Circuit Rider's Quilt

 The story of this very old, very used quilt has intrigued me since 1990 when a friend gave me her close-up photos of it and said, “Do what you will.” Of course I wanted to know who made it. It was a gift to the Upper Room Museum (see in Nashville, TN in 1973. Passed down in the donor’s family, it was reputed to have belonged to Elisha Carr, a Methodist Circuit Rider from 1830 to 1860. Family stories tell us that his sister made it from fabric scraps that he requested from the families with whom he stayed on his travels. It now resides folded in a display case behind glass.  I visited it earlier this week and gloried over the beauty of the colors and the variety of these textiles from so long ago.  The above photo does not do it justice! Here is a closer look at one of the sixty-two photos that Ruth took. She put the string grid over it so that she could study the individual pieces to determine how they were woven. She decided that most of the cloth was manufactured in northern mills, although some was hand woven.

1830s cloth

     A circuit rider would ride his horse to and within a certain prescribed geographical area, usually without church buildings, and spread the gospel to the inhabitants in a home or outside under the trees. Elisha Carr went wherever the church sent him, on horseback, to the same places each month within the year. The church gave him an new assignment every year, but sometimes it was the same as the year before. He would get to know the families in his circuit and board with a family, usually for one night, and then ride on to the next neighborhood to preach, teach, and care for their spiritual needs. For a number of years he ministered in the “African missions,” which meant he served the slaves in his circuits throughout middle Tennessee and northern Alabama. The focus of these missions was to teach the Bible and how to live a Christian life. With such an itinerant life, he had few possessions; this quilt was one of them. He would always have it with him, rolled in a piece of canvas, in case there was no family to stay with and he had to sleep “out.”

Brother Elisha Carr (1806-1866) Methodist Circuit Rider
Brother Elisha Carr (1806-1866) Methodist Circuit Rider

     I wanted to know who made this quilt for him and how it survived to this day. Brother Elisha never married and never had his own home, staying with church friends and family, who came from founding settlers of this area. Some research was done at the library in Nashville, but in 2005 I began to use the internet and I visited the Methodist Archives. I figured that maybe the donor of the quilt was somehow related to Brother Elisha, so I worked on who his sisters were. He was one of fourteen children, so it took a while. Eventually I got the name of a woman to telephone, and she immediately said, “Oh yes, my grandmother’s grandmother made that quilt; my grandmother kept it safe over the years in a “dark” closet on the second floor of the family home.” Jackpot! Thank goodness I found Jean in 2005, because she passed away this past April and the story probably would have gone with her.

     So Mary “Polly” Carr Stewart Crenshaw (1801-1888) made the quilt and saved it after her brother died in 1866. The quilt was probably made in the early to mid 1830s and is quite worn after travelling with him for over 20 years. The brown cloth on the back looks handwoven and hand-dyed, and because its a loose weave, it is pretty fragile now. The batting is cotton and would have been hand carded. Of course, the quilt may have never been washed, and this may have preserved the beautiful colors.

     My little piece of this whole story was to identify the maker of the Circuit Rider’s Quilt, and with the help of the TN Methodist Archives in Nashville, public library resources, and online sources I can begin to get a sense of who she was and what her life was like. Descendants call him “Uncle Elisha” and his story is well documented, but I think that his older sister Polly is very much a part of the Circuit Rider’s Quilt story. Her name will go with the quilt’s story from now on.

1830's quilt fabric


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