Final four / A 28-year quilting tradition came to an end last week in Lehigh

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
For 28 years, they gathered at the Lehigh Senior Citizen Center twice a week to quilt and enjoy each other’s company-22 women in all when the group was at its peak.

Last week, 439 quilts later, the surviving four members of the group tied the final stitch on the final quilt.

With the decision to close the Lehigh Senior Citizens Center, and with all four of the women in their upper 80s, they figured it was time.

Last Tuesday morning, the women were putting the finishing touches on No. 439: Bernice Bartel, 89, who has been quilting with group since 1981; Mary Ann Duerksen, 87, who figured she started around 1982; Bertha Goentzel, 88, an original member; and Hilma Bartel, 89, who signed on in the mid-1980s, as best as she can recall.

Their final quilt features John Deere tractors-the second of identical quilts made for a Wellington grandmother of twin boys.

“We thought we were going to finish it today, but I don’t think we’ll make it,” Bernice said with a chuckle. “It takes a while to do tractor wheels.”

“A tractor has to have wheels,” added Mary Ann.

With dry banter and laughter surfacing frequently between the women, even a first-time visitor can see this group created something far more enduring than artful bed coverings through the years.

These women are comrades more than coworkers.

“I for one have enjoyed it,” said Hilma. “I’ve been the overseer, seeing that the quilts get put up…. I’ve had a good group to work with. They have really been a nice group of people.”

“I don’t think we’ve quarreled,” Bernice added.

“So we’re quitting on a friendly basis,” Bertha said with a smile.

The newcomer can only imagine the laughter and carrying on that filled the center during the heyday of the group, which gathered faithfully from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Tuesday and again from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursdays.

The names of the 22 women who were part of it are memorialized on a small quilt that hangs on the wall-one quilt block created and autographed in thread by each member.

Now, with four members left, it’s fitting their endeavor ends with the closure of the center. The women started quilting together because of its opening in 1977.

“We had to raise money because we bought these buildings when we started,” Bernice said.

While the women created custom quilts to raise funds, the men did their part by mowing two cemeteries near Lehigh. Together, they also collected and delivered newspapers for shredding in McPherson.

The women said their custom-quilting “business” spread almost entirely by word of mouth. That word generated satisfied customers not only from around Kansas, but also from Texas, Nebraska, Colorado and even California.

“Friends knew about us and they told their friends,” Bertha said. “We were so busy that we sometimes had two quilts going.”

Beyond the 439 quilt projects they completed for others-each of which is recorded in a small notebook-the four women said they also completed many more projects for family members, whether as gifts for children and grandchildren or to mark special occasions such as weddings and births.

The women said they learned quilting from their mothers, but noted that their own children and grandchildren have less time to pursue the art because these days most women are fully employed in the workforce.

So, what will the four women do with the extra time they will now have at their disposal every Tuesday and Thursday?

“I’ll probably go down to the basement and work on some more (quilt) scraps,” Hilma said.

“I’m going to work in the garden,” Bernice chimed in. “Or go fishing-I like to do that. I still go camping, too.”

Bertha said she’s going to help her adult daughter develop her beginner’s skills at quilting.

And sew it goes

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