The quilt is so large that Terry Short, a cousin of Amy Tetterton's, had to build a custom rack for the women to work on. The finished quilt will be about 11 by 14 feet, Tetterton said. Courtesy of Terry Short.

Since last summer, Amy Tetterton has spent three months bunked down in houses and hotels in and around the small Wise County town of Pound, more than 300 miles from the central Virginia community that she calls home – but closer than she’s ever been to the deep and sometimes mysterious roots that her family put down generations ago in the state’s coalfields.

Amy Tetterton. Courtesy of Amy Tetterton.

Tetterton, who grew up mostly in Prince George County but lived briefly in Pound as a small child and a teenager, had always felt a connection to the town; it was like a set from “The Andy Griffith Show,” she said, a place populated by fond memories of her granny and aunts and uncles and friends from Pound High School.

But she said it wasn’t until she started mining the history of the region and hearing the personal stories of the families who had given years – and lives – to the coal industry that she really knew where she’d come from.

“I had to really go back to the coalfields to understand it,” she said.

Those months of on-the-ground research became Project Heritage Quilt, a history of the coalfields stitched in muslin and fabric scraps.

The resulting 11-by-14-foot quilt, the capstone of a fellowship that Tetterton embarked on a year ago, will be unveiled at a May 12 gala at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and will be on display in Pound later this summer.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

The 60 blocks of the quilt were made by women in Wise and Dickenson counties, and the images they chose tell their stories:

The silhouette of a miner, pickaxe in hand.

An image of the old Dickenson County Memorial High School, demolished despite pleas from the community to save it.

Flowers fashioned out of polyester rags salvaged years ago from the mines.

The blocks are as varied as the women who sewed them, but all feature shades of red, the favorite color of Dorothy June Short Mullins –  Mommy Dorcie, as Tetterton, her granddaughter, calls her.

“It’s all been in her honor,” Tetterton said. “I really feel like she encapsulates Appalachia – the spirit, the love, and even the hardship. I feel like she could be the poster child for Appalachian women in general. I did it in her honor, but also to represent all the grannies.”

Tetterton, who’s 52 and lives in Powhatan, is part of the Mellon Pathways Program for students who are earning an associate degree at John Tyler Community College (soon to be Brightpoint) and plan to get a bachelor’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.

She was selected as a Mellon Research Fellow, a position that gave her a stipend and a faculty adviser to support a research project in the arts or humanities.

As she brainstormed project ideas, Tetterton said she kept coming back to her grandmother, who died in 2002, and to the rich heritage of arts and crafts in Appalachia.

In the beginning, she said, the plan was to get her family together, tell some stories and make a quilt.

But the more she immersed herself in the region – the more she came to understand the complex heritage of coal country, and how its people are seen, and see themselves – the more she believed that the project needed to be broader than just her family. 

“I want us to be represented the way we want to be represented, not the way that the outside world has represented us thus far, or sees us thus far,” she said.

“I thought, let’s make it a community focus. Let’s let everyone contribute,” she said. “And then if I do another quilt, it can focus toward my individual family. But I really wanted it to be symbolic for all Appalachians. So I invited the community in.”

***

That invitation wasn’t immediately accepted. Despite her family connections, Tetterton still got the sense that she was seen as an outsider, she said, and she struggled to share her vision for the project. She tried to do outreach through social media, she tried face-to-face meetings. She grew frustrated by her lack of progress. 

“That was my biggest challenge – getting people to get it,” she said. “I always knew, just because of my experience here … I was going to have to break a barrier. I was going to have to get in and I knew that it was going to have to be immersive and face-to-face.”

One night in February, she was on the phone with her mentor, exhausted and in tears because she wasn’t getting concrete offers of help and wasn’t sure she could finish the project.

The next day, she got a call from Janice Rife, a retired teacher and history enthusiast in Clintwood who had seen a newspaper story about the quilt project and wanted to know more.

Rife provided the in that Tetterton so badly needed.

“She has been a key that’s opened so many doors,” Tetterton said.

Rife is a member of the Dickenson County Historical Society, and while she said she isn’t a big quilter herself, she knows women who are. She introduced Tetterton to them and committed to helping with the project.

Rife had been thinking a lot about the old Dickenson County Memorial High School, which had been named in honor of the 16 county men – including her great-uncle – who died in World War I. Rife, who attended the school as a child and later taught third grade there, said she’d pleaded with the board of supervisors to spare the century-old brick building from demolition, but it was torn down several years ago.

She found a photo of the building and, with help from quilter Kaye Buchanan, turned it into a square for Tetterton’s quilt.

From there, Rife said, “I guess things just kind of snowballed.”

Other historical society members and other quilters wanted to be part of the project. They offered up squares: a miner, a heart, a Bible, a commemoration of the 16 WWI veterans, and more.

Tetterton extended the deadline a couple of times. “I kept opening it back up because there was promise here, or promise there, and I thought gosh, if I could only get 10 more,” she said. 

As with so many big projects, the momentum was slow to build. But then people finally caught hold of the vision, she said, and so the squares kept coming.

***

So did the stories.

The quilt itself is only part of Tetterton’s project. Every person who created a square also submitted a written account of the memory behind their piece of fabric. Tetterton is compiling them into a book that will be on display with the quilt.

The registration packet provided a page for each person’s story, but that often wasn’t enough. 

Buchanan’s husband, who’d worked in the mines for 34 years, wrote three pages about his life underground. He’d been in the mine when an explosion hit, Buchanan said. He got out but was part of the rescue team, so he had to go back down to find his fellow miners. He was courageous like that, she said.

He’d had to force himself to go to work every day, he told her after he retired 20 years ago; he had claustrophobia. “He never mentioned that, and I just cried,” Buchanan said. “He had to work, so he went down.”

Their grandkids never knew about the life he’d led, she said. “When I read the story to them, they cried – we all cried,” she said. “They wanted that letter that he had written about the coal mines. It is a really good story.”

That’s exactly what Tetterton had hoped would happen – that families would start a conversation and learn more about their own history. 

“Three of her grandchildren now are just so proud of Papaw, and they have this new respect for what he did and what they didn’t even know,” Tetterton said.

“He didn’t know they were interested. And I think that’s part of this journey. If we don’t stop and talk, we’re going to lose our history. A lot of this is not documented, it’s not told generation to generation, whether it’s the older folks thinking we’re not interested, or if it’s the younger folks not taking time to ask and show their interest.

“Either way, if it’s not done, it’s going to be lost.”

Rife wrote four pages about the high school. She helped other people transcribe their stories, too, like the one from the local man who was stationed in Korea in the 1960s, fell in love with a woman there, and brought her back to Virginia. They both come to historical society meetings, Rife said, although her health hasn’t been so good. He carries around a photo from the early days of their marriage; that image is now on one of the squares, she said.

One square, done in the popular hexagonal Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern, is made from old polyester rags.

The woman who made the square wrote about how the miners would salvage from the mines the best of the rags that were being thrown in the trash, and would bring them home so their wives could make quilts. Her dad still had some of those rags, so she took them and made her square.

“We’re just so spoiled, and just have no idea what our forefathers went through,” Tetterton said. “Our grandfathers, even our really close relatives, all of whom we actually know, and some of them are still living – they lived that. And that was so surreal to me.”

Terry Short, who was born and raised in Pound – and who, it turns out, is a cousin of Tetterton’s – said he learned pieces of the region’s history that he’d never heard before. 

“It ain’t as simple as it’s just a quilt project,” said Short, who spent hours with the quilters, helping them maneuver the massive quilt and manage the oversized frame he’d built for it.

“Sitting there with them and hearing their stories – to me, that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

***

The empty center square will feature a tribute to Amy Tetterton’s grandmother, Dorothy June Short Mullins, or “Mommy Dorcie,” who taught Tetterton to quilt. Courtesy of Terry Short.

Even as the project grew beyond a family quilt, family remained a source of inspiration – and, sometimes, surprise – for Tetterton.

She connected with several cousins she didn’t know she had, including Short, on whom she came to rely for advice and on-the-ground support.

An even bigger surprise came when she met for the first time with the Reedy Ridge quilting circle, Buchanan’s quilting group.

Tetterton’s mother was with her on that visit. A woman introduced herself as Evelyn Cantrell Strouth, and Tetterton’s mother perked up.

“My mom says, ‘I’m a Cantrell. We might be kin.’ And she [Strouth] said, ‘Did you ever know Dewey Cantrell?’ And my mom says, ‘That’s my grandpa,’” Tetterton recalled.

“She says, ‘Well, that’s my daddy.’” 

The hugs followed immediately, Buchanan said. “I didn’t think she was going to let her go,” she said. “She was so happy to meet her. … It was emotional.”

Months later, Tetterton’s voice still breaks when she talks about the meeting.

“We could’ve all just fallen out,” she said. “We all just burst into tears. She’s 90. How much time have we lost here?”

One branch of the family had always been shrouded in secrecy – “a sordid tale of why and what,” Tetterton said – so she never even knew Strouth existed.

“That personal connection has been unfathomable for us,” she said.

***

Tetterton said she hopes the project brings a more positive kind of attention than Pound has recently been getting.

The town, once a bustling commercial hub buoyed by the taxes paid by coal mine operators, now has fewer than 900 residents, a handful of businesses and a dwindling town budget. As Pound’s fiscal fortunes have followed those of coal, residents and town officials have fought over its water system, its police department, its taxes – even over who should hold keys to the town hall.

Early this year, it came to a head when the General Assembly voted to revoke the town’s charter if it couldn’t get its act together. (Read our earlier coverage of Pound’s struggles here.)

Since then, a newly reconstituted town council has been meeting regularly and trying to bring some order back to town business. Discussions are ongoing about launching a much-needed audit of town finances, and pursuing overdue taxes, and hiring town staff. Plans are in the works for Pound Heritage Days in June, and Tetterton said she expects to have the quilt on display there.

She worries about what the much-publicized infighting has done to the reputation of the town, and, on a broader scale, what it has meant for Appalachia.

She hopes that the work going on now to correct the town’s course has come in time. “I think that that’s the sad part,” she said. “And it’s not just Pound, it’s everywhere. It gets to a point where it’s too late, and then the work starts. And it’s like, is it too late? We don’t know. I guess time will tell. But this needed to be happening 10 years ago.”

The demise of coal and subsequent economic freefall shouldn’t have come as a surprise, she said. But the blame doesn’t just fall on local leaders.

“Diversification needed to take place first,” she said. “That’s where the government at a higher level has failed us, in Appalachia. There has been no foresight as to what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it. … If you’re going to phase out coal, you better be replacing it with something else or you’re hitting already disparaged people in the jugular.”

She had long noted, and wondered about, the “endearing humility” she saw in so many people she’s met in the region – humility that reaches the point of being self-deprecating, she said. The more historical reading she did and the more people she talked to and the more documentaries she watched about coal strikes and mining disasters and black lung, the more she understood.

“Why do they feel less than? I really tried to answer that question in my research, and it once again led me to the coalfields,” she said. She believes it’s a feeling that has taken hold over many generations, back to the late 1800s, with miners and their families treated as though all they were capable of was digging coal.

That growing understanding gave weight to her project, she said, and gave her new insight into her own Mommy Dorcie.

“My granny always felt less than,” she said. “She never saw her self worth, ever – as a pillar in our family, as a craftsperson. What she did, she did for love and gave her quilts away. Much as most people do here.”

She doesn’t want to discourage that giving spirit. But she does believe that places like Pound need to capitalize on the work of their artisans and craftspeople to encourage a broader economic recovery. 

Tetterton looks at the example set by Gee’s Bend, the Alabama community whose quilting heritage stretches back to the time of slavery and whose quilters continue to create works of art that hang in museums and fetch thousands of dollars from collectors.

She sees parallels in the origin stories of quilting in Gee’s Bend and the coalfields: In both places, poor women quilted out of necessity, using whatever scraps of cloth they could find to create coverlets to keep their families warm. But the resulting quilts were works of art that, in the case of Gee’s Bend, finally have gotten their due.

“My vision is to mimic what Gee’s Bend has accomplished. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “We just have to get our arts and crafts out there on the open market and let you realize just how much you really are worth, from an economic standpoint and self-discovery. You have to realize that what you’re doing is important and grab hold of that.”

Rife said the project has given her a new appreciation for just how much talent is in the region, sometimes well-hidden. She hopes that story reaches beyond Wise and Dickenson.

“A lot of people used to say, ‘Oh, these politicians that are in Virginia or in Washington, D.C., think that Virginia ends with Roanoke,’” she said. “We just wanted people to know, I guess, that we’re not a bunch of ignorant hillbillies, that we do have intelligent, talented people that care about each other. Our faith is very important to us. We just want people to know, I guess.”

The Reedy Ridge quilters already are working on another quilt, she said, one that will focus on Dickenson County.

Tetterton wants to build on the months of work she and others put into laying the framework for the Pound quilt. 

“I don’t want it to be a one-and-done,” she said. “It’s a legacy for me, for my own personal journey of discovery, but I want it to become an Appalachian legacy for us collectively to show off a little bit. ‘Show out,’ as they call it here.”

She likes the idea of a quilt to commemorate all of the old schools that have been torn down across the region, like Pound High School, where she was briefly a student. Maybe a project like that could even spur action to save others from the wrecking ball, she said. 

There are no firm plans for the Pound quilt after it’s shown in Richmond and in Pound, but Tetterton said she’d love to see the Museum of Fine Arts pick it up for an exhibit.

The quilters have even grander ideas. Buchanan wants the quilt to go to the governor’s mansion, and then to the White House, and then “all the way around the world.”

“If you’re going to aim for something, aim big,” she said.

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.