A Catskill Catalog: May 13, 2009

“Dad, we’re going to Wanda’s.” I was one of many 1980s era New Kingston parents who heard that call from the kids nearly every summer day. Soon, the late Lois Squires’ big station wagon would sway out of her driveway, filled with a gaggle of children, towels and a toy or two, heading up the New Kingston Valley to the village swimming hole.
Seems like every Catskill Mountain hamlet had one: Big Rocks on the Margaretville stretch of the Delaware River’s East Branch, Red Falls on the Schoharie up towards Jewett, the old swimming hole is one country cliché that was real. Probably still is.
“Wanda’s” was a wide, deep spot in the Plattekill on the downstream side of the culvert-under-the-road that led into the farmstead of Wanda Lanzi, a Catskill Mountain native who’s lived on that farm since 1935. Wanda graciously and joyfully opened her property, welcoming the local kids to enjoy the cool of the stream on a hot summer day.
Wanda Lanzi is also a member of the Catskill Mountain Quilters Hall of Fame, inducted in 1986. The Quilters Hall of Fame was organized about the same time as the kids were swimming, its first meeting was held on July 14, 1982 at the Erpf Catskill Cultural Center in Arkville, now the headquarters of The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.
Quilting has been a Catskill Mountain art form since settlers first came to the mountains, an art form born of the marriage of necessity and creativity. In a cold, often inhospitable climate, warm bedding is needed. To weave a blanket one needs spinning wheel and loom. To buy a blanket one needs cash. A quilt can be had with little more than hard work.
Essentially, a quilt is two pieces of cloth sewn together with an insulating filler in between. “Quilting is a simple concept,” writes Steve Hoare in The Unbroken Thread, A History of Quiltmaking in the Catskills (Black Dome Press, 1996). “Three separate layers closely stitched together create a warmer and more durable garment or bedcover.”
Traditionally the top and bottom layers are cotton fabric, the middle insulating layer, unspun wool or cotton. Today, most quilters fill with polyester. Some old quilts contain unusually inexpensive and readily available filling: newspapers, rags, old socks, tree bark, animal skins, bird feathers, political circulars, love letters, diary pages, and tree leaves.
The outside layers of a quilt can be pieced together from whatever varied pieces of fabric are available, pieced together in patches. Hence, the patchwork quilt.
Creativity and artistic design set in early in the history of quilt making, as quilters composed repetitive patterns over the face of the quilt, and turned the stitches required to bind the fabric-layers into embellished designs: “wreaths, ferns, flowers, leaves and vines, even entire representational scenes,” Hoare writes.
The Catskill Mountain Quilters Hall of Fame grew out of a Pine Hill quilting circle that used to meet in Charlie’s Gun Shop, owned by the husband of Nancy Smith who first came up with the idea. “I just thought there was a Baseball Hall of Fame, and every kind of Hall of Fame you can think of, why not a Quilters’ Hall of Fame?” Nancy and her friends Bertha Mayes and Lena Johnson decided to make it happen.
The Hall of Fame honors quilters from five Catskill Mountain counties: Ulster, Greene, Delaware, Sullivan, and Schoharie. It draws from a variety of quilters’ guilds and societies, including The Patchworkers of East Jewett, Liberty’s Calico Geese, Kingston’s Wiltwyck, Delhi’s Town and Country Quilt Guild, Vega’s Sunbonnet Quilters, the Piecemakers Quilt Guild of the Schoharie Valley and Arkville’s Catskill Mountain Quilters.
And lots of folks simply quilt on their own.
Quilting is a labor-intensive art form. “You prick your finger going down and going up,” Hall-of-Fame quilter Peg Barnes is fond of saying. It is also a gregarious and social art form that brings circles of people together to talk and laugh while they work.
Wanda Lanzi made her first quilt when she was a teenager and continues, now in her 90s, to quilt with her friends every week. The late Eleanor Faulkner, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, didn’t start quilting till she was 76. In the four years between taking up the art and being recognized as a Hall of Famer, Eleanor made, or assisted in making, over 50 quilts.
There is something beautiful about an art form that opens its doors to the new practitioner at the time in life when so many other doors close. There is something beautiful about an art form that encourages creativity in the manufacture of such a useful artifact as bedding.
And there is something beautiful about discovering the Hall of Fame credentials of a neighbor who welcomed the children to the swimming hole back in the day.