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Mildred Guthrie has been at Uncle Eli’s Quilting Parties for over half of its 92 years; the famous quilting bee is today in Eli Whitney

By Charity L. Cohen

Special to The Alamance News

Today marks the 92nd annual gathering of Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party – also called the Quilting Bee. This valued event that celebrates the quilting tradition within the Eli Whitney community in the southern part of Alamance County has been fortified by three women and their legacy for more than 50 years.

This year, Mildred Guthrie, 87, one of those quiet cornerstones of the quilting party and a master quilter, will be honored for her work and leadership in the quilting community.

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Guthrie grew up watching her grandmother and mother quilt. She was drawn to the art because she appreciated the beauty of her grandmother’s quilts and the warmth of her mother’s.

“Hers were for warmth, they were thick,” Guthrie said of her mother’s quilts. “She didn’t quilt quilts, she tacked quilts.” Tacking quilts is an alternative method for quilting that usually involves tying quilts together rather than sewing, resulting in less elaborate designs.

Guthrie jokes that the real reason she decided to become a quilter is because she “likes to be warm in the winter,” but one look at her complex and intricately designed quilts will tell you that her craftsmanship serves a purpose beyond practicality and instead enters into the realm of fine artistry.

Many of her quilted creations were inspired by current events, while others came from images she saw in magazines, on TV, or ideas from her own imagination.

“She would just be watching the television and see something like the Tricia Nixon wedding and decide, ‘I’m gonna make a quilt about that’,” her daughter Deborah Holt said.

Guthrie is most known for her “white-on-white” quilts which are made using white fabric and feature elaborate designs that tell stories of historic events and milestones in American history. Some of the events featured in her quilts are the Tricia Nixon wedding, Watergate, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the Apollo 14 moon landing.

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A quilted dress made by Mildred Guthrie.

The white-on-white Apollo 14 quilt displays an image of Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell performing various tasks on the moon with Antares in the background. She also represented all 50 states with 50 stars, the union of the states with a 5-pointed star and friendship and united support through a cord connecting the stars and framing the quilt. She represents a hope for peace by two doves carrying an olive branch and three stars bearing the names of the three astronauts in the mission. She also included golf balls symbolizing Shepard’s game of golf on the moon.

It wasn’t enough for her to create her own meanings for the different images on the piece, she went a step further to ensure that her design would be accurate, so she wrote a letter to Walter Cronkite at CBS News to verify that three golf balls were taken to the moon. Tucked away in a scrapbook is Cronkite’s letter confirming the three of golf balls on the moon.

Guthrie has made over 43 quilts and two quilted dresses. Many of her quilts are made of vibrant Depression era feed sacks and other fabrics from the time. She still has some of her pieces, but there are many that she’s given away or made for others. Each quilt has a story that she wrote describing how it was made, what it symbolizes and what each pattern or design shows. These short stories are displayed in a scrapbook with images on her quilts.

She no longer makes quilts due to her dementia, but she is still as sharp as a sewing needle and lights up when talking about her favorite quilt – which is the Seth Thomas Rose – and she laughs when recalling all the chores she used to complete for the day before she even picked up her needle and thread.

“I don’t know how I had time to quilt,” she said as she laughed while reflecting on her earlier days working as a dairy farmer with her husband. “I was in that silo pitching down silage for the cows.”

Guthrie married James Guthrie in 1956 and moved to Snow Camp, with him from Randolph County.

For almost 20 years, she and her late husband operated their dairy farm. She would wake up early each morning to carry water to the plants and feed the livestock along with doing other tasks around the farm and house. Even with this load of work, she always had time and energy to quilt, earning the nickname “Energizer Bunny,” from her daughter Deborah.

She began attending Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party in 1958 at the insistence of her mother-in-law who was fascinated by Guthrie’s artistry.

She quickly became a champion for the quilting community and the annual event along with Nannie McBane and Pat Bailey. The trio helped ensure perpetuity of the event and its goal by inviting the community, encouraging others to continue being active, and organizing the event each year.

“My mother hated to see any tradition end; she wanted to keep it going, and I think she could do her part to keep it organized,” Wendy McBane, Nannie’s daughter said. “Mildred’s part was making the beautiful quilts that people would come and see, and Pat’s part was telling everybody and marketing.”

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Pictured from left to right, Wendy McBane, Mildred Guthrie, and Deborah Holt.

These three pillars supported this community group and organized the annual Quilting Bees for over 50 years. With the passing of both McBane and Bailey, Guthrie is the last representative of the three.

Deborah Holt, Wendy McBane, their siblings and the children of Pat Bailey are following in their mothers’ footsteps and carrying the torch for the next generation of Uncle Eli’s quilters.

“Now we’ll see if we can keep it going for the next 50 years, what do you think, Wendy,” Holt teased as she looked over to McBane.

“I think we can make it to 100,” McBane responded with a laugh.

Guthrie will be honored at this year’s event on Thursday, April 6. Holt and her brother Dale have selected nine of Guthrie’s quilts to display, along with scrapbooks that show photos of her other quilts.

She can’t believe how far Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party has come, and she is even more surprised at her development in the craft over the years. All she feels at the thought of being honored by the community that she’s dedicated so much of herself to is pride and joy.

“I feel proud and my mom would say the same,” Guthrie beamed.

Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party will be held at the Eli Whitney Recreation Center in Graham, and will be open to the community at 8:00 am on April 6. Admission is free and attendees will be able to view and learn about over 100 quilted items made by the community. There will also be food and a raffle.

Mildred Guthrie, 87, with her favorite quilt that she made, the Seth Thomas Rose.

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