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Hidden Treasures: Mrs. Parmeter's Klan Quilt

Over the years, museums have discovered that most visitors pay scant attention to the text in the exhibit labels. Sometimes that means that museumgoers miss the best stories. But sometimes the labels don't really tell the whole story.

Harriet Baskas explores one museum mystery for this installment of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project.

At the Yakima Valley Museum in Washington state, a quilt made in 1928 has raised questions that even experts can't answer. The quilt -- among 35 rare quilts put on temporary display in 2003 -- was made by by Mrs. C.C. Parmeter, the wife of a Puyallup, Wash., berry farmer.

The quilt squares are laid out in a curving, lattice-like patter known as the Drunkard's Path. When made in blue and white this pattern once signified affiliation with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which crusaded against alcohol and for women's rights.

The quilt was given to Yakima Valley Museum by an anonymous donor in 1978, a decade after its maker died. Museum director John Baule says the pattern and the source of the cloth used for the white background were identified in this note -- which arrived with the quilt:

You may not want to use this information but I shall write it down anyway, just in case you may want it. The white parts of the quilt were made from the masks of the robes worn by the K.K.K., or Ku Klux Klan. The state of Washington was teeming at that time with this organization. Some of the big brass of the police force in Puyallup were solid members and seemed to be the backbone of the lodge.

Baule doesn't know if Parmeter or someone else wrote that note -- or why she used discarded Klan masks in her quilt. It could be that some members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union shared some of the views of the Klan, which claimed to uphold Protestant Christian moral values.

But Susan Soros, a fourth-generation Puyallup resident and a quilter, suspects Parmeter was deliberately preserving evidence of local history that's been conveniently forgotten.

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Harriet Baskas