By Roserma Hensley Arnold
One of the greatest treasures in our family is the quilt that Great Grandmother Eleanor Selina Shelby Henderson made for her grandson, William Washington (Buddy) Dobbins. The exact date that the quilt was made is not known, but it had to have been made in Texas some time after 1879 when the Hendersons reached Lindale and before 1891 when the Dobbins family moved on to Indian Territory.
Buddy was born in 1872 in Alabama and died in 1896 in Wynnewood, Indian Territory. He was the only son of the second marriage of my grandmother, Mary Amanda Henderson McGahey Dobbins.
Because of the devastation of the South during and after the Civil War, many southern families migrated west. These families were attempting to begin a new life. They had very limited resources.
My family was among those who moved to Texas. The Shelbys came first, to East Texas from Alabama, in 1869. The Dobbins, Hendersons, Crews, McGaheys, and others came in 1879. The Dobbins family moved to Wynnewood, Indian Territory, in the spring of 1891, eight years before the territory became the state of Oklahoma.
The quilt moved with them—though Willie, the child for whom it was made, remained in Lindale to complete high school before he joined his parents and sisters. He was 18 and had always been a special favorite among many members of the extended family. It was almost sinful how his mother and three sisters (Irma, Essie, and Sallie) loved him. I can remember being a great big child in school and coming home and finding Mother crying and she would explain that she was thinking about Buddy.
Buddy was 24 when he died with typhoid fever.
Grandmother treasured the quilt even more after his death. When my Great Grandmother made it, she was following the custom of the times, for it was expected that grandmothers would make a quilt for each of their grandchildren.
This was not easy. The materials and tools for quilt-making were very few. All supplies were difficult to come by. For example, quilt makers had to make their own carded bats—the material placed between the pieced quilt top and the lining that gives the quilt sufficient weight for it to serve as covering in cold weather. A card is a lightweight sturdy flat rectangular piece of wood about four and a half by ten inches in size with a handle on the long side of one of the rectangles. This piece of wood is covered with wire teeth. People grew their own cotton. When it was ready to pick, choice bolls were selected and seed removed by hand from open burs. A small piece of the cotton was then placed on one of the cards and the second card lightly drawn back and forth across it. The nap on the cotton was thus raised and stroked until it evenly covered all of the wire teeth. Then, the cotton, now the size of the card, was carefully removed. A piece, thus made, was called a bat and bats were carefully stacked, dozens of them, until there were enough to cover the surface of the lining.
The quilt top was then placed over the batted lining and the whole thing basted together. This combination was attached to a quilting frame, made so that the quilt would roll up as it was completed. Women sat around the frame and quilted. One measurement of a woman’s worth was how neatly and carefully she quilted and how tiny were her stitches.
As a child, I watched my mother card bats many times, but I never mastered the art.
When Buddy died, Grandmother gave his quilt to her daughter, my mother, Essie Dobbins, and instructed her to pass it along in the Hensley family. It was never used. Mother stored it between the springs and mattress of a bed. Mother married William Bradley Hensley in 1903. My brother, Belton, was born a year later and I was born in 1914. We knew about the quilt but were not allowed to use it.
Around 1950, my mother gave me—Roserma Hensley Arnold—the quilt explaining that it was for my son, Harry L. Arnold Jr.
In May of 1966 Harry Jr. graduated from Oklahoma State University at Stillwater, Oklahoma, as an electrical engineer and in June married Marilyn Gail Wood, an elementary teacher. In December he took his bride to Wynnewood to meet his grandmother. His Dad and I went with them. While we were there, Mother called me aside and told me to give Harry Jr. his quilt as soon as they were settled. I said young people might not understand the value of such an heirloom and might not treat it with the respect it deserved! I suggested I keep it just a little longer. Mother said no!
My mother died in January of 1967. I still had the quilt, but I remembered what she had said. So, in 1969 when Harry Jr. and Gail were settled in Florida after Harry completed his Army Reserve commitment, I sent the quilt to them. Gail has cared for it carefully through the years.
Today Willie’s Quilt holds a place of honor alongside one made for Gail by her grandmother, Inez Kimbrough. They are displayed together on a quilt rack in a place of honor in the Arnold home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where my grandchildren, Brent William, born in 1973, and Beth Anne, born in 1978, see them daily.
The quilt is more than a hundred years old now, probably around 110. Brent and Beth Anne doubtless do not recognize the significance of this treasure so carefully stitched by their great-great-great grandmother. But they will! Oh, they will! The stitches that bind Willie’s Quilt together are as firm and sure as the blood flow that unites the family generation after generation after generation.