white fabrics. I call it a brick quilt. It looked like a brick wall, blue and white, blue and white. And she said, “There’s a coin in here.” I said, “A coin?” and she said, “Yes, it’s inside the quilt.” And I said, “My gosh.” I looked at her and I said to myself, if I owned this quilt, I would get that coin out of there, try to figure out a way. That’s incredible. I’d never seen a coin inside a quilt. And she said, “You mean it wouldn’t hurt the value?” I said, “No, I don’t think so. Just make a slight, little slit to get that out,” and she did. And it was a 1934 coin. Now, why it was in there? Maybe somebody left it in there for a reason.

There’s no end to my interest in quilts, the quilt itself, the people who make them, the fabric, the context in which they’re made. People could start great collections right now. I always tell them, don’t be afraid of that first quilt. If you see something you really like, there’s a reason why you really like it. Just go ahead and get it if it’s within your means. That first quilt I bought was beyond my means. I think I paid a hundred dollars for that quilt, and I had just spent that much money on a stereo amplifier. That was a significant purchase for me, that first quilt. But I liked it so much, I bought it. And I realized soon after that I had paid too much. When I realized I could get quilts for $30 and $35 back then, I bought quite a few.

And then you have to calm down. You should reach a plateau when you begin to be more knowledgeable. You need to know your subject. You need to be able to read the fabric and figure out how old a quilt is, because you really shouldn’t depend on what is written on a tag or on eBay. Quilt dealers, by and large, do not reveal who or where the quilt came from, but I always ask. And I’ve educated some dealers through the years as to why it’s important to keep that history with the quilt, the provenance. I wish I had asked about that first quilt. I still have no idea where that came from.

Collectors Weekly: What makes a quilt rare and collectible?

Waldvogel: Sometimes it’s the fabric and sometimes it’s the pattern, but you think about the earliest ones being the rarest because, chances are, there weren’t as many made. There’s a fabric called indigo blue resist, which is highly prized. The quilts aren’t anything special. They’re usually just whole-cloth quilts, meaning that that fabric is all that you see and it’s quilted, but the fabric was precious even then. And so the fabric might have been used for curtains or bed valances. But when that style of decorating went out, the women often would’ve put that blue resist fabric in a quilt and saved it, gave it a longer life.

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This scalloped-edge quilt from 1928 by Julia Alicia Gobble McMahan features hundreds of hexagons, each of which was hand stitched.

And chintz fabrics, they’re called chintz appliqué quilts. Those are very valuable. Any dated quilts, any quilts that have dates inscribed. Some early ones would not be inked, because indelible ink wasn’t available. So you might have a cross-stitched date on a quilt that might indicate an early quilt. Women quilted the date and a name or initials into the quilt instead of using ink. Those are sometimes hard to see, but if you find one that has a date in it, those are pretty rare and collectible and valuable. Baltimore Album quilts from the 1840s and ’50s are highly prized. And then the whole-cloth white quilts that are stuffed and beautifully quilted are also very collectible, especially if they’re still white, still clean, and not so frayed. They often have dates on them and initials.

If a finished crazy quilt has a date on it, then that raises its value. But crazy quilts go in and out of fashion. Sometimes they’re as low as $200 or $300. Sometimes they go over a thousand dollars. I would say if you really like what’s in a crazy quilt, get it, but they’re not the best investment, I don’t think. All Marie Webster patterns are prized because there are only a limited number of them.

There was another designer named Anne Orr, who lived in Nashville, Tennessee and was a contemporary of Marie Webster. Anne Orr’s patterns are prized. And then kit quilts, even 1960s and ’70s, are getting to be pretty valuable. These were pretty hard quilts to make. And if they’re finished and well made, it’s a really good quilt. But some women just didn’t finish them. They didn’t have the appliqué skills or the quilting skills to do the quilt’s design justice.

Sometimes a kit that is pristine, in the package, is even more valuable than a finished quilt. I’ve seen quilt kits in their original cardboard boxes from the 1930s or ’40s go for $300, $400, $500. It’s pretty amazing.

Collectors Weekly: Do people tend to collect by era and quilt maker, or is it mostly personal taste?

Waldvogel: It’s a really personal thing. Like I said before, if you’re a new collector, buy what you like. Buy what you want. My niece is 24, 25 years old, and she has grown up with me in this quilt world. She knows what I’ve done, and I’ve always wanted to give her an antique quilt. High school, college graduation, I never got around to it. While she was with me this summer, there were a lot of vendors that had quilts for sale, and she came back and said, “I saw a quilt I really like.” And I thought, this is going to be interesting. I would not have chosen the one she did, but I liked the fact that she liked it. I think she was drawn to the colors. It was what we call an expanding nine-patch, and that meant that it also had an optical-illusion aspect to it. If you put the quilt up on the wall and squint your eyes, some elements come forward and others recede. That’s what her quilt is like.

If somebody really gets into it, they often seek out experts or other collectors, and they find themselves wanting to learn more about the whole field. But it could take over your life. It should be fun. I don’t think people should be afraid of collecting anything. I do tell people that quilts are not all museum-worthy. In fact, if a quilt goes to a museum, sometimes it’s lost to history. If you like a quilt a lot, take it home, make it part of your life, use it, and don’t be so afraid of making a mistake because other quilts will come along. If you get tired of a quilt, you can sell it or pass it on to somebody else. If you’re lucky enough to inherit a few quilts, that’s nice. You could start a quilt collection that way.

A young person might get a quilt from a relative, but maybe they aren’t interested at the time. By the time they are interested, maybe the grandmother or the aunt that gave it to them is gone. So I really encourage people to sit down with grandparents, make quilts with them, or just talk to them. Put that quilt in their lap. Older people enjoy talking to teenagers or young people, so the quilt is a good way for them to start a conversation. Tape record it or videotape it. And once you get it down, you’ve got it, and then you can go back to it later. I think quilts immediately become more interesting when you’ve got that other layer of the story—who made it, who it was for, things like that.

Collectors Weekly: Are there certain regions of the United States where quilt making is more prominent?

Waldvogel: Quilt making is everywhere. It’s urban. It’s rural. It’s Southern, Northern. I remember going to New Mexico thinking there won’t be quilts out there. Well, there were. In California, they always bemoan the fact that they don’t have old quilts because it’s not an old state. But then when I go out there, like I just did four weeks ago, the collectors had fabulous quilts.

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Known as the “Feathered Star,” this circa 1890s Mary Elizabeth Waggoner Moorehead quilt (a detail is shown here) is made entirely from cotton scraps.

There are regional differences that are fun to look at, too. I usually can tell a quilt from New England as opposed to one from the South. There are differences in fabrics. In New England, they favored more pieced block quilts and didn’t leave areas open that would showcase quilting designs.

We haven’t really talked about Amish quilts. I have not really collected those, and I wouldn’t call myself an expert on those at all. But they do garner a lot of interest among collectors for investment purposes. Graphically, they are very strong. They look like a Josef Albers painting, just big areas of color. They’re dark. You might have a black and purple with a little bit of green. And the mystique of being made in the Amish community, I’m sure, harks back to Colonial Revival—handmade and made well.

The State Museum of Illinois, whose quilts are on the Quilt Index, have a group of Amish quilts that are unusual in that they are not the big center medallion kind of quilts. The ones that people usually call classic Amish quilts were made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but there were Amish communities all over the Midwest, and there are slight variations between those made by the Ohio Amish, the Illinois Amish, and the Indiana Amish.

Collectors Weekly: How do you keep your quilts in good condition?

Waldvogel: Quilts do fade. My very first quilt is not as brown as the day I bought it. I should not have kept it hanging as long as I did. Sunlight would hit it occasionally during the day. That’s not a good thing. So don’t keep quilts in direct sunlight. I store my quilts in pillowcases. They’re cotton, which is safe. Quilts should not be put in something like a cedar chest. If they’re in a pillowcase, it helps a little. It serves as a barrier between the wood and the quilt itself. If you have a folded quilt and, say, the backside is white and the fold touches the wood, over a period of time, you’re going to see a yellowing, going to brown, on that fold. That’s unsightly and it lowers the value of a quilt. Try to keep them at 60 and 70 degrees. The temperature inside a house is good.

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Cora Funkhouser made this cotton and muslin block pattern quilt in about 1940.

Be careful when you wash your quilt. I’ve only washed a few 19th-century quilts. I’ll maybe try to dust on a dry fall day. I might hang them outside and hit them if there’s any dust and air them out. But if I do wash them, if they’re really dirty, I wash them in cold water in a bathtub and I use a special soap. It takes a lot of rinsing, and I don’t twist my quilts. Try to get the soap up through the quilt and the suds. The water will turn really a dark brown, almost coffee brown sometimes. It’s the dyes that might be coming out.

With 20th-century quilts, 1930s quilts, the fabrics were really pretty good. And they might be washed on a gentle cycle in a washing machine. I’m still really careful about that, but some people do it. I know a lot of antiques dealers who feel like they can’t sell a quilt that’s dirty and so they will wash them.

If you must put them in a dryer, just put the single quilt in the dryer. Do it light. Sometimes, I just put the quilt outside to dry. I put a sheet down on a decking, with the quilt face down on that—again, on a nice, dry day—and the quilt dries pretty quickly. It will be stiff, so I might take that quilt down to the dryer and put it on fluff just to have the air go through it. But I’m pretty hesitant about doing a lot of work on a quilt, and I would always consult an expert. There are quilt shops in most communities all over the country that will give advice like that, and often museums can help.

I would not wash a crazy quilt because of the variety of the fabrics in there. Do not wash it, and do not dry clean it, again for the same reason. Some people lightly vacuum their crazy quilts. I haven’t tried that yet. The technique is to put a piece of netting down over areas of the crazy quilt and then just lightly vacuum it. If you vacuum through the netting, you won’t suck up one of the pretty ribbons or piece of fabric that might be loose. With crazy quilts, there are so many surface areas that dust can get caught in any number of places. But you have to vacuum through netting.

Collectors Weekly: What resources would you suggest for a person interested in learning more about collecting quilts?

Waldvogel: There’s a book by Stella Rubin. I think it’s called How To Compare & Value American Quilts. I’m sure it’s still on Amazon. She also has a website at stellarubinantiques.com. She lives in Maryland. As far as patterns, there’s a piece of software called the Block Base Patterns. I think eQuilts puts it out.

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A detail from a circa-1930 patch quilt by Lena Douglas Collins and Bess Collins McReynolds.

Online, there are two really good sources of information on quilts. The Alliance for American Quilts and Michigan State University sponsor what’s called the Quilt Index, www.quiltindex.org. You can enter a certain era or state and see what kinds of quilts were made. The other one I mentioned earlier was quiltstudy.org, which is the International Quilt Study Center’s site. They have about 2,000 quilts online.

If somebody wants to get into specifics about quilt history and collecting, they might look for American Quilt Study Group, which holds an annual seminar. The next one, in 2010, is in Minneapolis. We just had one in San Jose. At the annual seminars, people do research on a quilt, a quilt maker, or a group of quilts, and then present papers that are published in the group’s journal called Uncoverings. I’d look for those state quilt surveys, especially our Tennessee one and the Kentucky one. Michigan is good. Each one is interesting. Massachusetts has one, as does New York.

Collectors Weekly: Thank you, Merikay, for taking the time to speak with us today about collecting antique and vintage quilts.

(All images in this article courtesy the Quilts of Tennessee Collection from The Quilt Index)

5 comments so far

  1. Diana Says:

    Thank you CW for doing this interview, what a wonderful article it made and of course many thanks to Merikay for doing the interview. I enjoyed every word of both parts of it. Thanks again. Diana

  2. Mo Says:

    I love your article – I am a passionate quilt maker but I only make them from old used fabric and I copy old quilts and try and make them as authentic as I can. When I am not sewing, I am looking up articles like yours and love to read the stories behind the making of quilts – I cannot stop looking at quilts, making them and reading about them. They just overwhelm me. I have made up to thirty quilts and given them all away in the hope that they will be found in years to come and treasured and collected (they are signed and dated). I have kept a limited collection but now am interested in buying old quilts and restoring them. I choose what I like, value is no matter, to me it is keeping someones work alive and cherished and owning them is an honour.

  3. mary-ellen loveless Says:

    What a treasure I found when I read this article. My great grandmother Lena Douglas Collins and grandmother Bess Collins McReynolds had a quilt featured in this article! The article states the quilt is from the 1930’s. It has to be older than that…my great-grandmother died in 1924 from Bright’s Disease from which she suffered for many years.

    I would love to have the author email me…I would love to know how she acquired the quilt. My family (mom and aunts) have over 50 more of the family antique quilts.

  4. mary-ellen loveless Says:

    P.S. I would love to add that my grandmother would be thrilled (she passed away in 1977) that such a renowned quilt collector and author treasured her quilt.

  5. Peggy Fulkerson Says:

    My sister and I were given quilt tops, and some blocks, to be put together, from our grandmother. I have the fan quilt you show here and the scalloped edged hexagon, along with an unfinished friend- ship quilt. Several others,. including, one of which I hand quilted. I am presently working on a star block quilt for which I had to make into squares for the stars were round. As a guide for age, my grandmother (Granny LanE) was born in 1874 in n.e. Tennessee.
    Pegijunebug


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