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Gee’s Bend Pastimes to Patchwork Tour Road_trip_car

Alabama Road Trip No. 23

Gee’s Bend Pastimes to Patchwork Tour

by Marilyn Jones Stamps and Erin Bass

Perhaps you’ve read about the women from Gee’s Bend in rural Wilcox County, who have been piecing together some of the world’s most beautiful patchwork quilts and passing their skills down for generations. Or, you may have seen their artwork featured on postage stamps that carried mail across the country in 2006 or caught a glimpse of their creations on a segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Whether you’ve seen them on television or have only read about them, now you can get to know these women firsthand. The Gee’s Bend Pastimes to Patchwork Tour will take you to the hidden treasures of Alabama’s Black Belt region and to the little hamlet at the bend in the Alabama River where the story of the Gee’s Bend Quilters began.

The Gee’s Bend Quilters: Their Story

Surrounded on three sides by water and located in a bend of the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend is accessible by ferry from Camden and County Road 29 from Alberta (map). This area, located in the Black Belt region of Alabama, was founded by the wealthy Gee family of North Carolina in the early 1800s, and the land sold to Mark Pettway in 1845. Joseph Gee brought several slaves with him to Alabama that he later sold with his land. After the Civil War, the freed slaves took the name Pettway and founded their own all-black, isolated community.

About a century later in the mid-1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee , a quilting collective made up of women of Alberta and Gee’s Bend, was founded as an offshoot of the Civil Rights Movement to foster community development by selling crafts. At that time, residents of the area also began taking the ferry across the river to Camden, which was only about seven miles away by water, to try and register to vote. Ferry service was eliminated in 1962 to halt this effort, and service did not resume for 44 years. Lack of a ferry and the subsequent hour’s drive to Camden from the other side contributed to Gee’s Bend remaining isolated and untouched by the outside world.

The story goes that art collector William Arnett, founder and chief curator of the Atlanta-based company, Tinwood, came across a photograph of one of the quilts while working on a history of African-American vernacular art. He set out to find the quilt and its maker, and arrived in Gee’s Bend.

Despite the isolation of the area, the Collective managed to capture the attention of fashion designers in New York and inspired a nationwide revival of interest in patchwork quilting. In 1997, in recognition of quilting as a unique art form, the Alabama Legislature voted to name the Pine Burr Quilt as the official state quilt of Alabama. The Pine Burr quilt pattern, boasting an intricate, three-dimensional design, has deep roots in the African-American community, particularly among the women of Gee’s Bend. Lorretta Pettway Bennett, who created a Pine Burr quilt that she later donated to the state archives, learned how to make the quilt pattern from her mother Quinnie Pettway, a Gee’s Bend quilter.

In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, presented an exhibition of 70 quilts from Gee’s Bend that propelled the handcraft activity and the quilters to new heights in the world of art. The story goes that art collector William Arnett, founder and chief curator of the Atlanta-based company Tinwood, came across a photograph of one of the quilts while working on a history of African-American vernacular art. He set out to find the quilt and its maker, and arrived in Gee’s Bend. That following year, the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective was founded. There are several good photo books on Gee’s Bend, including those under the Tinwood label that can be ordered through Amazon.com and other booksellers.

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The Gee's Bend Quilt Mural Trail

Ferry service was restored in West Alabama in 2006, which reconnected the communities of Camden and Gee’s Bend, and a Quilt Mural Trail was erected in 2008. The Gee’s Bend Quilt Mural Trail begins at the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta with Patty Ann Williams’ “Medallion with Checkerboard Center” quilt. Next, keep an eye out for “Blocks and Strips” by Annie Mae Young, then “Pig in a Pen” by Minnie Sue Coleman.

Follow the trail to the ferry, the Quilters Collective and an old school. Although they are now world famous, the women of Gee’s Bend still hone and teach their craft daily at the Quilters Collective at the Boykin Nutrition Center (14570 County Road 29, Boykin), and their little wood frame houses dot the rural community. For those “Housetop” pattern fans, there are two on the trail: Lottie Mooney’s “Housetop – Four Blocks,” or “Half-Log Cabin,” and Mary Lee Bendolph’s “Housetop” variation. Altogether, there are 10 murals on the trail located at or near the homes of many of the original quilters like Bendolf, who was the subject of a 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times article.

Anyone is welcome to visit the Quilt Collective, purchase a quilt and even sew a square or two. The quilters meet at the center on certain days but they do not have regular hours, so be sure and call ahead when planning your trip. They will gladly meet you at the center and will even give you tips on making your own quilt. In addition to the Collective, quilting by local women can also be seen daily from 9:30-11:30 a.m. at the Gee’s Bend Ferry Terminal and Welcome Center.

Anyone is welcome to visit the Quilt Collective, purchase a quilt and even sew a square or two. The quilters meet at the center on certain days but they do not have regular hours, so be sure and call ahead when planning your trip. They will gladly meet you at the center and will even give you tips on making your own quilt. In addition to the Collective, quilting by local women can also be seen daily from 9:30-11:30 a.m. at the Gee’s Bend Ferry Terminal and Welcome Center.

Some of the Gee’s Bend quilts sell for more than $20,000, with the most affordable ones priced around $1,000 and squares around $30. Doormats and rugs printed with the now-iconic patterns are also affordable souvenir options.

As a pastime to piecing together their works of art, the women spend a considerable amount of time fellowshiping with one another and their visitors, singing gospel songs and enjoying the feast of a home-cooked meal. With an advance reservation, an organized tour group can request singing as a part of the quilting tour package and also arrange to have a sit-down meal at the Quilt Collective or at the Ferry Terminal. Feel free to engage quilters like Tinnie Pettway in a conversation about the history of the area and how the Gee’s Bend Pettways got their name. Tinnie will also gladly share poems from her book of personal remembrances about growing up in Gee’s Bend. Be sure to have a handkerchief handy because it’s hard to hear the stories of the women of Gee’s Bend or listen to their songs without being moved to tears either by the struggles they endured through the Civil Rights Movement or through the laughter they bring to the table.

In addition to the Quilt Trail, the Collective, Ferry Terminal and Welcome Center, there are other enhancements on the horizon for making Gee’s Bend more of a tourist destination. With help from architecture students at Auburn University and development organizations like Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families, the folks here hope to eventually have a learning center would include the study of quilting and housing, a quilt exhibition, a retail shop selling quilting supplies and souvenirs, a cafe, and bike and paddling trails.

Since Gee’s Bend doesn’t have its own designated website, it’s best to call Mary Ann Pettway at the Collective, 334-573-2323 or 334-573-2585, or Linda Vice with Alabama’s Front Porches , 334-636-5506, or the Black Belt Community-Based Tourism Network (BBCBTN), 334-526-0819 for more information.

Explore Camden and Other Treasures of the Black Belt

After spending the day with the quilters in Gee’s Bend, head to Camden. If you plan to depart the area via the ferry, be sure to check departure times. If you opt to drive by way of Alberta, plan to leave Gee’s Bend before dark as there are no street lights and some of the roads may hit a dead end without warning. The Gee’s Bend Ferry runs seven days a week from 6:15 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Prices range from $1-$10 depending on vehicle type.

Leaving Gee’s Bend by ferry will give you an opportunity to enjoy a portion of the Alabama Scenic River Trail that runs through southwest Alabama. The trail begins near the Alabama/Georgia line near Cedar Bluff and winds its way down to Mobile. It represents the nation’s longest one-state river trail system.

Black Belt Treasures

An hour’s drive by car or a 15- to 20-minute ride on the ferry takes you to Black Belt Treasures (209 Claiborne St.; 334-682-9878) in Camden. This nonprofit retail gallery features the works of a cross section of talented painters, sculptors, potters, basket weavers, wood workers and quilters who have banded together to showcase their wares and the artistic talent that can be found in Alabama Black Belt communities.

During on-site art workshops and classes, you can meet local artists, learn how to cane a chair or get messy digging your hand in clay to make your own pottery. Since its opening in September 2005, Black Belt Treasures has grown from representing 75 artists to representing more than 350.

While in Camden, you’re invited to peek into history at local attractions that include Dale Masonic Lodge, Wilcox Female Institute and the Wilcox County Courthouse, all located in the National Register Wilcox County Historic District. The area around the courthouse follows an irregular pattern along Broad Street, which makes for an interesting walking tour of downtown Camden. The Alabama Bass Trail runs through nearby Roland Cooper State Park (285 Deer Run Drive; 334-682-4838) and offers a nine-hole golf course, campground, boat rental, and picnic area. Some of the attractions are open by appointment only, so contact the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce (334-682-4929) prior to your visit.

When To Visit

A good time to visit Gee’s Bend is during annual events like the May Day Festival and performances of the Gee’s Bend Play. Held at the beginning of May each year in a big open area not far from the old Boykin Mercantile Store and the post office, the festival includes quilting, along with other crafts, food, a parade, music and the maypole dance. The play, based on the true story of the women of Gee’s Bend and their quilts and written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, normally takes place in September and stars an all-local cast, several of them Pettways.

Another great time to visit is in late October when the Black Belt Treasures Patchwork Festival (334-682-9878) takes place in Camden. Visitors can enjoy a day of discovering the cultural patchwork of Alabama’s Black Belt through unique demonstrations presented by area artists and craftsmen.

Where To Stay

Currently, there are no hotels in Gee’s Bend. Roland Cooper State Park in Camden is the closest place to stay and does have six two-bedroom cabins, ranging from $72-$82 a night. To schedule a home stay with a quilter, call Linda Vice at 334-636-5506. Camden has the Southern Inn Motel & Restaurant (39 Camden Bypass; 334-682-4148) and American Inn (39 Camden Bypass; 334-682-4555), while Selma, less than an hour away, offers the historic St. James Hotel (1200 Water Ave.; 334-872-0332).

Where To Eat

For those wanting a quick bite to eat, Keitsha’s (13181 County Road 29; 334-573-2007) is the only restaurant in Gee’s Bend, serving sandwiches, salads and chicken fingers. Miss Kitty’s (101 Union St.; 334-682-4665) in Camden serves a soul food lunch and Gaines Ridge Dinner Club (933 Hwy. 10 E.; 334-682-9707) is known for its seafood, steak and black bottom pie. GainesRidge is located in an 1837 structure with a beautiful hall and parlor plan. It still retains the original Federal-style interior woodwork and is open to the public four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30-9 p.m., and is available for wedding receptions, private parties or simply a delicious dinner for two.

To share questions or comments about this road trip,
please email info@tourism.alabama.gov.