The annual quilt show will be this week-end at the Montrose Pavilion.
Quilts are much like life; each is unique; some are beautiful, some plain. Some are made to be decorative; others to do a job. Each is unique, lovingly created, and with a story to tell.
Several years ago my sister, Bonnie Petrafeso who lives in Denver, sent me an article about two colorful, brightly adorned quilts with quite a story of their own—created by hands that were also accused of committing murder. Those who have lived here for quite some time might recall the horrible story of the “Soap Kettle Murders” that took place in the Olathe area in December, 1917.
Nancy Jane Bush, mother of 12 children, was accused of helping one of her sons cover up his son’s murder, then killing the son as well and disposing of both bodies in a large vat full of lye water. Although arraigned the next March, Bush but did not go to trial until April, 1919, while World War I took precedence. Since there were no quarters for women in the small jail that still sits in the Montrose alley, Bush awaited trial in the Grand Junction jail.
In 1981, Petrafeso was able to visit Grady who owned the quilts with a patchwork history. As a girl, Georgia Grady and her family lived next door to Sheriff Watson in Grand Junction. The sheriff took meals to the jail for his prisoners each day; however, Bush was the only woman in the jail, more or less in solitary confinement, so he took her to his home where she ate at the family table.
Georgia described Bush as “the littlest thing I ever saw. If I held my arm out straight, she could stand under it,” remarked Grady who herself was only five feet tall.
Sheriff Watson was a firm, but compassionate man. He felt that Bush had always worked hard and, because of her complaints, knew that just sitting around was extremely hard for her.
The Watsons inquired in the neighborhood whether or not someone might have work with which Bush could pass her time. Georgia’s mother, Mrs. John Fitzgerald Grady, the former Mary Elizabeth Lohman, came up with a great idea.
Mary Elizabeth had moved with her family from Kansas to Leadville, Colorado, when she was 17 years old and got a job at Miss O’Connor’s dressmaking shop around 1890. O’Connor made serviceable dresses for the “good wives” of Leadville, but she also fashioned clothing for the “ladies of the night.” The “ladies” always ordered elegant materials and often gave the left-over pieces to Mary Elizabeth who, in her spare evening hours, started basting the pieces into blocks on plain muslin backing.
When Mary Elizabeth married Grady, she took her quilt blocks and additional scraps of material with her to Grand Junction, where she continued to work on them as she had time. One of her blocks was adorned with a pink ribbon saying “Mesa County Peach Day, 1894”. Another flowered piece, Grady described as her mother’s opera dress.
Mary Elizabeth’s husband died when her daughter was still in school. After a period of time, she married William Kuhlman, a Grand Junction grocer. With her busy life, there was no time for quilting, so she packed the pieces away. When the sheriff mentioned Bush needing something to do, a light bulb came on in Mary Elizabeth’s head. She immediately brought the beautiful pieces of material out of storage, and along with some bright embroidery floss, took them to Sheriff Watson.
Nancy Bush, the woman whose rough hands made lye soap and scrubbed chicken houses, fed pigs and raised 12 children, took care of an ailing husband and chopped wood was now going to feel something foreign to her. Would her mind dwell on thoughts where it had never been allowed to go?
Did she realize how elegant the pieces were that she held in her rough hands? Would she picture herself, standing on tiptoe, gracefully gliding across the dance floor, wearing a soft, beautiful dress from one of those fabrics? Did she know she was fashioning something beautiful that would be treasured for a century? At least, time was passing more quickly.
Her thoughts wandered, yet always came back to the fact she had to stand trial for her deeds of that night of nightmares. What was she going to say on the stand when the fateful day came? Would she tell the jury about Otis (her 12-year-old grandson) who had been at her pocketbook once again, stealing $1.35?
Yes, these two years had been the best of her life.
Nancy Bush, dressed in black, sat shivering by the pot bellied stove in the courtroom. It was five minutes after midnight in April, 1919 when the jury returned with their verdict.; “Guilty of murder in the second degree.” The 70-year-old woman was sentenced to 10 to 11 years in the state penitentiary in Canon City. She served just five years, being released in 1924. No further records were kept of Nancy Bush in Colorado—but she did leave two beautiful quilts as her legacy.
Marilyn Cox, a native of Montrose County, grew up on a farm and was always surrounded by countless family members who instilled the love of family and history. She retired from the Montrose County School District and, for 21 years, served as curator of the Montrose County Historical Museum.