Tuesday, December 27, 2011

One Quilt's Story: Anna Koch Preuss' Tree Quilt

Anna Koch was born February 17, 1864 in northwestern Germany. She came to America with her family when she was twenty years old, enduring a rough voyage from Holland. When their ship, the S.S. Rotterdam, was well out to sea, a terrible storm came up. The winds tore a hole in the side of the ship, so that even the captain thought they would all be drowned. Anna's father, Frederick Koch, and a friend, Mr. Fudiker, began to earnestly pray for the safety of the ship. Suddenly, the ship lifted up and rolled to the undamaged side, offering the crew an opportunity to bail out the water and repair the wooden hull. As soon as repairs were done, the ship righted itself and carried its grateful passengers to America!

The Koch family settled in Kansas, where Anna met and married Gustav Preuss, also from Germany. They moved to the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin in 1892, because the flat lands of Kansas did not appeal to Mr. Preuss. Wisconsin was more like his native Germany. They lived in a log cabin while Gustav, a carpenter, built the farmhouse. Together they had two sons and seven daughters, and built a prosperous farm. Their daughter Emma recalls the orchards, grape arbor, wild berries, fresh butter, wild game, popcorn, and other wholesome foods harvested and enjoyed by the family. She also had fond memories of sleigh rides over the snow-covered hills.

In the midst of gardening, canning, and cooking, the Preuss women also had to sew clothes and knit stockings and mittens for their large family. All the girls stitched samplers and learned to sew and knit like their mother. Daughter Claribel recalls a sock knitting machine that was cranked by hand to produce the tubular parts of the socks, while the heels and toes were done by hand. And yes, there was even time to produce some fancy needlework: probably by lamplight during those long Wisconsin winters. Anna had cedar chests made of cedar from the farm. These held her embroidery and her quilts. She gave embroidered pillowcases to each of her seventeen grandchildren, and several of her quilts survive today. The tree quilt in my closet was made by Anna and given to her youngest daughter, Claribel, who then passed it on to her grandson, Keith Schimmel. The tree blocks are hand pieced of assorted cottons and hand quilted. It was made to fit a double bed.

In February of 1916, a traumatic event shook this family. Gustav left the house with his dog and some traps, announcing that he was going to check his trap line. (Trading furs provided an additional source of income for the family.) At dusk, the dog returned without Gustav. Fearing he had fallen somewhere in the wooded hills and was injured and freezing, neighbors searched long into the night by lantern light. To this day, no trace of Gustav Preuss has ever been found. Though there was much speculation and gossip, the family quietly concluded that they had been abandoned. With typical German determination, they made plans to carry on. Anna and the four youngest daughters, Becky, Ruth, Anna, and Claribel, moved to the nearby town of Prairie-du-Sac, where they turned to dressmaking for support. Eventually all the Preuss children married and had families of their own.

Anna's descendants include many accomplished needleworkers, including daughter Claribel, who was especially fond of cross-stitch and knitting. Claribel's six great grandchildren all slept under hand-knitted baby blankets, with cross-stitched pictures framed above their beds. Claribel had to ask a cousin, Marianne Conner, to finish her last cross-stitch project, as her eyesight was no longer up to the task. She did, however, continue to knit for several years after that. All this collected needlework is now being preserved for the future great-great-great grandchildren of Anna Koch Preuss.

So, the tree quilt survives today as a witness to the life of one woman who survived a perilous voyage, nine home births, and even abandonment by a spouse. She survived these things and produced, in the midst of these hardships, things of beauty. She also passed her skills and her love of fine needlework to her many descendants. May we all go and do likewise, turning hardship into an opportunity to make something beautiful!

Sources: 1. Letter from Jane Vogland to Betty Wheeler, dated August 30, 1991
2. Story of the voyage from Lydia Bloeker
3. Handwritten manuscript "My First Ninety Years" by Emma Preuss Wegner, written July, 1987