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Day at the fair

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Quilters make their annual trek to Florida State Fairgrounds

By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

TraveLynx bus No. 5605 pulled into the Winn-Dixie parking lot in Williston at about 7:45 a.m. Tuesday. It had already picked up more than half of its 45 passengers in Chiefland. A line of people formed in front of the door while the driver, a man named Rusty Sparks, and Levy County Quilt Museum Director Winnelle Horne stood out front checking off the names of people that had signed up to go the Florida State Fair in Tampa.

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The sun was still rising when the bus departed south down U.S. 27.  A sliver of sunlight beamed through the windows and lined the edges of several dozen short silver permanents. A gray-haired woman wearing glasses and a blue and green bamboo print shirt was talking to her brunette-haired companion and piecing together a small section of lavender and purple quilt. Her thimbled hand bobbed up and down while a woman across the aisle leaned over to give direction.

“If you had three of those together, you just drop it down. I tried it that way and it worked better,” the woman said. “Sew three blocks together.  However you started out, that’s how you’ll wind up being.  It’s just how you start out.”

Many of the occupants were women from the Log Cabin Quilters, a club that meets at a 100-foot-long log cabin just outside of Chiefland known as the Levy County Quilt Museum. The group, which participates in the Florida State fair every year, entered 27 quilts to be judged this year.

As the bus continued south, conversations grew louder and began to blend into a cacophony of white noise. Only brief topics, such as vegetables, potted plants, how to store food, various medical procedures, pansies, the state of Indiana, cheap gas prices seen on signs from the windows of the bus, lighter knot and the merits of strawberries sold at roadside stands, to name a few, could be discerned from the chatter.  

It took about two hours for the group to reach their destination. From the highway, the white roof of the fairgrounds’ amphitheater, perched on a hill and resembling an enormous manta ray frozen in mid flap, was one of the first clues that the fairgrounds was getting close.  A few minutes later, the view from the bus was dominated by a grass parking lot crammed with cars, busses and trolleys in front of Gate No. 2.

It didn’t take long for the passengers of the bus, receiving tickets from Horne, to make their way through the front gate and become absorbed within the backdrop of a thousand other people and signs advertising cheese fries, fried pickles, burgers, corn dogs, elephant ears, funnel cakes, cotton candy and fried Oreos.

After a short jaunt past the food vendors, an attraction known as Cracker Country and a booth where Native Americans were selling plastic tomahawks and dream catchers to the flute version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” there emerged a large warehouse known as The Florida Center, big enough to hold a football field, according to a woman working the door.

Inside, a man in a sectioned-off area was busy sculpting mermaids and musclemen out of wet beach sand. There were paintings and pieces of furniture on display in some areas, plants, dolls and aquariums full of tropical fish in others.  

And then, in a row of wooden display cases each the size of a walk-in closet, the quilts could be seen, bathed in incandescent light. The passengers of Bus No. 5605, managing to claw their way through the clutter of the carnival scene outside, began to emerge, as well. They took their time, pacing slowly. 

Winnelle Horne, followed by a handful of quilters, was pointing at some of the quilts made by her own hands or those of women she knows well. Several, including a quilt by Horne, were pinned with ribbons. All were the result of hours of labor in a tradition that spans many cultures and has been bringing women and communities together for centuries.

 

The quilt museum

 

When Winnelle Horne talks about the origins of the Levy County Quilt Museum, it sounds like she’s recounting a passage from the Holy Bible.

“It was about 3 a.m.,” 86-year-old Horne said. “I was awake, and all of a sudden He spoke to me, and He told me what He wanted me to do.”

Unlike Noah, who at God’s instruction built an ark of cedar coated with pitch, Horne was told to build a museum.

“He told me, ‘You’re to build a 50-by-100-foot house off a main road down a dirt road in the country.”

And that’s exactly what she did.

“It’s the first and only quilt museum in Florida,” she said about the log cabin she also calls home. The oldest quilt in the collection is adorned with harps and was made in 1857.

Horne said she was born near the site of the museum. She remembers her mother telling her about the Native American children that used to play under trees nearby. When she was 4-years-old, she moved to Clearwater with her family. She was married at 14, had four children and didn’t move back until 1983 after visiting her brother who had already made the move back.

“The more I came to see him, the more I knew I was comin’ home.”

It wasn’t long before she had befriended a fellow quilter named Mary Brookins.  Horne, who learned quilt making from her mother, said she made her first quilt in 1974, but she credits Brookins, who died in 1988, for getting her serious about the craft.  Horne, Brookins and seven other women soon became the Log Cabin Quilters, more than a decade before Horne’s divine inspiration. Today, there are about 25 members in the group.  Most come to the museum every week, she said.

Construction of the museum started in 1996.  Inmates from Lancaster Correctional Institution provided most of the labor, though Horne admits she had a hand at setting a log or two.  It took them four years, working four days a week, to finish the museum, she said.  And they still come to the museum once a week to help out with the chores, have a decent meal and take part in prayer.

“God wanted it here,” she said. “People come here and say, ‘ Something here is different.’ I say, ‘ you know, well, the Holy Spirit is here.’”

The art of quilt making is important, too, she said.  It’s a way to bring the community together, and it’s a way to preserve history.

“Every stitch that you put into a quilt is a problem, and when you’re through, there’s no problem.”