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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
A story now about quilts and the stories behind them. In Washington state, a museum has a number of quilts on display, and visitors are advised to read the labels very closely or they might miss something. Harriet Baskas has this installment of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project.
HARRIET BASKAS reporting:
In 2003, Yakima Valley Museum curator Mike Sibol put 35 of the museum's rarest quilts on temporary display.
(Soundbite of unwrapping)
BASKAS: Today he unwraps one of them, a quilt top made in Germany for a young girl's hope chest.
Mr. MIKE SIBOL (Curator, Yakima Valley Museum): A lot of people came up to the front desk and complained about this quilt.
BASKAS: That's because the quilt has rows of large red swastikas against a white background. When it was on display, it also had a label explaining that the swastika is a traditional symbol of good luck and hospitality. The label also explained that the quilt was made in 1914, about 20 years before the Nazi Party adopted the swastika as its emblem.
Mr. SIBOL: We didn't take it off of the exhibit because some people wouldn't read the label. We just made the label larger.
BASKAS: People still complained, and they ignored a pretty quilt across the room. This one was made in 1928 by Mrs. C.C. Parmeter, the wife of a Puyallup, Washington, berry farmer. The quilt's squares are laid out in a curving, latticelike pattern known as the drunkard's path. When made in blue and white, this pattern once signified affiliation with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which crusaded against alcohol and for women's rights. The quilt was given to the Yakima Valley Museum by an anonymous donor in 1978, a decade after its maker died. Museum director John Ball says the pattern and the source of the cloth used for the white background were identified in this note, which arrived with the quilt.
Mr. JOHN BALL (Director, Yakima Valley Museum): `You may not want to use this information, but I shall write it down anyway, just in case you may want it. The white parts of the quilt were made from the masks of the robes worn by the KKK,' or Ku Klux Klan. `The state of Washington was teaming at that time with this organization. Some of the big brass of the police force in Puyallup were solid members and seemed to be the backbone of the lodge.'
BASKAS: Ball doesn't know if Mrs. Parmeter or someone else wrote that note or why Mrs. Parmeter used discarded Klan masks in her drunkard's path quilt. It could be that some members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union shared some of the views of the Klan, which claim to uphold Protestant Christian moral values. But Susan Sorros, a fourth-generation Puyallup resident and a quilter, believes Mrs. Parmeter was deliberately preserving evidence of local history that's been conveniently forgotten.
Ms. SUSAN SORROS (Puyallup Resident; Quilter): I'm sure she wanted it to be a part of history. And she might not have wanted to flash it around at that time because there was still so much more emotion attached to it, whereas now I don't think that most people in this area would even fathom that that was ever a part of our history.
Professor JOHN FINLEY (University of Washington): So we may think that our town was too liberal or progressive, but in most cases that just wasn't true.
BASKAS: University of Washington history Professor John Finley says that in the 1920s, a revitalized Ku Klux Klan sponsored Pacific Northwest chapters that promoted ethnic, religious and racial discrimination. These groups often operated openly.
Prof. FINLEY: In both Oregon and Washington, the Klan made specific efforts to recruit new members who felt threatened by the perception of things that were foreign, non-Protestant. Keep in mind this is the same period when people are debating evolution, the teaching of evolution in the schools, the Scopes trial. And there's a sort of perception that an old Christian America is being threatened by modern trends and scientific teaching. And in states all over the country, quite reputable individuals, leading citizens belonged to the KKK.
BASKAS: Mrs. Parmeter may have been one of those individuals, but University of Washington fiber arts Professor Lou Cabeen says she also might have been quietly making a statement contrary to the beliefs of some men in her community.
Professor LOU CABEEN (University of Washington): There's a long-standing quilt tradition of women making a quilt claiming her political allegiance which is different than that of her husband, you know. "Many a Whig lay under a Tory quilt" is the old quote.
BASKAS: Unfortunately, as happens at many smaller institutions, when Mrs. Parmeter quilt arrived at the Yakima Valley Museum, no one gathered a full history of the donation before it went into storage. And when it came time to display the quilt, it was too late to go back and fill in the blanks. That reminds University of Washington history Professor John Finley of a friend who'd rebuild car engines and sometimes end up with leftover parts that ultimately proved essential.
Prof. FINLEY: Seeming remnants in museums often can be like that. I think we have a story now. I think we know what the past looks like. It seems familiar to this. And then these objects come along that confound our assumptions about how similar the past is, and it forces us to go back and look at it more closely.
BASKAS: Like all museums, the Yakima Valley Museum in Yakima, Washington, would love to have the resources to more thoroughly research its holdings. The museum's collection of vintage quilts numbers more than 200, and each may have a story far more complicated than meets the eye. For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.
NORRIS: You can see photos of the Klan and swastika quilts and explore more stories in the Hidden Treasures series if you visit our Web site, npr.org.