Underground Railroad: Rest Stop – July/August 2006

The main building at this Interstate 80 rest area east of Iowa City, Iowa, near mile marker 270, is wrapped in large, vibrant, ceramic tiles based on quilt block patterns. The public art display was designed by artist David B. Dahlquist of Des Moines, Iowa.
The theory that coded messages were incorporated into common quilt designs to assist escaping slaves during the Civil War remains unproven. However, it does suggest one truth–quilting is a powerful form of communication.
Interstate rest areas are places people typically visit briefly on the way to their true destinations. One rest stop east of Iowa City, Iowa, however, is becoming a roadside attraction in its own right. Local social studies classes have made field trips to the site, and bus tour groups are including it in their itineraries. For quilters traveling in the midwest, this is a must-stop rest area.
The rest stop offers more than just artistic architecture. It showcases a unique view and a controversial aspect of American history.
According to the book Hidden in Plain View, secret codes were hidden in quilts during the Civil War. Quilt block patterns served as a type of map for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Every aspect of the Iowa rest area relates to this Underground Railroad quilt code theme.
A terra cotta border with embossed needle, thread, and knot designs circles the main building, signifying that certain stitching and knotting patterns were an integral part of the coding system. It is believed the stitching and spacing of the knots created a grid with clues of distances to travel.
The entrance floor of the rest area is covered with quilt patterns fabricated by artisans of RDG Dahlquist Art Studio in Des Moines, Iowa. Message codes in quilt patterns helped trigger the memory of slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad.
Lampposts sport symbolic railroad lanterns, and the sidewalk patterns resemble railroad tracks. Each of the rest area’s individual picnic shelters also contains a ceramic quilt block pattern and information about the significant role Iowans played in the Underground Railroad.
In case travelers miss the theme on the outside of the building, the entrance floor is covered with twelve epoxy terrazzo quilt block patterns. The lobby floor is a virtual treasure map prompting travelers to visit several Underground Railroad sites located nearby in Cedar County, Iowa. A huge ceramic patchwork quilt called the “message code sampler” covers an entire wall.
Some historians consider the idea of a quilt code controversial. Quilts, however, often showcase symbolic patterns and oral traditions that are passed down through families and friends and across cultures. While we may never unravel the whole truth about the Underground Railroad quilt code, the folklore hopefully will remind us to connect to our own family stories while the thread remains.
Propents of the Underground Railroad quilt code suggest each block conveys a specific message.
1. Drunkard’s Path: Don’t move in a straight line. In African culture, evil travels in a straight line. 2. Jacob’s Ladder: Follow the road north (up) to freedom. 3. North Star: Let the North Star and other constellations be your compass. 4. Shoofly: In African culture, shoofly means to scatter and meet again at a preordained destination.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT UNDERGROUND RAILROAD QUILT CODES AND THEIR MEANINGS, LOOK FOR THESE BOOKS. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, published by Anchor Books and To Go Free: A Treasury of Iowa’s Largest Heritage by Lord Richard Acton and Partricia Nassif Acton, published by Iowa State University Press.

Other topics you may enjoy:

  • No Related Posts


Articles, Online Extra Article - Archive

3 thoughts on “Underground Railroad: Rest Stop – July/August 2006

  1. i didn't know about the underground railroad but i really found it interesting. i'm always looking for an easy quilt pattern to make and to quilt. thank you and i hope to visit this stop as soon as possible