Late last fall SCHS had the pleasure to assist the Virginia Quilt Museum raise funds for the purchase and return to the Valley of a quilt with the inscription “Elizabeth Neffs Property Shenandoah County VA 1843.” The quilt had been sold to a California collector in 2001 who decided that it was time for this treasure to come home.
It was only after the purchase was secured that a chance conversation led us to discover how the quilt ended up in San Diego, and who “our” Elizabeth Neff was. Local collector, Kenna Fansler, told us he remembered a signed Shenandoah County quilt being sold, and when we followed up with Jeff Bradfield, the owner of Rolling Hills Antiques in Harrisonburg VA, we found that he too remembered the quilt. A photograph confirmed the quilt’s identity, and thanks to Jeff’s records, and good memory, we discovered that until that sale in 2001, the quilt had not gone far from home and family. Jeff purchased it from Mary Miller, widow of Ralph Miller of Bridgewater VA. Research revealed that Ralph’s grandmother was Elizabeth Neff Miller (1833-1917), born at Rude’s Hill in Shenandoah County.
When Elizabeth (known as Bettie) married in 1856, we believe she took the quilt with her to Bridgewater, where she lived the rest of her life. Bettie and husband, Samuel, built a lovely home in 1876, in which their son Virgil, and then grandson, Ralph, lived. Ralph and Mary eventually sold the homeplace and moved nearby; it was in a chest at the foot of the bed in this home when the quilt finally left the family, was sold and taken several thousand miles away.
Bettie was only 10 years old at the time the quilt’s inscription was written, making it unlikely that she was the maker, as it’s a sophisticated and well-made quilt. Who made the quilt? The mystery remains. We can only speculate that a family member may have made this very special gift for a proud Elizabeth, who signed it to signify her ownership.
Quilt Museum Curator Gloria Comstock decided that we had to have a special event for Elizabeth’s quilt. So, a large and enthusiastic crowd found their way to the Shenandoah County Historic Courthouse in Woodstock on June 18 to celebrate the homecoming of the 1843 Elizabeth Neff quilt back to the Valley. In addition to exhibiting the Neff quilt, we took this unique opportunity to invite other Shenandoah County families to bring their own family quilts to share. Visitors enjoyed a rare opportunity to see more than 40 Shenandoah County quilts, quilt tops, and quilted wall hangings, all attesting to the skill and creativity of long ago ancestors. Most of these treasures usually reside safely at the homes of their owners, not available for public viewing.
The courthouse was full of happy conversations about stories of the quilts, their makers and families, and the quilts journeys through the years. Mrs. Comstock, with Museum volunteer, Jenny Miller, displayed the Neff quilt in a place of honor in the 1871 courtroom, where visitors stopped to enjoy it and to learn about its origins and travels. Discussions about Neff family connections were overheard, and it’s possible that a few people discovered new family relations. Many visitors, and quilt owners alike, were pleased that several attendees had expertise in the textile field, and learned a great deal from them about the heirlooms on exhibit. Mrs. Comstock had mentioned previously that she hoped the event would be an opportunity to commend those who cherish and are the caretakers of quilts and we believe this was achieved.
Many thanks to those who shared their treasures and made the day such a success including Gloria Comstock, Jenny Miller, Anna Palmer, Henry & Catherine Buhl, Gloria Stickley, St. Paul Lutheran Church Strasburg, C.J. Borden, Jane Rhodes, Laura Ellen Wade, Mary Redmon, Barbara Hollar, Ruby Swartz, Phyllis Wright, Anna Mae Ortgies, Vicki Mongold, Sue Brown Williams, Mary Ruth Parsons, Debby Cooney, Marlyn Hoffman, Jean Martin and the Woodstock Museum.
• Foster a spirit of cooperation between existing organizations, writers, historians, genealogists, collectors, preservationists, and other members of the Shenandoah County community.
• Aid in the collection and creation of materials and publications about the history of Shenandoah County and ensure that they are preserved and made available to the community.
• Support efforts by citizens, organizations and government to preserve historic buildings and sites.
• Share history through programs and exhibits.