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Quilt Lady Vows To Keep World’s Largest Quilt In On One Piece

May 20, 1989

ANTLER, N.D. (AP) _ Leona Tennyson is known as ″the Betsy Ross of the Prairie″ for her work in assembling the world’s largest quilt. Now, like the original Betsy Ross, she has a fight on her hands: State officials want to take apart her labor of love.

″I will never allow it to be dismantled. I will fight to the end for that,″ declared Tennyson, a 74-year-old ranch owner and insurance saleswoman.

The quilt is shaped like North Dakota and features intricate details of each of the state’s 53 counties and 1,358 townships. It weighs 800 pounds and measures 85 by 134 feet, 1 1/2 times as long and wide as a basketball court. Twenty-five to 40 people are needed to carry it.

But Tennyson’s pride and joy now sits in a heap, stuffed with mothballs and covered with plastic, in a storage room at Minot State University’s athletic complex. Critics call it a white elephant, and they say Tennyson is too stubborn to admit it.

The state Historical Board, which oversees items placed in the state museum in Bismarck, refused to accept the quilt for display, saying it was not a historical artifact. The board recommended it be dismantled so each county could be given its particular section - a proposal that angered Tennyson.

″It is too beautiful of a piece of work to be torn apart,″ she said. ″The sections fit together just like sections of land on the ground.″

The state Centennial Commission, which gave Tennyson about $10,000 in expense money for the project, has appointed a special committee to find a solution to the quilt quandary.

State Tourism Director Jim Fuglie, a member of the panel, says he ″pooh- poohed″ the quilt until he walked on it, tracing a path from his hometown of Hettinger to Bismarck.

″Just the incredible calculation to make it fit to scale is phenomenal,″ Fuglie said. ″My instincts are not to dismantle it. ... I think there is a way to display it. We just haven’t found it.″

Tennyson, a rusty-haired great-grandmother, lives alone in a modest home in this town of 100 people just two miles south of the Canadian border.

She recently bought a van to haul the quilt to events during the state’s 100th birthday celebration this summer. She probably will charge $1 to see it, she said.

State officials rallied around Tennyson when she struggled to make her quilt the world’s largest - especially when she had to enlarge it at the last minute to surpass a quilt in Australia.

Gov. George Sinner held a news conference to promote the project, and the quilt was displayed on the state Capitol grounds, as well as in Fargo’s civic auditorium.

The Guinness Book of World Records certified the quilt last July as the world’s largest. A quilt that was assembled in San Francisco to memorialize AIDS victims was many times larger, but its panels were laid side by side, not actually sewn together.

Former Gov. Arthur Link, chairman of the Centennial Commission, said the dispute over the quilt involves some basic questions - who owns it and what possible use could be found for it.

One solution would be to put it on a huge roller, ″sort of like an endless towel,″ Link suggested. Another idea is to store the quilt in an air-tight container and use pictures to explain it.

Tennyson coordinated the Citizens Centennial Quilt Committee, which used 7,000 volunteers to cut and assemble the pieces that eventually became the quilt. Volunteers in each township and county were responsible for their own sections, and the 53 completed county sections were sent to Tennyson in Antler, where she and some local volunteers sewed together the completed quilt.

″Some feel she got paid for it so it isn’t hers. ... She’s very set in her ways,″ said bartender Madonna Eide in Antler, where Tennyson and her quilt are a popular conversation piece.

But letters Tennyson receives from people across the state - one woman suggested each resident of the state donate $1 to construct a building for the blanket - convince her that the quilt should never be dismantled.

″I don’t think you call that being stubborn. You are just standing up for your rights,″ she said, smiling.

North Dakotans should be proud they sewed the world’s largest quilt, the seamstress said.

″They (officials) have to sign papers that that quilt will not be taken apart before I turn it over (to them),″ she said.

″That’s my baby.″

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