Indeed, Thompson and her husband George were at the Marshall County Dump last summer at just the right time to see a striking red and white pattern flash past her peripheral vision. The landfill manager was emptying some cardboard boxes into a large trash bin, and at first glance, Maxine thought he was throwing away blankets.
According to reporter (and fellow quilt enthusiast) Linda Jones, in an article she wrote for Holly Springs newspaper The South Reporter, Thompson had been backing up her vehicle to help her husband unload some stuff at the garbage dump, but when that red and white flash caught her eye, she stopped, walked over to the trash bin and discovered the seven vintage quilts.
Maybe these are quilts made from scraps from the clothes some mother sewed for her family, Thompson mused, or maybe the fabrics in the quilts are made from clothes that were outgrown or used to the point of threadbare patches.
"It's like going to the diamond mine in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, and coming out with a big 14 carat diamond," Thompson said.
"It's kinda hard to describe my feelings," Thompson said, "but a diamond is formed deep in the earth from so many years of intense pressure and heat, and these quilts were formed deep in some family's past from many hours of hand labor, careful attention, and a lot of love."
In the news article, Thompson described her exchange with the landfill manager, and he finally told the Thompsons they could have the quilts if they could fish them out of the big dumpster. Only the red and white quilt was not thrown into the dumpster.
The television action hero McGuyver would have been proud of the contraption the Thompsons constructed from a garage door channel, a flimsy curtain rod and some wire. The curtain rod made the hook, and it kept bending under the weight of each old quilt.
"The people throwing (these quilts) away were not taught by their elders to knit, crochet, tat, crewel, embroider, counted cross stitch...any of the fine needlework skills that us older homemakers know," Thompson said. "They don't have any appreciation" for the family history or the skill and hours it takes to make quilts or other types of needlework.
Thompson has been quilting since the 1960's. Her first quilt was made from blocks her grandmother had appliqued with butterflies. The butterflies were made from flour sack fabric. Thompson has a deep appreciation of the handwork and fabrics of the past.
The Marshall County Dump quilts have revealed a few secrets, pressed inside the quilt, against the batting.
At different times, Thompson or her husband have discovered:
1. The printed image of a woman holding stalks or ears of corn above the printed company name of "John Wade Patent Flour Company, Memphis TN." The flour sack formed part of the backing fabric of the quilt, but the printed side was turned in toward the batting to hide it.
2. The printed image of a large pile of potatoes with a rainbow stretching over the potatoes. Again, the printed image was turned inside toward the batting so that the reverse of the sack forms part of the backing of the quilt.
3. On the back of the blue quilt, a big 10 inch by 12 inch square is printed with "Rust College, Holly Springs, MS". You can see a picture of this block in the news article.
4. The news article also has a picture of the "Memphis Branch Federal Reserve Bank, St. Louis, MO" patch of fabric that also says, "Do not cut when opening".
"I would like these seven quilts to go to seven different museums within state of Mississippi," Thompson said. "This is part of Mississippi history, and this Mississippi history should stay in Mississippi.
Thompson is taking good care of the quilts while she researches their provenance. She has only aired the quilts outside in the sunshine for a couple of days, and that took out the lingering smell of "musty storage".
Beyond the frayed edges, Thompson said some of the fabric is disintegrating from age and use.
The batting does not have any cotton seed in it, indicating the maker(s) took the time to card the scrap cotton that was so often used in this type of "cover quilt".
Rolls of cotton batting that quilters use in quilts today were not available
in the 1920's or 1930's, the decades indicated by the fabrics in some
of these quilts.
"Cover Quilt" is most often the term used to define quilts made from scraps that were primarily used to provide warmth. Cover quilts were made with the expectation of being used up or used until the point of being threadbare.
More decorative quilts that were made from coordinating fabrics to showcase a stitcher's skills were kept for display or for use when company came to visit.
Notice the improvisations in the red and white quilt. Some would call these mistakes. Quilt lovers call these areas of improvisation, "character".
Notice in the fifth picture that the solid blue border is used on only one side of the quilt. The opposite blue border is pieced.
The Thompsons rescued the quilts almost a year ago, May 12, 2007. Linda Jones wrote her article for the May 24,, 2007, issue after the Thompsons brought the quilts to Holly Springs to show them to the Marshall County Museum curator.
Gordon and I first saw the quilts when the Thompsons gave a presentation to the Fall Gathering of the Mississippi Quilt Association in Oxford last October. That is when we took the pictures you see here. I only have pictures of six of the seven Marshall County Dump Quilts.
I've had these photos edited and ready to blog ever since October, and I had intended to immediately follow up my little quilt story, If Quilts Could Talk, with this post. Maxine and I have chased each other around on the phone the last couple of weeks, and finally, tonight, I had energy, time, telephone and Maxine's phone numbers all in the same place at the same time!
You can reach Maxine Thompson by email. Hopefully someone will know something about the printed fabric blocks that will yield a clue about the maker(s) of these quilts.