Of the hundreds of items donated daily, most do not tell the story of life in America in the 1800s as did a bagful of cloth that arrived at the New Life Thrift Shop in Lewes before Christmas and which soon will become part of a canal boat exhibit in the Wabash County Historical Museum in Indiana.
There were a very tattered, handwritten note and a letter included in the bag that traced the travels of this 1838 handwoven blanket that caught the attention of a New Life volunteer as a special donation telling a valuable history lesson. As curiosity peaked in the thrift shop, Maura Jenkins, the general manager, phoned a Wabash County historian, Ron Woodward, advising of the discovery. They planned for the blanket’s final travel to a museum which will enable the preservation of this historic treasure.
The coverlet was found in a Westland, Mich. home in July 2001 and was bought to Maryland and then to Lewes by the weaver’s great-great-grandson. The note read:
“Property of M.L. Ray, 316 Loveland Ave., Peru, Indiana. This blanket was woven by my grandmother, Betsy Williams Shell, in the year of 1838 and was moved with other household goods over the old Erie Canal from Troy, Ohio to Logansport, Ind.”
After researching historical records and confirming the information provided with the donation, Woodward provided the following information: “The family history of Joseph Haven Shell and Elizabeth Williams Shell depicts life after the War of 1812 and the westward expansion of America. The Shells sold their 26-acre farm in Miami County, Ohio for $1,300 in 1855. The family (seven children) traveled by ox-drawn wagons for three weeks (approximately seven miles per day) to Wabash County, finding a heavily forested area for their new homestead. Their household possessions were shipped via the Miami and Ohio Canal north to the junction with the Erie and Wabash Canal, then down the Wabash Canal to Logansport/Wabash. Many of the early settlers in Wabash County came from the same area in Ohio as did the Shell family.
"The small blanket or coverlet in a blue and white wool plaid design measures 76 by 96 inches with a fringe on one side and with a hand-stitched oval in a corner signifying the family’s trademark. This coverlet is typical of those made during the 1790-1840 period as a staple of everyday living because of the warmth and the small size, making it ideal for travel.”
The coverlet has completed its travels, having been handed down through the generations 176 years after Betsy Shell made it. The Wabash County Historical Museum (www.wabashmuseum.org) has eagerly accepted the coverlet as a reminder of life in Wabash County in the 1800s by incorporating it in the Wabash-Erie Canal exhibit. Woodward summed up this surprising travel stop in Lewes at the New Life Thrift Shop: “To me, this was a wonder find and a treasure we should preserve.”