Antiques can be helpful in tracing ancestors

November 30, 2004|BRENDA S. EDWARDS

Kentucky ancestors have preserved lots of antiques and the stories that go with them.

"You can learn a lot from stories about antiques," Wilma Rae Ewbank recently told the Boyle County Genealogical Association.

Ewbank, who has been in the antique business since the 1970s, is a native of the Forkland community in western Boyle County. She is currently an antique dealer in Georgetown.

When she and Louis Ewbank married in 1963, they could not afford to buy new furniture. "He was in the Army when his grandmother died. After he returned home, we got three pieces of antique furniture and some boxes from her things." They were hooked.

Ewbank is a descendant of the Ellis and Whitehouse families, who were among the early settlers in Kentucky.

"All of us agree that some individuals or families are savers," said Ewbank. "There are those who do not save or want antiques. They try to decide the value and sell or swap family pieces."


"Breaking up housekeeping"

Most people are familiar with "breaking up housekeeping," and each family devises its own method of dealing with this. Families have to unravel belongings that have been collected over 50 or 60 years of living in a household.

"This is not an easy task for people to go through," she said. "Usually one person is assigned to do this. A lot of rash decisions have to be made under a deadline. They spend days sorting out things like old textiles, dishes and furniture."

Ewbank said she has heard many stories about valuables that were thrown out during cleaning and preparing for an auction.

"Sometimes it's hard to determine the time period of antiques. Sometimes we have to reach a happy medium and decide what a piece means to a family."

She told of the three pieces of furniture her husband obtained from his grandmother's estate: a Victorian walnut bed; two desks that were well-kept in the attic; and a three-drawer chest.

"We're still using the bed today," she said of the piece no one claimed.

One of the desks was used by Louis Ewbank's great-grandfather, who owned a country store in Gallatin County. It had been painted many times but needed few repairs.

While refinishing the desk, a tiny drawer was pulled out and a note was found inside.

"Grandmother wrote who the desk belonged to and when she acquired it. There was a recipe but it did not say what it could be used for," Wilma Ewbank said.

Dates, places and names were found on the back of the chest of drawers. It gave the details of her great-grandmother's death. They also learned the chest was to go "to the oldest daughter she loved so well and was only 1 year and 8 months old at the time." The sister agreed to let her brother keep the furniture since he had refinished it and was using it. The note also mentioned a second sister that was born after the great-grandmother had died.

Wilma Ewbank advised that when restoring antiques, look carefully at the piece to see if anything is written or carved on it. "You can find lots of clues there," she said.

She found initials carved on a small table that belonged to her great-grandmother. It had WM carved on it and was owned by the Whitehouse and Mattingly families.

Textiles and coverlets

Ewbank displayed several antique textiles and coverlets she purchased at antique auctions. She said a lot of textiles get thrown away if they are damaged or worn, but that does not keep her from buying boxes of torn and worn out quilts.

She bought a box of old quilts at an auction several years ago. One was a quilt made of homespun lindsey-woolsey (coarse cloth made of linen and wool or cotton and wool).

"They apparently used all the scraps they had and used sheep's wool as a filler. There's a lot of things to be learned from pieces like this," Ewbank said as she displayed the quilt. The quilt featured 12 different plaid fabrics. She suspects it came from Eastern Kentucky because of the area where she purchased it.

She estimates the quilt was made in the late 1700s or early 1800s.

Ewbank bought a bright red and green coverlet with an eagle design and horses and riders on each end and has since learned the name of the weaver of the piece.

She found information and photographs in a book and additional information from a relative that identified the red and green coverlet. Thomas Cranston of Indiana made the coverlet. He was known for his scarlet dyes used to weave the coverlets in the 1820s.

Another coverlet with a candlewick design was woven by a Whitehouse, but Ewbank, who descends from the James Whitehouse pioneer family, does not know if she is related to him.

"Practically every area had weavers, with many coming from Scotland, Ireland, Pennsylvania and Germany," she said.

Blankets with seams down the middle usually indicate the width of the loom and how they were made.

Pin a note on a quilt to identify it or attach a listing in a storage box. "Many descendants will be glad you did."

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