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Locally historic ‘magic carpet’ gets new home, welcome party

October 6, 2018

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — A “magic carpet” that once helped children take flights of imagination is about to be in the spotlight again. For decades, the colorful carpet was the centerpiece of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library’s Story Hour Room. Now in its new home at the Stephen D. Lee Home, the custom needlepoint rug made by dozens of local volunteers during the 1970s will welcome little ones once again: Children ages 3 to 5 are invited to a Special Story Hour Celebration with Mother Goose at the Lee Home from 3-4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7.

“The library reconfigured the Children’s Section, which put the rug out of the public’s view,” explained Stephen D. Lee Foundation President Eulalie Davis. When the library offered the Lee Home the rug, the Foundation board unanimously accepted the gift with the belief that the rug itself was an important part of the history of Columbus, and that it tells that history in an entertaining way for children, added Davis.

After repair and cleaning in Memphis, Tennessee, the carpet is now on display in the Florence McLeod Hazard Museum in the Lee Home.

“It has been cleaned and Scotchgarded and is ready to be admired again,” Davis said. “It is a truly breathtaking work of art.”

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The one-of-a-kind rug was always destined to be more than simply a floor covering for youngsters to sit on. It was a labor of love. First, on the part of Chebie Bateman and Bettye Jane Kerby, then the more than 35 volunteers who made its 50 needlepoint squares depicting scenes of Columbus history and games children play.

The concept was Bateman’s, in 1970. She was the driving force behind the library which bears her name. Even as she championed its funding and construction, she was planning ahead for the Story Hour Room.

After visiting libraries in the mid-South, Bateman was particularly impressed with the Children’s Department of the Nashville Public Library, specifically a hooked rug designed for it. Back in Columbus, she contacted her artistic friend, Bettye Jane Kerby, asking her to design one for the new library.

Working together, Bateman and Kerby decided that local stories and legends to appeal to children would make an appropriate theme for the special carpet. Bordering those scenes would be squares featuring details from Pieter Breughel’s 16th-century painting, “Children’s Games.”

Junior Auxiliary of Columbus donated funds for all the materials. Several JA members also volunteered to needlepoint. Local historians and consultants contributed their expertise.

Kerby designed each square and directed volunteers as work got underway in 1971. The completed rug was officially dedicated in August 1979.

Betty Pope Waters was one of the needlepointers. Her assigned square was of the Rev. Thomas Cox Teasdale, pictured with orphans he helped support during the Civil War by selling cotton to Union forces. In his hand, he holds an authorizing letter signed by Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln.

“I remember that later when my own children went to Story Hour, I’d get them to sit on that square, explaining that Mama worked very hard on it,” said Waters, a longtime Lee Foundation board member. “I’m just so thankful the Foundation was given the opportunity to have it, to be able to house it in the museum. Just think of all the people in Columbus that participated, and the effort that Bettye Jane put into designing it all.”

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Other squares in the carpet depict local scenes like Sunday afternoon harness races at Tom Wilburn’s Smith Oaks Plantation. Families would gather in the Prairie to watch Wilburn’s horses on the track, and to marvel at unusual animals he collected. The rug shows a llama racing alongside a horse and sulky.

One square highlights S.D. Lee High School’s 1936 National Football Championship and other notable local sports. Another depicts President William Howard Taft’s speech downtown. There are riverboats on the Tombigbee River, the Old Maid’s Gate at The W, Decoration Day at Friendship Cemetery and a Saturday morning serial at the Princess Theater.

Doug Bateman, the late Chebie Bateman’s son, identifies with one square in particular. Kerby designed it from a photo of a teenaged Bateman, John Laws Jr. and Chip Hatcher having fun at the river.

“I think I was about 15, and we were at the Tombigbee, just north of Moore’s Creek,” recalled Bateman, who also has an earlier memory of helping his mother transport books from the old library to the new one in grocery carts. The old library is now Three Oaks Pottery, behind the Lee Home.

His sister, Gaines Bateman Gaskin, remembers how special her children found the ritual of removing their shoes before settling down on the needlepoint rug for Story Hour.

“They loved that; all their little shoes were lined up, and them sitting on the rug to hear a book read by Mother Goose,” she said.

While the rug concept was in development, “I remember my mother talking to Bettye Jane a lot, wanting to find something unique for Columbus,” Gaskin added. “I think a lot of it started with her love of local history. It was a vision for the community and for the library which she loved so much. ... I can remember how proud my mother was to show off the rug to people who came through the library, proud of all the work that went into it. I’m so thankful to the Lee Foundation for preserving it.”

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Rug designer Bettye Jane Kerby loved Columbus and Mississippi, and it showed in her plans for the squares, said her son Allen Kerby.

“My biggest recollection of the rug was how much Mother loved being able to contribute and collaborate with local talented people who worked on it,” he said.

A graduate of The W in art, Bettye Jane Kerby had a longstanding passion for not only art, but also for education. Which is why she and Bateman felt that instead of a tapestry on a wall, children should have the experience of touching the rug they sat on — their own “magic carpet” — as they listened to stories of Lowndes County. They felt strongly that children would appreciate and love their community more if they knew its past.

Library Director Erin Busbea said, “The rug has felt the pitter-patter of so many little feet during its life at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. It is a magnificent piece of work that tells the story of Columbus and Lowndes County. We will miss it being at the library, but we are so happy to know that it is just next door where it can truly be appreciated.”

Bateman and Kerby are both now deceased. But for their families and everyone else who had a hand in this heritage heirloom, having the carpet on display again is significant.

“As in so many things in our community, it is a testament to volunteerism,” said Davis. “Chebie had the vision; Bettye Jane designed her vision, and volunteers brought it to fruition.”

Allen Kerby said, “If she were alive today, my mother would be so pleased for all the efforts that have gone into resurrecting and preserving this piece of history. She’s smiling right now, I know.”

If you go:

Who: Stephen D. Lee Home Foundation

What: Special Story Hour celebration for 3-5 year olds (refreshments)

When: Sunday, Oct. 7, 3-4:30 p.m.

Where: Stephen D. Lee Home, 316 Seventh St. N., Columbus

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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