The story of the Benwell Crazy Quilt (in the Lake County Discovery Museum's collection) is one of a pioneering family, and begins in 1848 with the California Gold Rush.
John Benwell (1815-1889) immigrated from England to the United States to find his fortune. In New York, Benwell worked building docks until Gold Rush fever struck. In 1848, he bought passage on a ship sailing around Cape Horn to California. When he arrived in California claims were hard to find, and so he and a new friend, Washington Converse, started a supply service hauling food and other items to miners.
In New York, around 1854, John Benwell married his landlady's widowed daughter, Elizabeth Preston (1827-1917). The Prestons had immigrated from England in 1835.
In 1855, Benwell took his new wife and children to Lake County, Illinois, where he laid claim to 40 acres in Fremont Township. There he built a log cabin and took up farming. The property was located on either side of today's Route 60, east of Fairfield Road. Benwell's good friend, Washington Converse, came to Lake County with them and bought an adjoining property.
In 1891, Elizabeth made a quilt for their second youngest child, Minnie (1866-1927).
Minnie's crazy quilt made by her mother, Elizabeth E. Preston Benwell in 1891. Photo by Mark Widhalm. LCDM 98.36.1.
What makes a quilt crazy? A crazy quilt is a patchwork quilt without a design; and a patchwork quilt is made by sewing patches of different materials together to form a pattern. Crazy quilts also got their name from being “full of cracks and flaws,” much like crazed pottery glazes. Crazy quilts expressed the Victorian taste for collecting, as well as the influence of Japanese art which was introduced to Americans in 1876. The fans, flowers, spider web patterns, and lack of a repeating pattern in these quilts reflect traditional Japanese art.
Detail from Minnie's crazy quilt, showing an incredible appliqué, embroidery and beadwork basket of flowers. On the right side, there are tiny round pieces in the bouquet from the buckskin bags used by John Benwell to carry the gold home from California. Elizabeth sewed pieces of the Gold Rush bags into each of the quilts she made for their eight children, and by the time she made this quilt, there was very little of the buckskin bags left. Photo by Mark Widhalm, cropped. LCDM 98.36.1
The quilt also features hand painted scenes of a boy with his fishing pole, an owl, rooster, and a cat. There is also a hand painted image of the family's Lake County homestead.
Another section of the quilt showing a star pattern, shoe, fan and the date March 16, 1891, which is believed to be when the quilt was completed. This section reveals much of the quilt's charm and variety with embroidery, beading, painting, and beautiful stitch work around each piece of fabric. Photo by Mark Widhalm. LCDM 98.36.1
Minnie Benwell never married, and so her quilt was given to her brother George, and then to his son Lloyd. The Benwell Dimon family donated the quilt to the Lake County Discovery Museum in 1998, along with the story of the family and this quilt.
This extraordinary quilt is featured at the Lake County Discovery Museum through September 25, 2011, in the "Quilt Treasures: Pieces of History" exhibition. Fourteen of the museum's most beautiful quilts are on exhibit.
The Lake County Discovery Museum is one of the anchor sites for the multi-county Northern Illinois Quilt Fest.