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Aprons help serve, preserve history

A display of antique aprons from the estate of Gretha Loken adds color and local touch to the “Remembering the Apron” presentation Saturday at the Zumbrota museum. 1 / 3
Sheila Craig dons a bonnet she made by buttoning several buttons on a dual-purpose apron. 2 / 3
A large black-and-white picture of Sheila Craig’s grandmother holding Craig’s mother as an infant provides a backdrop to her presentation. 3 / 3

A day after a major winter storm, and a long, difficult drive on Highway 52, Sheila Craig of Preston, Minn., was surprised that 30 women defied the weather to hear her presentation, “Remembering the Apron.” The free event was sponsored by the Zumbrota Area Historical Society and was held Saturday at the Historical Museum in Zumbrota.

Craig, a former Extension educator in Fillmore County, and a colleague of Kathy Olson, who was Goodhue County Extension director for many years, retired in 2003, and at the time wondered what she would do next.  A graduate of Iowa State with a background in home economics, and a lot of speaking experience, she decided “to put together a talk about aprons” and has been traveling ever since, presenting the history of her diverse apron collection.

Craig showed about 100 of the 300 aprons she owns. She described her presentation as “a nostalgic look at the apron, including the fabrics, styles and the many different ways they were used by the people from our past.” She encouraged the audience to think back to the aprons worn by their grandmothers and great-aunts, and even their grandfathers. A number of women brought along old aprons and shared the stories of the family members who had owned them. 

Craig  grew up on a farm north of Decorah, Iowa, and remembers her mother telling her father to be sure to find two feed sacks that looked alike so she’d have matching fabric to sew feed sack aprons and other apparel.

Craig’s collection includes many fancy aprons made of chiffon that were often given as gifts to those who helped serve wedding dinners in church basements before receptions were catered in halls. And there were matronly, utility-type aprons that protected women’s clothes from grease and flour as they cooked. At that time, people only washed clothes once a week, she said, and these aprons were vital in keeping the women’s garments clean longer.

Craig showed polka dot aprons with applique patterns, some with tatted edges, quilted patchwork aprons and crocheted aprons. Her own childhood color crayon apron was displayed, along with an apron that could be made into a bonnet.

There was a “state” apron from Iowa and other colorful aprons from Switzerland, Austria, Chile and Japan.  And there was an apron trimmed with rickrack like June Cleaver wore on the popular 1950s show “Leave it to Beaver.” There were men’s aprons from lumberyards and old general stores and mercantiles. There was even a plastic apron that proved to be dangerous when worn near hot ovens.

Craig pointed out a number of other uses for the apron. Those with large pockets were used to carry vegetables, apples and clothes pins.  Aprons were also used to flag men in from the field for lunch, to dust furniture, to wipe dirt from children’s faces, to shoo cattle and to block livestock gates.

The presentation concluded with eight women and two young girls from the audience modeling a wide array of gingham aprons, each decorated with a unique variation of cross stitched patterns.