The histories of farming and ranching communities have been told and preserved for years in a variety of forms. From the oral tales and traditions passed on from father to son, and grandmother to granddaughter, to the more formal histories laid out in leather-bound books, the stories of those who have woven the fabric of the American agricultural lifestyle have been related time and time again, each tale a piece of a larger history and a more complex narrative.
For the past 55 years, the story of farming and ranching in Montezuma County has been told though simplicity. With muslin and thread, the Southwestern Cowbelles have laid the history of the ranching community out in the blocks of a quilt, each pieced together by hands which have done the work represented by the brand on the square.
The Cowbelles' "brand quilt" has become something of a local legend in the past half century, an heirloom to be passed to future generations and a much desired raffle item at the annual Southwest Cattlemen's Association banquet.
"There are a lot of people who will buy $50 worth of (raffle) tickets because they want that quilt," said Cowbelles member Mary Ellen McComb, a member of the group's quilt committee. "People really want them because they represent something."
The Cowbelles' game manager Sammie Coulon said the quilts are hard to come by due to their cherished status in the community.
"People really want to win that thing," she said. "There are a lot of reasons. First of all, they gain their value because they are so desirable. If you have one that is 20 years old you really have something. But people don't usually get them because they stay in families and are passed down through the family."
The brown and white queen-sized quilt boasts 42 squares and 41 local brands, the center square reserved for the Cowbelles' logo. A few of the squares have changed over the years as ranching families have moved on from the area, letting the brand die, and new traditions have begun. For the most part, however, the top of the quilt has remained unchanged, with the bars and rockers symbolizing the families who built, and maintained, Montezuma County.
Landing a square on the coveted quilt requires a registered brand and membership with the Cowbelles or the local livestock association. Each square is put together by individual members with their brand and the family name. The quilt is always familiar in the traditional brown and white, colors chosen because, in the words of McComb, "'that's the color of a cow."
The quilt raffle serves as one of the Cowbelles' largest fundraisers, bringing in roughly $2,000 a year, funds used for booths at local events such as the annual Ag Expo and Home and Garden Show.
"We are focused on education and the quilt was started to support our education and promotional endeavors," Coulon said.
The Cowbelles' first quilt, crafted in 1958, was won at the 1959 raffle by Lila Zwicker. Since then, the popularity of the quilt has grown, as documented by newspaper clippings preserved in the Cowbelles' scrapbooks stored at the Cortez Library. Each book, many bound with tooled leather covers, has pages dedicated to the crafting of the quilt and the raffles. Picture after picture shows the familiar quilt with a smiling new owner, proud to possess a piece of the area's history.
This year's quilt, pieced together by McComb and quilted and finished by Ann Neely, went to Arvena Thurmond at the Cattlemen's banquet Saturday night.
In addition to the annual auction quilt, the local group finishes a quilt each year for a Christmas drawing among the group's members. And Cowbelles who have spent five years working on the quilt committee and have not yet won a quilt through the raffle or Christmas drawing receive a quilt top for their 60th birthday, a treasured gift.
McComb was gifted her brand quilt in 1982. A propane explosion at a hunting camp left McComb badly burned in 1981. While receiving treatment at a burn center, McComb was not allowed flowers or plants so the Cowbelles gave the best gift they knew. It was a kind and uncharacteristic gesture for a quilt to be gifted. McComb said she cherished the quilt, which is showing the effects of time.
"When I turned 60, I asked (the group) if I could have another quilt because that one was old and a lot of the stitching was coming off," McComb said. "They said no, because that is against policy. So I asked if I could buy the material myself and have them make it. They did and that quilt is still on my bed."
Though the raffled quilts stick to the Guernsey cow color palette, the 60th birthday quilts are completed in the color of choice of the recipient, a rainbow of brands forming a colorful history.
For her final quilt, McComb chose red and white, sticking close to what she knew.
"I tried to get the color as close as I could to a Hereford cow," she said. "I tried to keep it authentic."
Now that the 2013 Cattlemen's banquet is behind them, the Cowbelles will begin working on quilts for 2014, preserving the history, the fabric, of the Montezuma County ranching community one stitch at a time.