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

A guest post!

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.

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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…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

Mill Tribute Blankets by Pendleton – The Buell Manufacturing Company of St. Joseph, Missouri

A Series to Honor Our Competition

In 2010, Pendleton Woolen Mills introduced our Tribute Series, paying homage to the American mills that thrived during the Golden Age of Trade blankets. 

Pendleton Mill tribute labels_2

In the early part of the 20th century, Pendleton Woolen Mills was one of five major mills weaving Trade blankets. The Buell Manufacturing Company of St. Joseph, Missouri, incorporated in 1877. St. Joseph was the gateway to a booming Wild West, thanks to homesteading and the Gold Rush. The Buell mill, operated by Norman Buell, his son George, and another partner named John Lemon, was well-run and successful.

buell mill engraving

According to the county records of 1904, the Buell Manufacturing employed 175 workers and used more than a million pounds of wool a year. Buell products were sold in every state of the Union (45, to be exact).  Buell products included far more than their Trade blankets. Their colorful designs were only a fraction of the products woven by Buell from 1877 to 1912. Since the Pendleton mill opened in 1909, we were only competitors for three seasons.

buell catalog cover

According to our friend Barry Friedman in his book Chasing Rainbows, “The blankets produced by Buell Manufacturing are without question the truest copies of Navajo and Pueblo Indian designs.” The original Buell blanket designs were given tribal names in keeping with America’s romantic view of the west during those years. We’ve included the original names strictly for your information. Please keep in mind that the Buell designs often bore little-to-no resemblance to the weavings of that particular tribe.  Our re-weavings of these blankets are simply named for the original manufacturer, with the number of the blanket in the series.

The Blankets

Buell #6available here ) was originally called the “Choctaw” or the “Spider and Hawk” design.

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Buell #5 available here was called the “Winnebago.” Though Buell has a darker palette than many of the other mills producing blankets back in the day, this blanket is an eye-popper.

Buell_5

Buell #4 (retired) was called the “Ojibwa.” Dale Chihuly has one of the originals in his incredible collection of Trade blankets. The banded design of diamonds, stripes, stars and that central sawtooth band is just gorgeous.

Buell_4

Buell #3 (retired) features a rare pictorial element–bands of Thunderbirds. Buell blankets were generally without any type of representational figures. This banded pattern was known as the “Comanche.”

Buell_3

Buell #2  (retired) is called the “Zuni” pattern in the Buell catalog, but is actually a copy of a Hopi manta according to Barry Friedman (who knows pretty much everything there is to know about Trade blankets).

Buell_2

Buell #1 (retired) is named “Aztec” in the original Buell catalog. It was offered in at least four different color combinations. An example in this coloration is also part of the fabled Chihuly collection of Trade blankets. This blanket was a bestseller in our first year of the Tribute series.

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Buell blankets are among the most rare and most sought after by collectors today. This mill actually accomplished a major commercial weaving innovation–the incorporation of a third color in a weaving line. This was beyond the capabilities of Pendleton Woolen Mills at the time, so we tip our hat to the Buell Manufacturing Company of St. Joseph, Missouri.

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