by Suzanne Labry
Spit and Vinegar and the “World’s Largest” Quilt
The state of North Dakota celebrated its centennial year in 1989. As is often the case when states mark a major birthday*, the occasion was celebrated with the making of a special commemorative quilt. However, the North Dakota centennial quilt was quite unlike any other ever created.
Made in the shape of the state and depicting all 53 of its counties, as well as each of its 1,360 townships, the quilt is 85’ x 134’ long, covers 11,390 square feet, and weighs 800 pounds. It takes a team of strong bearers to move it.
The Guinness Book of World Records certified the North Dakota
Centennial Quilt as the World’s Largest in July of 1988.
The making of the quilt was overseen by Leona Tennyson of Antler, ND (population 27, per the 2010 census), who was described as having enough “spit and vinegar” to see the project to completion. Over 7,000 people worked on it and it took two years to complete. Finished in 1988, the Guinness Book of World Records certified it as the World’s Largest Quilt in July of that year. (It has since been eclipsed by both the AIDS quilt and Manta da Cultura, or “Patchwork for Culture,” made in Portugal in 2000.)
The North Dakota centennial quilt is so big that no one knows what to do with it. Sadly, it has never been officially shown to the public. For a while after it was created, it was stored at Minot State University’s athletic center. Until Leona Tennyson passed away in 1995, it was stuffed in her garage in her Ford Econoline cargo van, filling it to the roof and leaving little room for a driver. She was said to have been afraid to open the van’s rear doors after once having trouble getting them closed again. Following Leona’s death, her daughter-in-law has kept it in a travel trailer.
The quilt’s massive size has made it impossible to display. The state government considered dismantling it in 1989 until officials met with Tennyson’s famous spit and vinegar and backed down. One person suggested wrapping it around the 19-story state Capitol building in order to save on heating bills. When a reporter from Roadside America asked a North Dakota official why the state wouldn’t display it, the official responded, "She should've asked us before she made it that big.”
However, Leona Tennyson was not the sort of person to think small. Prior to the centennial, when a representative of the North Dakota governor’s office initially contacted her to see if she would be willing to take on the project, she refused. The more she thought about it, the more she felt it would be a good idea, and she jumped in full throttle.
She eventually traveled throughout the state (driving more than 100,000 miles and wearing out her vehicle in the process) to convince others to work on it with her, and thousands of people did.
Many said that it was Leona’s enthusiasm and cheerful personality that brought them on board with the project. When I asked Sharon Tennyson, Leona’s daughter-in-law who remains the quilt’s sole guardian, whether she herself had worked on the quilt, she quickly responded, “Oh yeah, I had my hands in it too. I think everybody in North Dakota did!”
A newspaper photo in 1988 shows Leona Tennyson wearing a battle helmet and a T-shirt proclaiming
North Dakota’s “victory” in claiming the world’s largest
quilt designation.Why did the quilt grow to such gigantic proportions? It might have had something to do with Leona’s decision to try for official recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records. When she found out that an Australian quilt was also vying for the honor and claimed to be bigger, Leona quickly went to work, adding a border to the North Dakota quilt just in time to win the designation of world’s largest quilt. Pictures of Leona at the time show her wearing boxing gloves and holding her arms over her head in a victory pose. She drove all the way to New York to collect her certificate, traveling in a van festooned with a banner declaring her good-natured win.
Leona’s dying wish was that the quilt be preserved intact. Her daughter-in-law Sharon hopes to get it out of the travel trailer and find a permanent home where it might be displayed, but given the quilt’s vast size, that could prove impossible.
Jenny Yearous, Curator of Collections with the North Dakota State Historical Society, stated that the quilt has been offered to them on more than one occasion and each time they have had to turn it down.
“We simply do not have the resources, nor the space or the money, to care for it properly. For years we have advocated taking the quilt apart county by county and returning those pieces to the county of origin for care and keeping. Some of those county blocks alone would be larger than a king-sized bed. No institution has the ability to store or display the quilt in its entirety.”
Yearous, who is a quilter herself, is sensitive to the poignancy of the situation. “I know how important this quilt was to Leona Tennyson and no one wants to dishonor that. She put her heart and soul into making it, but even though it was a remarkable achievement, it really is just too big to keep together.”
Past Suzy’s Fancy columns have also described celebratory quilts for the states of Arizona, Louisiana, and New Mexico.