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'Underground Railroad Quilt' threads way to freedom

Combining her passions for quilting and history, Diane Grenier embarked on a two-year journey that resulted in a fascinating reproduction of an Underground Railroad quilt.

The quilt features blocks with different patterns. Each of the patterns Grenier used is believed to have helped convey the path to freedom for slaves during the Civil War era.

Although historians disagree about the existence of the quilt, Grenier says her research has led her to believe that it was more than just folklore.

Grenier, a Rush Lake resident, will be sharing a presentation on her Underground Railroad quilt at Perham's Heritage Festival, located at the Pioneer Grounds. Her talk will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, August 16.

In addition to the quilt, Grenier plans to have some of her other research materials available for viewing. She has accumulated an extensive collection of children's books written about the Underground Railroad quilt.

"I've always liked history and had that in me," says Grenier of her decision to start researching the historical quilt. With a special interest in the Civil War era, Grenier was eager to see what she could find out about the Underground Railroad.

Prior to making each block in the quilt, Grenier took the time to research the significance behind it. The patterns themselves often held clues for the slaves about which direction to travel in or encouragement to continue on to a specific destination.For example, one block features an image of a sailboat. Grenier explains, "This meant that slaves had to get to Lake Erie. There were free black sailors there to bring them to freedom." Another block, the "crossroads" image, directed slaves to Cleveland, Ohio where all of the water routes went out of.

The quilts were made by the Abolitionists, who would hang them outside where runaway slaves could see them. Grenier tells how people in that time period would air out their quilts on fences or lines, rather than washing them. This provided a perfect opportunity for the images on the quilts to be glimpsed by those passing by. Because it was a common custom, the quilts hanging outside did not arouse suspicion.

Grenier estimates that people first started making the Underground Railroad quilts in the 1830's. The quilts often featured patterns that were closely related to traditional African quilt designs. "Part of the slaves' heritage was already making map quilts in Africa," Grenier says.

After two years of research and piecing together the quilt, Grenier was ready to have it quilted together. She enlisted the assistance of Jace Hennagir at Bay Window Quilt Shop in Perham.

Once the project was complete, Grenier soon realized that her interest in the Underground Railroad quilt was one shared by others in the community. She has given her Underground Railroad quilt presentation to several quilting groups. One group in Detroit Lakes has just recently started making a sample Underground Railroad quilt of their own.

There are also new fabrics available for people interested in replicating the original look of the quilts. Reproductions of Civil War era fabrics were not available to Grenier when she was making her quilt, which is the one thing she wishes she could change to add more authenticity to the project.

"There's a lot of me in this quilt," says Grenier. "I have so much of my heart and soul into it."