by Suzanne Labry
The Walker Sisters’ Quilts Exhibited for the First Time
With the National Park Service celebrating its centennial in 2016, U.S. citizens have been reminded of our country’s vast and varied treasure trove of natural resources. That so many areas of such diverse, awe-inspiring beauty have been preserved and protected is a true gift to the world, and we are justified in being grateful that the parks exist.
Interior of Walker sisters' cabin showing quilts on beds and sister Hettie in the foreground, circa 1940s. Note the cabin walls decorated with pages from magazines. Photo courtesy of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park Library & Archives.
From the vantage point of the 21st century, however, it is perhaps difficult for us to realize that creating the parks was no easy task for any number of reasons, including the fact that people living in the area being considered for a park’s boundaries had to be displaced.
Such was the case with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses a portion of the border between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina and bestrides the Appalachian chains of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The U.S. Congress approved authorization of the park in 1926, chartered it in 1934, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated it in 1940. In 1926, most of the 522,419 acres that would eventually comprise the park were privately owned, and had to be purchased from families, timber companies, and other stakeholders.
Among the last holdouts were the five, unmarried Walker sisters—Margaret, Polly, Martha, Louisa (pronounced Lou-EYE-za), and Hettie)—whose 122-acres had been home to their family since the mid-1800s. The Walker sisters, who lived together in the 20’ x 22’ cabin built by their grandfather in 1850, steadfastly (and famously) refused to sell until 1940, when they were given $4,750 for their land and allowed to live out the rest of their lives there through a lifetime lease.
Shoo Fly, one of the Walker family quilts on display at the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center. Photo courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountain Association.
The Walker sisters gained even more widespread fame when a Saturday Evening Post article in 1946 documented their unwavering adherence to a mountain lifestyle of a bygone era. The Walker sisters were quoted as saying, "Our land produces everything we need except sugar, soda, coffee, and salt."
This year, until November 8, 2016, the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center is showcasing an exhibit of six quilts made by the Walker family. The quilts have never been on public display and “serve as a shining example of the sisters’ commitment to the traditions of their family, their ancestors and the land on which they lived.”*
Noted quilt historian and Quilters Hall of Fame member Merikay Waldvogel had the opportunity to study the quilts closely when she volunteered to help catalog items from the Walkers’ cabin that been in storage since the National Park had packed and stored them after the death of the last Walker sister in 1964. Waldvogel has written and lectured about the Walkers’ textiles, coverlets, and quilts.
“I’m not at all certain that all the Walker sisters worked on the quilts, although they could have,” Waldvogel says. “The fabrics in the quilts date to the early 1900s, which would mean that the quilts may have been made by their mother. However, the Walker sisters kept a scrap bag, and so the date of the fabrics might not be the true indication of when the quilts were made. What is known for sure is that the sisters were noted for their overshot woven coverlets. They raised sheep and carded, spun, and dyed wool to weave the coverlets. They also raised a few cotton plants in their garden and their father built a small hand-cranked cotton gin to remove the seeds. So the cotton batts inside the quilts could have been carded by the sisters as well—they did everything for themselves.”
*From the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center website.