The Florida quilt deficit is something that concerns Winnelle Horne. If all of us slept under a comforting quilt, preferably the kind made by a loving hand, Florida surely would be a kinder, gentler, slower place.
Alas, Florida is modern now. Most of us, city folks especially, grew up without quilts. For us a quilt is something quaint, like a hot dog roasted on a stick or an old episode of Little House on the Prairie. Modern Floridians clutch our smartphones, chat on Facebook, speed down the interstate, tap our feet impatiently at the counter while we wait for fast food. Miss Winnelle, as everyone calls her, believes a quilt is slow food for the soul.
"Sure, drive on up," Winnelle Horne told me over the phone. "I am always happy to talk about quilts."
A little while later she appeared at the screen door of an airy building in northwest Florida, not far from the Suwannee River, and said, "Come on in, honey. Bless you for coming. Welcome to the Levy County Quilt Museum."
Miss Winnelle is a high-energy, straight-talking, God-fearing country gal who somehow happens to be 87 years old. She is the Queen of the Quilt Museum. It was her dream, her reason for being. "But I give the credit to the Lord,'' she still tells people.
She learned how to quilt by watching her mama, who learned from her mama. In fact, Miss Winnelle can trace her Florida quiltmaking lineage to a time when settlers kept their muzzle-loaders handy as Seminole Indians slipped like shadows through nearby pines.
"Now I was born right here in Levy County in 1924," she told me. "The midwife who delivered me told Mama 'She's right puny. You'll probably never get to raise her unless you can get her strong. You need to feed her mare's milk.' That's right, honey. I was raised on milk from a horse, and it made me strong."
She needed her strength. Most homes lacked electricity, running water or window screens to keep out the malarial mosquitoes. There were few doctors; people died before their time. It was miserably hot in the summer and cold in the winter unless your mama had made you a quilt out of old clothes. Children worked, in the house and in the fields, alongside the grownups. Rural Florida could be a harsh place.
She remembers an uncle, known as "the meanest man in Levy County," whose two wives had died under mysterious circumstances and who whipped his 10 children. Daddy, meanwhile, no prize, "got run out of the county for touching little girls." In 1928, he and Mama moved to Clearwater to manage an orange grove. Mama, and her quilts, were her only comfort. Daddy continued his bad habits.
"I got out when I could. I ended up marrying this handsome boy when I was 14. I had my first child when I was 15 and my fourth when I was 21. My husband, he wasn't no good. He was a drinker and had an eye for the ladies. I did my best. I made quilts for our kids, tried to hang on, but when I was 30 I said, 'That's it. I'm a-going.' People didn't get divorced much back then, but I did.
"Honey, I had to work hard to support my kids. My ex-husband wasn't no help. He drank himself to death. So I was a carhop at the Bay Drive-In and worked 15 years at Howard Johnson's waiting on tables and cooking and doing whatever they needed me to do. I raised my kids on my wages.''
In 1972 she married a kindly truck driver, Harry Horne, who had been a childhood friend and later the dashing guitar player in the honky-tonking Blue-Diamond Boys. "After we married I'd go on the road with him when he was making deliveries in his truck. I'd sit with him high above the road and see America. Sometimes we saw more than we were supposed to. 'Cover your eyes, Pumpkin,' he'd say, when we passed a car where a man and a woman were . . . well, you know."
In 1983 they moved back to Levy County, where the whip-poor-wills called at night from the pastures and women still got together and quilted during the afternoon at the Baptist church. With her great friend Mary Brookins, Miss Winnelle started the Log Cabin Quilters and began hatching plans to build a clubhouse.
"After Mary died the Lord woke me one night at 3 o'clock in the morning'' is how Winnelle always tells the story. "He said, 'Don't build a little old cabin. Build you a museum. You should have porches on at least three sides, a nice big yard where people can park, and you need to make the building 100 feet long by 50 feet wide."
Miss Winnelle followed the Lord's instructions to the letter.
"We raised money by bake sales, quilt auctions and donations. We had inmates from Lancaster Correctional Institute over in Trenton helping with construction. We had people coming from all over. It was something to see.''
Miss Winnelle, of course, was at the center of it all, issuing orders, making sandwiches, serving ice cream, planting flowers, hanging birdhouses on the porch, arranging quilts and keeping careful records of who helped and when. She wrote a regular column about it all for the Chiefland Citizen.
Florida's only quilt museum opened in 2000.
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Miss Winnelle led me on a whirlwind tour, stopping at almost every quilt in the museum. They hang from walls and racks or are stacked neatly on tables. Some look like checkerboards; others feature every color in an autumn sunset. One quilt was made recently by a teenager; another, acquired from a Levy County family, goes back to 1857.
"This here one is what I call a feathered square quilt,'' Miss Winnelle said as I followed. "This quilt here has the double wedding pattern, two rings interlocked. Over here we got a crazy quilt — look at those colors. This quilt on the table tells the story of the Bible. This one with all the watermelons — it's real special — celebrates the agriculture history of this area.''
Every Thursday the Log Cabin Quilters meet at the museum and stitch. Miss Winnelle allows no swearing or gossiping and discourages discussions about politics.
The club's annual quilt show began on Saturday and will continue through Dec. 4. Attendance is free, though Miss Winnelle is happiest when visitors buy quilts and keep her museum going. On Dec. 3 attendees will also have the opportunity to enjoy a chicken-and-dumplings supper. Of course, Miss Winnelle will be present and talking about quilts. "They're family things,'' she likes to say. "They can give comfort. They're history.''
Miss Winnelle sometimes talks about quilts and her second husband, who became ill in 1990. Prostate cancer, the doctors said. As his time grew short he told his wife: "Bury me in my red necktie. But use the other 49 ties in a quilt."
Harry's quilt has a special place in the museum, close to her. She lives in the museum, opens the doors at 8 a.m. and locks them at 5 p.m. Sometimes she works on a quilt, sometimes she just looks at them. At night she reads her Bible, thinks about Mama and tries not to think about Daddy. She has found it in her heart to forgive her late first husband, the drunkard. She thinks about Harry, of course, and looks forward to their reunion one day.
"Oh, I'm not ready to go yet," she told me. "I'm still pretty healthy. I think it's because I still move around, keep my mind busy, eat good food. I don't take prescription medicine.
"If I have a worry in this world it's about what will happen to the museum when I'm gone. Out of my four children I only have one left and he's not going to take over, I know that.
"I have two ladies who are interested, but my goodness they're smokers. Honey, you can't smoke cigarettes in a museum full of quilts. You just can't. The smell will ruin them.
"So it's a problem. I pray all the time about this problem. 'Lord,' I pray, 'send me somebody who can take care of the museum and love the quilts.' "
It was late in the afternoon when Miss Winnelle led me to the door.
"Anyway, that's my story," she said. "Thank you for coming to the Levy County Quilt Museum. Please come back."
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.