July 19, 2021 — Leona Tennyson, of Antler, died in July 1996. She had been instrumental in creating the world’s largest quilt – spread out it would cover more than one-third acre.
The quilt was constructed for North Dakota’s Centennial, held in 1989. “We want the citizens to take part in doing this,” Leona told the Minot Daily News in 1986. “It’s a state of North Dakota quilt project.”
Each of North Dakota’s 1,360 townships were invited to construct a block for the quilt. When finished, it was expected to measure more than 70 by 100 feet; this would beat the Guinness World Record held by a Belgian quilt that was just shy of those dimensions.
Leona is described as having been a bit shy, but spunky, lively and full of smiles when talking about her gigantic project. She said each township had appointed its own chairperson; Leona, herself, was the overall director. At the time she was asked to head up the project, she was an insurance agent and also a dealer and instructor for Tri-Chem textile paints.
The quilt was part of state’s overall plan for celebrating the state centennial. The piece would ultimately be a mapped replica of the state; each county was given a designated color and each was responsible for buying their own materials. Each township section was marked off in 4" squares, and Leona urged quilters to add points of interest, such has churches, schools, railroad tracks, rivers and agricultural crops.
The blocks were stitched together in 1988; when finished in July, the piece weighed 800 pounds, and the overall dimensions – 85’ x 134’ – qualified it for entry into the Guiness Book of World Records.
When interviewed in 1986, Tennyson and her co-quilters were of the belief the quilt would be displayed at the state capitol in Bismarck. But the quilt has never found a home in North Dakota, mainly due to its size. At one point, South Dakota’s Corn Palace asked to display the piece, but when ND officials learned the quilt was going across state lines, they put the kibosh on the plan.
In 1995, folks from a group called Roadside America made a special trip to Antler to see the attraction. “We take a walk out to the garage to see it,” writes one of editors. “The randomly-folded, tightly-packed mass fills Leona’s extended Econoline van to the roof… There is barely enough room inside for a driver and Leona is loath to open the van’s rear doors, knowing from experience that she may not be able to close them again. But we offer to help repack the quilt, and thus are allowed to touch North Dakota’s best-kept tourism secret. It is a bittersweet victory.”
Roadside American and the Corn Palace aren’t the only places that have shown interest in the piece. In 2004, Felicia Ong wanted to bring the quilt to her country – Singapore – for display at the Asia Pacific Furniture Fair.
Leona continued urging the state to display the textile wonder – but without success. When she died in 1995, her son Donny took over the crusade. “We’re trying to get a place to display it,” he said. “I’ve been talking with the governor. But it’s so big.” When Donny passed away in 2002, the care of the quilt passed to Janet Tennyson, who still hopes the quilt will see the light of day.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.