We’ve got quilts on the mind at the Local and Family History Department—fancy that—but a historical Paducah story about quilting proved elusive. In fact, after a morning of hunting, we only found a single quilting story, just a paragraph long, from an April 1905 Paducah Sun…hardly a prosaic foundation. But your librarians at MCPL are nothing if not passionate and stalwart, and the small article had enough intriguing details that we were ultimately able to follow the threads and patch together a rather sweet tale, a comforter of a tale about love, happenstance, an orphan, the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, and one freakishly dandy of a quilt.
The World’s Fair in St. Louis, 1904, was, in a word, spectacular, for it was not only a fair for the world but a world in and of itself. The grounds of the fair covered 1200 acres and contained 1500 buildings which were connected by over 75 miles of roads and walkways. 62 foreign countries sponsored exhibits, as well as the United States Government and all of the US States. Nearly 20 million people attended the fair. Perhaps, most importantly, the World’s Fair of 1904 introduced the planet to the ice cream cone.
The state of Kentucky, like all the states, had its own building at the Fair, and among the hundreds of exhibits was one relegated for “Women’s Work and Relics,” which included arts and crafts like embroideries, hand-painted satin, rag carpets, fish scale wreaths, table covers, buckeye wood, sun-bonnets, crochet work, and pillow shams. And, naturally, there were quilts on exhibition too, which had brought Miss Louisa “Lou” Catherine Singer, aged 47, to the Fair in the first place. She’d traveled all the way from Milton, KY, a speck of a town northeast of Louisville on the Ohio, just to display her quilt.
Among all the items in the “Women’s Works and Relics” exhibition, which were among all the displays in the Kentucky Building, which sat among all the other state and country buildings, which were scattered throughout the 1200 acre grounds, you might have thought a single woman’s quilt would have gotten overlooked by the masses. Not true, for Miss Singer’s quilt was apparently something special to behold, freakish in its construct, for it contained 122,616 pieces! Granted, I don’t know a lot about quilting (in truth, I know next to nothing), but 122,616 seems an awful lot, a monumental undertaking, for sure.
This is only conjecture, but I reckon more than one person put aside their newfangled ice cream cones to gander at her epic handiwork.
Surely, Miss Singer knew she had something special, and surely she knew that her quilt would be admired by many, but perhaps she couldn’t have predicted that her massive quilt and the massive fair would also introduce her to her future husband. Enter Richard Wilson, also aged 47, from Paducah, who, in wandering through the Kentucky Building, happened upon Miss Singer and her Amazing Technicolor Dream Quilt and found himself awe struck by her talent and love struck by her personage. Miss Singer apparently returned his affections for their conversation not only lasted through the afternoon, but for the rest of the following year until Mr. Wilson finally moved to Milton, Kentucky and married her.
A tale of love, happenstance, the St. Louis World’s Fair, and one freakishly dandy quilt…no? But wait. It’s not quite over. I promised you an orphan in this tale, too, so as epilogue to our love story we flash forward to the year 1910.
Our heroes, now Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, are five years into wedded bliss, now both aged 52 and still living in Milton. Both came into the marriage childless, and because they married later in life, they probably assumed children were not a part of their future. Until Mrs. Lou Wilson found a baby on the banks of the Ohio. The baby, just a few months old, was born to a woman who worked on a river boat and she abandoned him on the Kentucky side of the river. Richard and Lou, now in their middle ages, adopted the boy, named him Forest William Wilson, and after that one can only imagine, though it’s easily figured, that this amazingly patchwork family found a way to live happily ever after, wrapped in the warmth of one ginormous quilt.
To learn more about quilts, quilting, fairs, babies, fish scale wreaths, or any other manner of things, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.