Stitching lives together at the Cottonwood Ranch

Jun 15, 2014


Old houses intrigue me—especially those with formal parlors. In today’s world, the concept of an appointed sitting room is alien to our interactions. However, after participating in the Donna Day Craft Workshop at Cottonwood Ranch Historical Site, I’m rethinking my feelings about fancy salons folks once used only for weddings, Sunday visitors, or wakes.

During a past visit to the ranch where curator Don Rowlison explained this room’s purpose, several attendees recollected personal stories about family parlors and gatherings held within them. Storytellers told of long ago nuptials, holidays, and, of course, grief because this space reminded them of the place where a beloved grandma or grandpa was laid out for viewing.

Some of the younger guests said that last thought creeped them out and hastily migrated from the area. For an instant, I shared their reaction but then considered how familiar this room would have been to sorrowing loved ones compared to the emotional sterility of modern funeral homes. That thought made me appreciate the cozy parlor where I stood even more.

Memories of happier times in such a location would override aching loss. A new widow would remember standing beside her groom among smiling relatives and friends in that very room. Reminiscences of joy-filled Christmases and childhood games secretly played in that space might interrupt melancholy moments. If walls could talk, the stories would invoke laughter as well as tears.

At many historical sites, curators steer visitors away from artifacts and structures rather than toward them. The philosophy at Cottonwood Ranch allows guests to experience the facilities by using an object or location without damaging it. Obviously, fragile items are only for viewing and not for use, but the parlor and main living area function for their intended purposes—as gathering places for human beings.

During the recent craft day, women learning to hook rugs and crochet filled the front parlor where instructors had prepared tables with supplies. As participants found their places and situated jackets and purses, the room pulsated with estrogen. Had it contained this many females all at once since Fenton Pratt had lived there with his wife and daughters? It took some shuffling to get everyone situated with enough space to weave crochet hooks through yarn and tug wool strips through monk-cloth backing. 

After each participant adjusted to the close quarters, a buzz began. If stone and wood are capable of recollection, they recognized sounds of feminine voices talking non-stop. While few of these women knew one another personally, they came from the same region and shared common friends, relatives, experiences, and interests. Topics skittered from too many deer on the roads, to wolves migrating into Kansas, to soloists singing at state athletic events, to how weather patterns have changed over the decade, to drought gardening, to using local plants to make dyes. Along with these topics, snippets of conversation relayed personal stories about children, siblings, parents, spouses, and exes.

The original house is over 120 years old, but I bet the walls would tell us that conversational themes haven’t changed much over decades. If the wandering spirit of a long dead woman had found her way to join the crafters in the parlor that Saturday, modern clothing and hair would have surprised her. However, she would have completely understood the ladies’ heartfelt concerns. She’d recognize female fellowship and recall why she liked attending sewing and quilting bees--women got the necessary done while stitching their lives to others like them.

Thank goodness The Friends of the Cottonwood Ranch create opportunities for visitors to link their lives to this place and to lives of others who also value this site. While the parlor no longer hosts weddings and wakes, it still brings people together.