Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Longhorns on the Chisholm Trail
In August of last year, quilter Helen Blackstone passed away, eight months past her 100th birthday.
A charter member of the Austin Area Quilt Guild, Helen came from a creative family (her brother, Robert Gage, was a noted artist) and she enjoyed designing her own quilts.
She made quilts by the dozens, gifting them to family members and friends, and quilting was her favorite means of artistic expression, although she loved music, drama, visual arts, and literature as well.
Graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, Helen taught second grade for 30 years in an elementary school that served a low-income area. Many of her students did not speak English as a first language.
Nevertheless, Helen managed to instill in them—as she did her own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—a belief in the importance of education and an appreciation for the arts and culture. At her funeral, one of those students from half-a-century earlier spoke eloquently about the impact she had on his life and those of his siblings.
Helen was strong-willed, and she definitely had a mind and opinions of her own. She had a presence about her that could quiet unruly children without saying a word, and she enjoyed a lively give-and-take in conversation.
In the time that I was privileged to know her, I was always surprised by what could be called her genteel feistiness. She was fun to be around.
Helen loved history (she was the historian for her family church) and it was history that inspired her to create the quilt for which she gained the most acclaim, her Longhorns on the Chisholm Trail.
The longhorn is a traditional Texas symbol, as well as the mascot of her alma mater. Every year since 1972, the small town of Lockhart, Texas (where Helen and her husband owned a nearby farm), has held the Chisholm Trail Roundup to commemorate the beginning of one of the major Texas cattle drives of the late 1880s.
In the early days of the Roundup, a quilt contest was part of the festivities. And although Helen did not enter the contest, she was motivated to research the history of the cattle trail and design her quilt, which she created in 1979.
Each element in the quilt was chosen to emphasize the longhorn’s symbolism. Years ago, Helen described those choices to me this way:
“The printed greenish fabric represents the lush green grass on which the cattle were fattened before being driven up the Chisholm Trail. The rust-colored flowered print represents the rocky areas of the trip and the wildflowers passed along the way. The beige fabric suggests the clouds of dust the passing herds kicked up. And the different-colored longhorn in the bottom corner of the quilt—that’s like me—it’s the maverick!”
When referring to cattle, the term “maverick” means an unbranded calf that has become separated from its mother. It also refers to person who is an independent thinker and who often chooses not to conform to the accepted views on a subject. Helen apparently identified with the latter definition, no doubt with a twinkle in her eye.
Rest in peace, Helen. You will be missed.
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