Owning a historic home carries with it a responsibility — to those who came before and to those who will follow Dr. Patrick Stern and his wife, Pat, have risen to the challenge of owning the Thomas Embree home in Telford, and recently Patrick added an important addition to the property.
On Feb. 11, a cold, windy Saturday, Patrick, family and friends came together to hang a Quilt Trail panel on the farm’s barn. Though the barn was built in the 1950s, the quilt panel tells the story of the farm and its stone house, which dates back to the 18th century.
The Sterns see themselves as stewards of the house and its history, and the history is significant.
In 1791, Thomas Embree, who ran his father’s iron business, had stonemason Seth Smith build the limestone house; it is one of four stone houses in this area designed and built by Smith. Thomas, a Quaker, and his wife, Esther, had four children, including son Elihu, born in 1782.
In Jonesborough in 1820, Elihu published The Emancipator, the first periodical in the United States devoted solely to the abolition of slavery.
While he was firmly against slavery, Elihu paradoxically owned slaves. “His first wife died, he remarried, and his second wife had slaves. He could not afford the fees to free them,” Patrick said.
The slaves, a family, lived in the basement of the stone house. The slave quarters consisted of one large room with a fireplace and a dirt floor. It was said the house was part of the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War Battle of Limestone Station was fought around it, long after Elihu’s death in 1820.
Patrick was familiar with the Quilt Trail of Tennessee, a project showcasing the barns and heritage quilts of this area. He didn’t have a particular quilt or pattern associated with his house, but he wanted to hang a quilt panel reflecting the house’s rich heritage.
He was unsure where to start until he saw an article in the Johnson City Press about a Civil War commemorative quilt designed by Virginia Kennedy of Jonesborough. He called her and said, “If you’d be so kind to help me,” and she was.
“You get your picture in the paper with something and then you’re an expert,” Virginia said and laughed, admitting she was intrigued by the project.
“(Patrick) knew nothing about quilts and not a whole lot about fabric and color,” she said. “He told me he wanted me to celebrate the history of the farm, including the history of the house that belonged to the Embree family. One quilt block couldn’t handle all of that; there were several things involved he wanted to recognize.”
The panels on the Quilt Trail are based on family quilts, using a single pattern, but Patrick needed to deviate from that scheme after Virginia came up with five different quilt squares telling the house’s story.
“I told him how to get in touch with the Quilt Trail folks to make sure what he wanted to do would suit them, and they seemed happy with that,” Virginia said. “As far as we know, this is the only panel with that many quilt blocks on it. Most are the same one or four of the same pattern.”
The center is the Chained Star, which represents slavery; the top is Farmer’s Field, for the land’s history; on the right is the Box Block, which represents the Emancipation newspapers; on the bottom is Lincoln’s Platform; and on the left, is the Underground Railroad.
“I just pulled the fabrics from my Civil War stash,” Virginia said of her extensive collection gathered over years of quilting. “I said, ‘something here is going to appeal to you.’ That’s how we arrived at the colors.”
Though he didn’t anticipate doing it, Patrick ended up painting the design on the panels.
“This was more geometry than art, and I’m good at geometry,” he said modestly. “It’s tedious but not artistic. It was just sticking with it, getting it done.”
He also came up with the octagon arrangement so he could have bigger blocks that could be seen better from the road. The final design takes up a 12-foot-by-12-foot area.
Once the barn was structurally prepared to hold the panel, a crew was assembled, and something resembling an old-fashioned barn raising was held. On hand were Patrick’s son-in-law Angel Argueta; Chris Dulaney, who built the structure to support the panel; and Jimmy Crain, whose childhood scrambling around a tobacco barn held him in good stead as he set up the pulleys. Crain also is married to Janelle Kyker, whose family built the barn and once owned the land it sits on.
Each block was hoisted up separately, then joined.
Back at the house, friends, including Virginia and her husband Bill, gathered for a 4 p.m. supper after the panel was in place.
“(Patrick) shared the story of the quilt panel project and the importance the place and its history have for him, as well as his desire to have history and story to continue to be shared there,” Virginia said. “Several men brought guitars and we sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and some patriotic songs. Then we enjoyed food together and talked a lot. You just thought, ‘This sort of thing doesn’t happen many places these days.’ ”
For his part, Patrick was deeply moved by the people who stepped up to help and for the way they all worked together to get the job done.
“It was one of those days you’ll never forget,” he said.
Reach Jan Hearne at email@example.com.