World's Largest Historical Quilt (In Transition)
Antler, North Dakota
One way to take the measure of a state is to find out what it doesn't want displayed. Kansas has Einstein's brain, Rhode Island has the tree root that ate Roger Williams, New Jersey has the wallet made out of Antoine LeBlanc's skin. All are rarely publicized, and all tell something about how their home states don't want themselves perceived by others.
North Dakota's albatross is a perplexing one. It praises the state of its creation, and yet in North Dakota -- with its population of dour Scandinavian farmers -- that may be a political liability. It undoubtedly is the largest unwanted attraction in America, befitting a state that has a lot of empty room to hide things. It covers over a third of an acre.
We first found out about the World's Largest Historical Quilt at the Hub Of America gift shop in Rugby (which, you'll remember, is the Geographical Center of North America). It was on a postcard, stained and dog-eared, the last one in the rack. The photograph showed an immense tufted thing, pieced together to form the shape of North Dakota, spread out across what looked like a vacant lot. The gift shop lady didn't know anything about the quilt, nor, apparently, did the North Dakota tourism officials with whom we had been in contact. The only information on the card was that it had been created in Antler, a town in the far northwest corner of the state, by someone named Leona Tennyson. We decided that it was worth the trip.
Where the Quilt Calls Home
Antler, we discovered, is a fading farm community with a population of less than 75. Its town square is deserted, its streets unpaved, its clapboard buildings abandoned and overgrown with weeds. A hardware store, a bank, a church, a one-room school -- all stand empty, their windows either opaque with dirt or boarded-up or broken. The shell of a courthouse stands almost invisible behind overgrown trees that tower above its roof, having grown flush against its walls. It is the curse of the quilt.
Leona lives in a trim little house set back a few blocks from the general rot of downtown. Her hair is short and is dyed the color of a copper jello mold. Her skin is pale and is freckled with age spots; her eyes practically disappear into the folds of her face when she smiles, which is often. It is a big grin set in a face made by years of squinting into needlework.
Leona is a little shy and very grandmotherly. But she is full of spunk and fire when it comes to her quilt. The World's Largest Quilt, she repeatedly adds, and she has her Guinness World Record certificate here -- somewhere -- maybe under that pile of church sheet music or those drawings by the grandchildren -- to prove it.
The Quilt's Inner Sanctum
Leona explains that the quilt was stitched together in 1988 as a private project to celebrate North Dakota's 100th anniversary of statehood. We take a walk out to the garage to see it. The randomly-folded, tightly-packed mass fills Leona's extended Econoline van to the roof -- a shapeless, tussocky 800 lb. blob resembling a giant wad of used gum. There is barely enough room inside for a driver and Leona is loath to open the van's rear doors, knowing from experience that she may not be able to close them again. But we offer to help repack the quilt, and thus are allowed to touch North Dakota's best-kept tourism secret. It is a bittersweet victory.
The quilt covers 11,390 square feet, a faithful reproduction of the state of North Dakota with every county a different color. Volunteers from 53 North Dakota counties helped stitch the quilt. It was the largest in the world until the AIDS quilt came along; now it's known as the world's largest historical quilt. But that doesn't detract from its largeness, even in a state where vast expanses are taken for granted. Why then, with so much empty space available, doesn't North Dakota display it?
North Dakota's official position, as told to us by a North Dakota official, is as woodenheaded as it is contrite: "She should've asked us before she made it that big."
The Battle Continues
Leona has spent the past several years waging a one-woman war to get her quilt out of her garage and into the public eye. She plans to drive down to Bismarck and plead her case before the governor. She had planned to display the quilt at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, where officials of that city had extended an offer of free space. Leona thought this was fine idea, not being one to care much about state boundaries. North Dakota politicians, however, sensed something funny in their rival state's generous offer and forbade Leona from taking her quilt across the border. They weren't about to let South Dakota spirit their quilt away (as South Dakota did with North Dakota's bones of Sitting Bull -- but that's another story) even though North Dakota shows no interest in displaying it.
For now, Leona must remain the lonely Quilt Queen -- a woman too big for her state. The quilt, if nothing else, is safe. Antler is only five miles south of the Canadian border, so there's little chance that South Dakota can sneak up, kidnap the quilt, and get back undetected. But is anyone keeping an eye peeled for covetous Manitoba's?
November 2010: Janet Tennyson passed away in June 2009. February 2008: Leona Tennyson passed away in 1995, but her daughters-in-law Sharon and Janet have kept the quilt in Antler, folded up in a travel trailer. Sharon and Janet have said that Leona's dying wish was that the 11,390-square-foot quilt be preserved intact. They have vowed to keep looking for a place that will display it.
July 2005: The quilt, which measures 85 ft. by 134 ft., is currently in possession of Janet Tennyson in Antler. The Guinness Book of World Records certified the quilt on July 14, 1988.
March 2002: Donny passed away on Feb. 27, 2002.
July 1996: Leona Tennyson died on May 10, 1995, and the World's Largest Historical Quilt remains vanbound. Donny, Leona's son, who runs the town garage, has been trying to get the quilt back in the spotlight, without much success. "We're trying to get a place to display it. I've been talking with the governor. But it's so big. It should be displayed in North Dakota. But if worse comes to worse...." South Dakota's Corn Palace, here we come.