Cowboy Jam Session by Jeri L. Dobrowski: Comforts of home |

Cowboy Jam Session by Jeri L. Dobrowski: Comforts of home

Bleed, Blister, and Purge: A History of Medicine on the American Frontier by Volney Steele, M.D. Photo courtesy Jeri Dobrowski

A recent photo shoot took me to Gordon, Neb. It was a continuation of project started several years ago when Yvonne Hollenbeck and I spent a day near Medora, N.D., photographing five generations of her family’s quilts. That first session yielded colorful images of handmade quilts set against wild roses and lilacs and draped over twisted cedar stumps and split-rail fence. They depict items in Yvonne’s always-popular quilt trunk show, “Patchwork of the Prairie.”

During the shows, Yvonne enlists two volunteers to hold the bedcovers, displaying each for the audience as she shares the history behind them. It’s a captivating journey through time combining the quilts with narrative and poetry. Included among the blocks, quilts, and coverlets–spanning 140 years–are ones made by Yvonne, who is both an award-winning quilter and cowboy poet. She lives on a cattle ranch 50 miles north of Valentine, Neb., with husband, Glen. The oldest full-sized quilt in the collection, a nine-patch circa 1890, was made by Jane Hellyer Kayton of rural Butler County, Neb. Most of the quilts and their makers have ties to Nebraska.

Dating back 173 years, California quilts take center stage in Quilts: California Bound, California Made 1840-1940 by Sandi Fox (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012, b/w and color photographs, paperback ISBN 978-0971918405). The former Collection Curator of Quilts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Fox combines letters, diaries, and historical records to detail what was happening when each made its way to, or was constructed in, the Golden State.

Utilitarian and works of art, most were pieced by women. However, two were made by men, one a soldier recovering from wounds received in Spanish-American War. Some have cutout corners to accommodate four-post beds, others were used on the ground as a cowboy’s sugan. Some made the trip to California tied onto the back of a saddle or strapped to a mule. Yet others were conveyed in wagons, aboard ships, and once the tracks were completed, via trains. Some were made en route, the maker bringing the materials along on the westward trek.

Pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and embellished. Wool, cotton, velvet, silk, and sateen. New, recycled, discarded, and home-dyed. The styles and materials are as varied as the makers. So too are the designs and purposes for which they were made: everyday bedding; a going-away gift; a family register of births, marriages, and deaths; to raise money for charity. You may never look at a quilt the same again.

Quilts retails for $40 from It is also available from online book sellers.

The most basic of necessities were hard to come by in the American frontier. That included medical care. Volney Steele, M.D., presents the challenges in the engrossing Bleed, Blister, and Purge: A History of Medicine on the American Frontier by (Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2005, b/w photos, 367 pages, paperback ISBN-13: 978-0878425051).

Dr. Steele, the son of his hometown’s only physician, grew up hearing stories his father told of medicine before anesthetics, antibiotics, and modern hospitals. He augmented that with his own time as a physician and extensive research–much of it conducted in Montana–where he practiced from 1959 to 1986.

Transporting the reader to the days of rotgut whiskey anesthetics, castor oil, and barroom surgery, it sheds light on effective cures and the lack of understanding of what caused some maladies. I was enthralled with the discussion of scurvy. Caused by a simple lack of Vitamin C, it rivaled cholera as the number-one killer on the frontier. Soldiers were commonly affected by the condition, so much so that once the cause was determined, post surgeons were responsible for managing vegetable gardens.

Dr. Steele wrote Bleed, Blister, and Purge “to shed light on and celebrate the dedication and humanitarianism of those many physicians, nurses, shamans, and people of sound practical sense who saw their patients–often friends and family–through the adversities that bedeviled them.” With the authority of a scholar and the bewitching magic of a storyteller, Dr. Steele educates and entertains. The book was a semi-finalist in the 2005 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Bleed, Blister, and Purge lists for $18 at It is also available in bookstores and through online sellers.

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