by Suzanne Labry
The Willie Nelson
Picnic Quilt Collection
From 1776 until the present day, July 4th has been observed in the United States as the day that marks the birth of the country’s independence, and it is celebrated nationwide with fireworks, parades, and family get-togethers. In Texas for much of the past four decades, the date has also been marked with a major concert known as the Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic.
As one of country music’s most recognized recording artists, Willie Nelson is also known as a popular songwriter, author, poet, actor, and activist, and his career has spanned more than seventy years.
Photo Right: Willie Nelson performs at a more recent 4th of July picnic. Photo credit www.willienelson.com
A beloved figure whose fame extends far beyond country music circles, the 83-year-old Nelson’s colorful life has become legendary in his home state of Texas. A good bit of that notoriety has come from the (mostly) annual 4th of July picnics that, in the beginning, were as famed for their excesses as for the performances of the many famous musicians who were part of the concert lineup.
An especially memorable picnic was the one held in 1976, when 85,000 concertgoers descended upon the small, historic South-Central Texas town of Gonzales and torrential rains turned the rural event site into an enormous mud pit.
Photo Left: Willie Nelson's 1976 4th of July Picnic, Gonzales, Texas. Photo courtesy of The Gonzales Inquirer.
If you’re thinking that such a situation might be
an unlikely place for the discovery of a quilt collection, you’d be right. But that’s exactly
John Dromgoole, now recognized throughout the U.S. as an organic gardening pioneer, was a young man in his 20s in 1976, and he and a group of friends were among the thousands who went to Gonzales to attend Willie’s 4th of July Picnic. When the heavy downpour and huge crowd turned the site from a ranch pasture into a muddy mess, the revelers made the best of the situation by
dancing in the rain and sliding around in the ensuing muck.
The next morning, as bedraggled concertgoers left the scene, Dromgoole and his friends decided to wait until the crowd thinned and traffic lessened before leaving themselves. While walking around the ruined pasture, Dromgoole kept noticing pieces of fabric protruding from the mud. Finally, he stopped and tugged on one of the pieces, and to this surprise, he realized that it was a quilt—intended as a spot to sit on during the concert—that had been trampled into the mud and left behind by its owner.
Wherever he saw a bit of quilt sticking up, Dromgoole extracted it from the mud and dragged it over to the van that he and his friends had come in. By the time he finished, he had recovered close to 20 quilts.
Dromgoole somehow managed to load the sodden, mud-caked quilts into the van, and upon arriving home, he first hosed them down outside, then took them to a commercial laundry and washed them numerous times. Cleansed of their mud coating, the quilts revealed themselves, surprisingly intact.
“These were somebody’s heirlooms, something a grandmother or mother had made,” Dromgoole says. “It was sad to see them so disrespected. I guess people were just too tired to be bothered and they probably thought that the quilts were too far gone to save.”
Photo Right: Is he more convincing than Uncle Sam? A poster for the 1983 Picnic. Photo credit www.willienelson.com
Thankfully, Dromgoole recognized the quilts for what they were and managed to salvage them, for the most part. He gave some of them to his traveling companions, used many of them himself, and through years he has given the remainder away to friends. But Dromgoole’s “collection” just goes to show that you never know when, where, and how quilts might become a part of your life—even when least expected.
Note: Willie and his Family and Friends are at it again – this year’s 4th of July Picnic will take place in Austin, TX. It is sold out! Go to www.willienelson.com for details.