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Uncovering a quilt mystery, one square at a time

 Each quilt square has a name on it. The quilt was made in 1938. Rita Stracek is working to find out more about each woman whose name is embroidered on the quilt. This quilt square was made by Mrs. G. Peyer (Marie). Photo by Rita Stracek.

Each quilt square has a name on it. The quilt was made in 1938. Rita Stracek is working to find out more about each woman whose name is embroidered on the quilt. This quilt square was made by Mrs. G. Peyer (Marie). Photo by Rita Stracek.

Rita Stracek, of rural Staples, has a quilt mystery. Back in 1938, 46 women who were all believed to have been members of the Riverside Ladies Aid each embroidered a quilt block. Though the decorative stitching was complete, the squares of bleached flour sacking dolled up with brilliant pinks and lavenders, greens and blues and reds, in floral designs, baskets, birds and children, languished in someone’s attic, a drawer or a box. When Rita saw the squares, she decided she needed to learn more about who the women were. With the women’s names as the only clues, Rita, who is a member of the Todd County Historical Society, had her work cut out for her.

A lifelong member of the Staples/Browerville community, Rita has connections in many social and family circles. She knew family names; even relatives of some of the women, though, of course, none of the original quilt square creators are still living. As her project took shape, so did the quilt.

Nearly 70 years ago, the squares were collected in the home of Dolores Oldenburg. While she may have intended to stitch the sashing to connect the squares, add batting, backing and quilting stitches, she didn’t get the job done. But then, she was only 15 and may have had other things on her mind. To risk a little conjecture, it’s more likely that her mother gathered the blocks and had a plan for them. However, neither her mother, Clara Oldenburg, nor her grandmother, Anna Adamek, who lived with the family in the 1930 census, completed the quilt blocks. However, her 10-year-old sister Cleone did, and her paternal grandmother, Eva Oldenburg, did. Her aunts Etta Gaffke Oldenburg and Margaret Oldenburg did. And her two Adamek aunts, Bessie and Ruth, did. Their mother, Anna Adamek, had died four years before the quilt project which explains why she didn’t make one.

In looking closely at these connections, it starts to become clear that Grandma Oldenburg and her two granddaughters signed up for the quilt project as well as Dolores and Cleone’s aunts on both their mother’s and father’s sides. Whether all of the women were members of the Riverside Ladies Aid or if Grandma Oldenburg was a member who encouraged participation by her extended family, one can never know, since the quilt is the only evidence of the existence of the Riverside Ladies Aid. The geographical area between Moran Township and Lincoln, the region from which the women came, had three schools named Riverside, one church and a 4-H club, though none of these can be conclusively connected to the Ladies Aid.

Rita searched through all of the Staples World newspaper issues from 1938 but found no mention of the Riverside Ladies Aid. Oral history has it that during the post-depression years these women got together monthly in each other’s homes. Lacking electricity, (electrification came to Todd County in about 1940) they likely gathered during the day for an outing from their hard, everyday lives. Relatives recall that the ladies chipped in 10 cents each for lunch. Cars were in common usage, but whether these women drove themselves to meetings or were driven by “the menfolk” is uncertain.

Rita Stracek holds the historic quilt with names of members of the Riverside Ladies Aid from 1938. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Rita Stracek holds the historic quilt with names of members of the Riverside Ladies Aid from 1938. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Ladies Aid groups as well as homemaker groups and neighborhoods often made friendship quilts to give on special occasions or to welcome someone new into the community. Rita hasn’t been able to learn of the intended purpose of this quilt, but ultimately, the squares ended up with Dolores Oldenburg Robinson’s family who donated them to the Staples Thread Shed. From the Thread Shed they traveled to the Day Activity Center (DAC) in Browerville.

When Clara Koval embroidered blue lazy daisy and French knot flowers and outlined her name she had no way of knowing that her daughter-in-law Lucille Koval would be the one to show the collection of blocks to Rita after the blocks had been discovered at the DAC. “I recognized some of the names and thought this would be a great way of telling the history of our county in a new way,” said Rita. While Rita contacted some of the living relatives of the Riverside Ladies Aid, Clara’s daughter, Dee Koval Iten, and Delores Luke (who also had a relative represented among the block makers) assembled the squares into an 8-foot by 9-foot quilt, choosing complimentary colors for the sashing and backing it with a lovely light blue print.

Rita’s research began to illuminate colorful stories of the embroiderers. Dolores Oldenburg’s aunt Ruth graduated from Staples High School in 1921. Her father, Christ Weum, was a railroad employee and arranged for his 18-year-old daughter to travel by train from the Staples depot to the West Coast right after graduation. The plan was for her to find a job there. But she had other ideas, and by the end of August, she was back in Minnesota. Her boyfriend, Tony Adamek, met her at the train station in Long Prairie, and they headed straight for the courthouse where they were married on Aug. 24, 1921. When Ruth embroidered her name on the quilt square 17 years later, she had four children and was most likely pregnant with the fifth who was born on Aug. 11, 1938.

Another quilt block, that of Marie Peyer, revealed that Moran Township once had a Swiss cheese factory. Marie and her husband Gottlieb were both born in Switzerland. Gottlieb came to Minnesota in 1900 and Marie in 1908. They settled near Wadena and by 1913 had relocated to Todd County where they made cheese in the basement of their large brick home. Gottlieb was listed as a cheesemaker in the 1913 listing of Minnesota Creameries, Cheese Factories and Canning Factories.

Life for the Peyers was that of a busy diversified farm and grew to include five children. Their granddaughter, Gloria Peyer Frost, remembers going to the Ladies Aid meeting with her grandmother. “(There was) much talking, singing and each one brought food. It was much fun. Many farm ladies came.”

Marie’s handiwork, in addition to embroidering a circle motif and spray of pink, yellow and blue flowers on her quilt square, extended to crocheting doilies and knitting items to give to family and friends.

Rita has collected as many of the stories as she can find such as these of Marie Peyer and the Oldenburg family. Of the 46 women represented by the quilt blocks, 30 will be in the book Rita will publish and have available on Todd County’s sixth annual History Day on Oct. 3 at the Browerville Community Center. Rita’s book will highlight the Riverside Ladies Aid quilt and several others to be displayed by the six historical societies of Todd County. These other quilts include a Red Cross quilt from 1918. It has 589 embroidered names and was sold as a fundraiser in Bertha. It’s also interesting to note that it was purchased by Dr. W.W. Will who delivered many babies in Todd County in the mid-20th century. Another is a two-sided quilt, one side made in 1926 by the Willing Workers Club and the other made to back it 50 years later in celebration of the country’s bicentennial in 1976.

If anyone knows of the Riverside Ladies Aid or its members, Rita would love to learn more. Contact her at

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