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Swastika quilt roils an Old West utopia

Hometown U.S.A.: Greeley, Colo.

Is it an heirloom of frontier craftsmanship from more innocent times, or an offensive reminder of evil?

July 18, 2010|By Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times
  • Erin Quinn, Director of the Greeley Museum, talks about a quilt decorated with swastikas that was donated to the museum in December of 2009, by a local family. Quinn believes the quilt was made sometime before 1930. The bent-arm cross was once a popular pattern in frontier quilting circles and given many names, including Catch Me If You Can and Whirligig.
Erin Quinn, Director of the Greeley Museum, talks about a quilt decorated… (Craig F. Walker / The Denver…)

For almost 80 years the pretty quilt, hand-stitched from scraps of old farm clothes and backed with fabric from flour sacks bought at a local mill, had been forgotten at the bottom of a family trunk.

Then one day two summers ago, an elderly couple walked into a local museum, shyly offering up the surprisingly well-preserved quilt for sale. The 90-year-old man, who had lived his whole life on the flat plains an hour north of Denver, was divvying up family heirlooms when he found the mysterious quilt.

The man didn't remember seeing the quilt before and wasn't sure who made it. His mother and sister had been avid quilters, as had so many women of his childhood. Maybe they made it together and it was tucked away when his mother died in 1934. His sister was also dead, so there was no one left to ask.

JoAnna Luth Stull, registrar at the museum, was working that day and gently explained that the museum didn't buy items but suggested where the couple could get the quilt appraised. She was immediately transfixed by the workmanship as she smoothed the cloth across a table, not noticing the bold geometric pattern.

"Oh, wow," said the museum superintendent as he happened by. "That's a swastika quilt."

Stull, 55, did a double take. Arranged across the quilt in shades of red, pink and beige were 27 swastikas. Her reaction was immediate and visceral. She saw an emblem of hate. "That's what my generation sees," she said.

So began an unlikely dilemma for the small museum in a city named for Horace Greeley, the New York newspaperman who famously cajoled all to "Go West."

Could they display the quilt? Should they?

"Our mission is to preserve and interpret the history of Greeley. This is a cultural artifact," said Erin Quinn, museum director. Greeley was founded in 1870 as a utopian community, with strict covenants requiring temperance and modest living. Quinn can imagine women only a generation or two removed from the city's founders gathering to socialize and make something functional.

The bent-arm cross was once a popular pattern in frontier quilting circles and given many names, including Catch Me If You Can and Whirligig. Quinn's best guess, based on the history of the flour mill in town, is that the quilt was made in the late 1910s or the 1920s — long before most in the region knew what was brewing an ocean away in Europe.

The word "swastika" is believed to come from Sanskrit, and roughly translates as "to do good." The design has been used as a fertility symbol as well as an emblem of good luck and good fortune. It has turned up on Neolithic rock carvings, in Hindu temples and amid Greek ruins, and was once widely incorporated in Native American jewelry and handicrafts — so much so that Arizona in the 1920s used it on highway signs.

"There are thousands and thousands of them. Swastikas are found on every continent and in every religion, including the Jewish one," said Steven Heller, author of "The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?"

Even the 45th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army used a yellow swastika as a unit symbol when fighting Germany in World War I.

Everything changed when the Nazis turned the symbol at an angle and co-opted it.

In Greeley, the elderly couple decided to donate the quilt to the Greeley History Museum, one of four city-run museums in town. Then word got out.

Local reaction was swift, extreme and more than a little unsettling. One person called for the museum to burn the quilt; others chided curators for even considering displaying it. Quinn was stunned. The museum had been displaying an early 1900s swastika hatpin made by Navajos for more than a year and no one had raised a peep.

Quinn says debate continues within the museum over whether the quilt will ever be exhibited and in what context. She votes for display, and would like to use it as an educational tool to show how icons can change.

Still, as a historian, she can't help but feel a little sad. "It's too bad that something that was made so innocently, with so such workmanship, so long ago, has to now be associated with something so ugly."

Deam writes for The Times.

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