Greg Hatten guest post – Buell Blankets and the St. Joseph Museum

Today’s post is from our friend Greg Hatten, of WoodenBoat adventure fame. Greg has always been interested in our Buell blankets (all retired, but one is still available), which were part of our Mill Tribute Series. Greg decided to find out some information on the original Buell blankets at the source; his hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri. Enjoy this visit, and if you’re interested in our Mill Tribute series blankets, links to our previous posts are below.

Buell-2-table

Buell Blankets Headed West

St. Joseph, Missouri is my hometown. It’s a dreamy little river town that started out as a trading post on the banks of the Missouri and quickly became a launching pad for pioneers headed west to Oregon and California in the mid 1800’s. Some historians estimate that 250,000 settlers made the trek by wagon and on foot between 1850 and 1900. Most of those trips started in St. Joseph or Independence – where final provisions for the 5 month journey were acquired before embarking on the grand westward adventure that started by crossing the Midwestern prairie. Many were leaving for the rest of their lives.

Provisions and Provender

Wool blankets were on the provisions list of every trip – for sleeping and trading with Native Americans along the way. In St. Joseph, the Buell Woolen Mill was the primary source for blankets headed west. Known for quality over quantity, the blankets were strikingly colorful and many designs were based on patterns used by different Native tribes in paintings and beadwork out west. They were prized by the pioneers and Native Americans alike.

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As stated in the 1910 Buell Catalog:

Missouri ranks up with the first in the production of good staple wools, and the surrounding states produce a quality almost equal. We buy the choicest lots, have first pick, and train our buyers to get the best… We obtain the best dyes possible that we may produce the required fastness of color, and many beautiful shades and combinations which have made Buell Indian Blankets the handsomest, most desirable line in the world.

A Visit to the Buell Museum

As I packed for my most recent trip west to run Wild and Scenic Rivers in a wooden boat, a friend of mine asked if I had seen the small collection of Buell blankets at the St. Joseph museum.  I hadn’t – so I made a call to Sara Wilson, Director of the Museum, who is as enthusiastic about blankets as I am about wooden boats and canvas and wool camping.

The next day I visited Sara and watched as she put on cotton gloves, opened a box, carefully lifted out two colorful Buell blankets from the early 1900’s and spread them on the wooden table. Her reverence for these artifacts was touching as she pointed out the tri-colors , the double weave, and the attention to detail that made these blankets so special. I immediately enlisted in her small band of “blanket historians” trying to preserve, protect, and expand the Buell collection in St. Joseph.

Buell-1-table

Setting Out Again

Back home on Lovers Lane, I readied my wooden boat and packed my Land Cruiser for the trip to Idaho across the plains of Nebraska. Among other things, my provisions list included wool blankets from Pendleton Woolen Mills. For my river adventure on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in the Frank Church Wilderness, I chose two blankets to take – a utilitarian camp blanket in slate gray and a colorful Chief Joseph blanket for more dramatic photos of canvas and wool sleeping beside the “River of No Return.”

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Pendleton Blankets

My friends at Pendleton have always spoken of the Buell blankets with the utmost admiration. Pendleton’s  wool blankets have been a part of every adventure I’ve undertaken in the past 15 years. It was pretty amazing to learn about this little thread of blanket history running through the backyard of my home town as I prepared for the first in a series of adventures featuring wood boats and wool blankets on Wild and Scenic Rivers.

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If you have a Buell Blanket, images of a Buell Blanket, or a personal story about Buell Blankets, please contact my friend and blanket enthusiast, Sara Wilson, Director of the St. Joseph Museum. You can email her at  sara@stjosephmuseum.org

Thanks, Greg! We hope some beautiful Buells make their way to the museum. And for those of you who would like to read more about the Pendleton series that pays tribute to these blankets, here are the links:

Mill Tribute Series: Buell

Mill Tribute Series: Capp

Mill Tribute Series: Oregon City

Mill Tribute Series: Racine

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