Susan Harriett Littler was her name. From 1890 to 1916 she had 10 children. Eight children survived, one boy and seven girls. On a day in September 2015, six surviving granddaughters came together for a "cousins' reunion" and were reminiscing about their mothers’ mother. Gathered were Johnnie, Carole, Nina, Martha, Sue, and Nancy. It soon became obvious that had I been there at the turn of the Century, Susan was someone, like so many others in her time, that all women would love to have known. To set the chronology, it is important to first let you know that Susan was born in 1869. She married Thomas Dutch Likins in 1890 and had her first of many children a year later, a baby boy. The last child was born in 1916 when Susan was 47 years old.
I listened as the ladies began to recollect fondest memories of their visits to "the farm" during their childhood growing up in Kentucky. This is a compilation of those stories.
Johnny Fay was the oldest girl. She was able to share the most. Her grandmother loved to cook and sew for the children. Johnny remembers her always wearing an apron while she mixed flour, lard and buttermilk atop the cabinet. From behind, the children saw only the bow of the tied apron strings jiggle about and her right hand resting on her hip as she cleverly made biscuits using only her left hand. “And they were SUCH TASTY BISCUITS!"
"Grandmother was always working to make a quilt for each of us," Johnnie said. She proudly displayed her double wedding ring quilt as her cousin Nancy took the photographs.
She kept block pieces, thread and a needle in her apron pocket, purse and sometimes for bigger projects, a bag that she always carried about. Never a moment wasted, for there was always a project in process. (Sound familiar?) I’m sure there were often more than one!
And of course, her husband “Dutch,” just did not get the concept of his wife’s affection for quilting AT ALL! He saw it as a terrible waste of time. His description of quilting was: taking pieces of fabric, cutting them into even smaller pieces, and then spending way too much time sewing them all back together again!
Susan’s fabrics were mostly given to her by other women in the family. After an item of clothing was made for their children or themselves, the scraps went to the Likins farm. Dutch didn’t approve of paying for fabric in a city store either, nor could he justify paying a little more for flour, sugar, seed or animal feed packaged in a fabric sack. “That sack isn’t FREE, that’s why you pay more for that brand!” So, although they were very popular in the mid to late 1800s, feed or flour sack fabrics were only found in Susan's quilts if they had been gifted by a friend.
The younger girls remember Susan quilting or cooking with a cup of Postum close by. Postum was an instant hot beverage alternative to coffee, introduced in 1895 by CW Post. It was a mixture of wheat germ and molasses, obviously liked by many, as it was available until 2007. It has recently returned to the market. An 8-ounce jar retails from $16 to $22! I would have attributed her fondness for this hot beverage to her need for caffeine, considering the many projects she chose to tackle along with the endless responsibilities of farm and family. However, this is a drink with NO CAFFEINE!
There were fond memories of pickled peaches in a canning jar beneath the curtain on the bottom shelf of the jelly cabinet. “You could sneak under the curtain and open a jar and they were so small you could just pop them into your mouth, one at a time!” Another favorite treat to “pop in your mouth” was from the bushes just outside. Gooseberries, not only were they good and easy to eat by themselves, but the gooseberry pies and jams made on the farm were legendary.
Grandmother Susan entertained the children in so many ways. They were taught how to sew, of course. But there were also the dolls. Some were made from pink and white Hollyhocks that grew in the garden. Simply turn one upside down to make the skirt, pop a grape in a flower facing you, connect with a toothpick, and use two toothpicks to make arms. There you have it. A Hollyhock doll!
Nina remembered other dolls. Grandmother would steal from her quilt scraps to create clothing and a bonnet for dried apple dolls. I heard one of the ladies say, “Oh, they were ugly and they looked like little old people. Nobody has one because those old apples could never have lasted this long!”
Sue remembers spending the night and watching her grandmother stitch using only the coal oil lamp for light in the evenings. She recalled the large quilt frame, too. But the best part of spending the night was being in the big bed under the quilt. All the bed linens and the quilts smelled of lye soap. That’s how they were washed. But no one seemed to care.
Sue said the most amazing time was when her grandmother stopped using her hands to sew and magically used them to make animal puppet shadows appear on the wall. “I can still see them in my mind,” she said. She continued to tell me of a time when she accidentally left her doll Katie at the farm, when returning weeks later there was Katie in a brand new striped linen gown trimmed in gold, with an added pocket!
Another wonderful surprise was the small blue silky quilt tied and stitched with pink thread, made to fit perfectly over her doll’s bed. Sue searched her closets and found the doll quilt. It was just as she had described it. And as an added bonus she produced the outfit for her doll and a full size bed quilt, the one that grandmother had made just for her (Sun Bonnet Sue in yellow and blue with applique butterflies at the sashing intersections.)
While visiting Carole she said to me, “You must take a picture of my pink,(appropriately named for this story) “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” quilt. It was one of the last quilts she made, one of my prized possessions and it really is in very good condition.” I snapped a couple of pictures and looked at the quilt admiring each stitch, thinking of her working the thread in and out of the layers while her grandchildren played. I wondered as I looked closely at the fabric hexagons, whose clothes did these came from, whose pajamas, whose doll clothes? And Carole was right, for a quilt that old, it really was in wonderful shape!
And as one remembrance triggered the next, the stories kept coming. Every spring the youngest hens, would lay their first eggs. These eggs were very small, but a treasured find. A trip to the hen house might only produce one small egg on any given day. The child who found the little egg, carefully brought it back to the house for grandmother to fry and place on a special tiny plate. And the baby chicks that hatched from the larger, untouched eggs? If it was still very cold, grandfather Dutch would build a wooden keeper behind the stove where the chicks could stay warm until ready to be returned to their mothers. I’m sure Easter was a special occasion on the farm, too!
Nina remembers sneaking biscuits with butter and sugar, then going to the barn to sew corn kernels together to make bracelets and necklaces. Many of the ladies remember their grandfather putting a watermelon to cool in the creek and eating it in the afternoon on a hot summer day.
There are stories of grandmother stitching away while the kids jumped into the wagon. One would grab the whip and whip that imaginary horse for hours while they all pretended to travel around the world together. “We went everywhere,” Nina said.
"But every year on granddad’s birthday was the most special ride of all. The wagon was hitched to a real horse, and the children would all pile in to take a trip around the farm and down the country roads. Afterwards he'd park the wagon and we’d continue on another make believe journey to a new land". Can you imagine? It must have been a sensational ride!
Interestingly enough, all of the stories the ladies told me include intertwined memories of their grandmother sewing on her quilt pieces whenever there was an opportunity. They told of a special wicker rocker in the living room that had a woven pocket to the side. It was always full of stitched piecing and thread. This was one of her many “story spots”. She would tell stories while she rocked and sewed. It seems that she aspired to complete a quilt for each child and every grandchild. But since fabric was hard to come by, it was noted that when someone requested a quilt be made, they would also collect pieces of fabric they liked. These fabrics were always incorporated with others to make each child their own special quilt.
Her family, the food, the fun, and the quilts she made for them brought immeasurable joy to everyone whose lives she touched. All of her quilts were made using only fabric scraps and she did actually manage to complete a quilt for every one of her children and many of her grandchildren.
A few years back, a box resurfaced just in time for a Likins family reunion. The box contained many, and I mean many, “Cake Stand” quilt blocks that Susan had made. There were enough in the box to give one to each adult female descendant at the reunion. Everyone received a finished quilt block from grandmother, (now great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother to some who attended) along with a short poem that read:
My fingers aren’t so nimble
And my sight is failing fast,
But for future generations
This quilt will share their past.
These were believed to be the last pieces that she made and the intended quilt was never finished.
Even though the first sewing machine was patented for Elias Howe in 1846, when Susan was 23 years old, all of the quilts she made were hand stitched and hand quilted using donated cotton fabric pieces from family and friends. All sewing took place in the light of day or by the light of a coal oil lamp. Martha said that Susan sewed until 1941 when she became ill and she passed away in 1944 at the age of 75. Her heirlooms are cherished as she was cherished her entire life by those she loved who loved her even more. Every stitch still brings back stories and every story represents irreplaceable memories of precious times together on that Likins farm.
I never experienced the love of a grandparent as a child. The story of this special lady makes me want to cook, quilt and write children's books. However, I will say that although I never had the opportunity to know the only surviving boy (Reuben Earl Likins), the first born to Susan and Dutch Likins, I always heard how very special he was. Today I think, “How could any child of Susan’s not be very special?" He was my grandfather. He died in an accident on Christmas Eve when my father, John Thomas Likins, was only 12. My father missed him every Christmas that I can remember.
I know my father would be delighted to read what I have written. Although I never met his father or his grandparents, I am thankful to finally know so much more about them, especially about Susan. I love them and I love his cousins who with their contributions, made the writing of this story possible and brought me to a better understanding of why I love to cut fabric into pieces and sew it back together again.
I hope you found it an interesting and enjoyable read.
Mary Lee we roll along...
Mary Lee resides in Lexington, Kentucky. An artist in several mediums, she pursues folk art, painting, photography, jewelry making, quilt pattern design, and her favorite: quilting and collecting fabric. She has belonged to the same local quilting group for over 30 years and teaches classes in Kentucky and Tennessee. See her greeting card line at cardsbymarylee.com