• 1. Introduction
  • Grace Snyder, Sunbonnet Sue block, Custer County, NE map

    © NO TIME ON MY HANDS, Grace Snyder Descendants

    © Grace Snyder Descendants

    "I grew up on the high plains of Custer County, Nebraska, where, as a child of seven and up, . . . I wished that I might grow up to make the most beautiful quilts in the world, to marry a cowboy, and to look down on the top of a cloud."

    NO TIME ON MY HANDS by Grace Snyder
    As told to Nellie Snyder Yost, p. 13
    University of Nebraska Press, 1963.

    Grace McCance Snyder spent years practicing her quilting craft, first as the daughter of Nebraska homesteaders and later as the wife of a Sandhills rancher. In 1885 when Grace was three years old, her family moved from Missouri to Nebraska to homestead a farm 12 miles northwest of Cozad in Custer County. They felt the rich grasslands on the canyon bottoms were well suited to dryland farming.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder
  • President Abraham Lincoln; Homestead Act, 1862 McCance Family circa 1890

    © U.S. Government

    © NO TIME ON MY HANDS, Grace Snyder Descendants

    When Southern states seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War in 1861, the new, smaller U.S. government was able to ban slavery in territories like Nebraska. In order to settle these territories quickly, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862.

    This act provided a tract of land (about 160 acres) if the homesteaders lived on and improved it within 5 years. So, the slavery issue, a main cause of the Civil War, also played a part in the creation of the Homestead Act, which allowed thousands of pioneers, like the McCance family, to head further west and settle on the plains.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder
  • McCance Family & sodhouse, circa 1890

    © NO TIME ON MY HANDS, Grace Snyder Descendants

    One condition of the Homestead Act was that the homesteader had to build at least 1 structure a minimum size of 12 by 14 feet. Grace’s father, “Poppie”, built a sod house exactly that size. He put in wood floors and plastered the walls and then painted them white.

    The house also had three small windows which Grace’s mother, “Mama”, covered with curtains she made from bleached flour sacks, embroidering them with red birds (a skill Grace later learned). Poppie also built a second shed for the horses and eventually chickens and a milk cow.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder
  • Corncob dolls made by Grace

    © NSHS #7829-20012, 7829-1001, 7829-30011

    Being far from town and without much money, the McCance family, like many homesteaders, made (rather than bought) a lot of what they needed or wanted. Mama showed Grace how to make corncob dolls, dressed in calico, silk, beads, and ribbon scraps, with corn silk for hair and dried sunflower heads for hats. This was Grace’s first attempt at sewing.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder
  • old water bucket, mules and pigs with windmill, pepper berries

    © NSHS # RG2608-000000-002170-0

    Life on the prairie was difficult. Today the Sandhills have the same environmental problems (flooding, drought, insect plagues, rattlesnakes, and storms), but settlers did not have modern technology to deal with hostile conditions. Grace lived on the Nebraska prairie when there was no electricity, no running water, no cars.

    To stay alive, grow crops, and raise cattle, Grace’s family had to haul water quite a ways from a neighbor’s well, a chore that took a lot of time and energy. Everyone had to be sure not to waste a drop. Once, when they were low on water, Grace sneaked an unground pepper berry, setting her mouth “on fire”. There was nothing she could do but cry and hop around until Poppie showed up later with the water.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder
  • calico fabric samples, farm scene Custer County, circa 1889

    © NSHS # RG2608-000000-002173-0

    Before Grace was even 10 years old, her major chore was to tend and herd cows by herself, keeping her away from school. Eventually, Grace caught up with her lessons, graduated from high school, and became a teacher for 2 years.

    Most of the day, watching the cows could be quite boring, so Mama showed Grace how to sew with tiny, neat stitches. Grace spent hours in field haystacks creating small Four-Patch quilts for her dolls. Every year her family received 3 big barrels of goods from Grandma Blaine that included calico fabric to make 1 new dress for each of the girls. Grace also used the leftover scraps to make her own quilts.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder
  • SUNBONNET SUE, mid 1940s, Called SUNBONNET BABIES by Grace’s family

    © Grace Snyder Descendants

    The social norm for women of Grace’s early life was to wear sunbonnets to protect their faces from the harsh sun and rough weather. Grace used to argue with her mother about having to wear one when she was outside.

    In spite of that, when she was in her sixties, Grace created a Sunbonnet Sue quilt. Called Sunbonnet Babies by her family, the quilt’s charming figures were intended to comfort a young granddaughter who reluctantly slept alone while coyotes howled during the lonesome Sandhills nights. To accompany the quilt, Grace also wrote a poem, explaining the friendship offered by the 16 uniquely dressed little companions. Regrettably, the poem has been lost, but the sentiment remains strong in this childhood treasure. The quilt’s tattered condition is an indication of its frequent use.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder
  • PRINCESS FEATHER, 1953© Grace Snyder Descendants

    Because Grace was quite a tomboy, Poppie called her “Pete”. Her new baby sister tried to say both of her names together, and it came out “Gheet”, her family nickname from then on. Although Grace would have preferred pants, in the late 19th century respectable females wore only skirts and dresses, even while working or playing on the farm. Once, when running away from a charging heifer’s horns, Gheet had to roll under a fence and ruined her favorite black and green dress with tiny yellow flowers. Eventually, Mama made her a pair of denim pants so Gheet would stop damaging her dresses.

    Grace spent several years searching for the same fabric from that ruined dress. At age 71, she finally found it for her last quilt, Princess Feather. Because Grace’s eyesight was failing, her trademark small stitches became more difficult to achieve — those tiny stitches were clues that identified her as the quiltmaker. Never willing to lower her standards, she decided that the Princess Feather would be her last quilt, a special remembrance of her childhood.

    An audio clip about Grace Snyder

quilt
A bed covering or blanket, usually created in 3 layers: a decorative top, an interior batting made of cotton, wool, or polyester fibers for warmth, and a backing. Quilting is the process of stitching all three layers together.
Traditional 6-Step Process
  1. Select a pattern, fabrics for top and back, and interior batting.
  2. Measure and cut fabrics to the correct size to make blocks from the pattern.
  3. Piece (sew together) blocks to make a finished top layer. Add embroidered details or appliqués, if desired.
  4. Make a quilt sandwich by layering the quilt top with batting and backing, usually using a quilt frame to hold the fabrics taut.
  5. Quilt (stitch) the three layers together.
  6. Square up and trim excess batting from the edges, sew the binding to the front edges of the quilt, and then hand-stitch the binding to the backing.

homestead
To settle free or cheap land given by the government. Also, the name of the land that is homesteaded. Most homesteads were farms.
farm
A piece of land used to grow crops to sell, not just for home use. Animals may also be raised, but the crops are the main product.
ranch
A piece of land used to raise animals for sale, usually cattle.
dryland farming
The short grass prairie of the Sandhills is one area with little rainfall. Farmers have to choose crops that need less water than other, more fertile areas.
secede
To withdraw from formal membership. Several southern states in the U.S. in the 1860s decided they no longer wanted to be part of the United States, so they seceded from the union.
Homestead Act of 1862
An act passed by Congress in 1862 promising ownership of a 160-acre tract of public land to a citizen who lived on and cultivated the land for five years.
sod house
A sod house is built in areas with little other natural materials, such as stone or wood. Chunks of earth are cut out of the prairie and used like bricks to build the home. The tangled grass roots remain in the sod bricks to keep the dirt together and help with insulation of the home.
corncob doll
Originally made by Native Americans, 19th century settlers on the Great Plains also created homemade dolls with corn cobs after the kernels of corn were removed.
calico
A brightly colored, printed cotton fabric with a small-scale floral or geometric design.
Four-Patch quilt
A quilt made up of many small blocks. Each block (or square) is composed of four small squares of cloth sewn together to create a larger block.
social norm
Behavior expected by a group or larger society.
heifer
A young, female cow that has not yet had any calves.
trademark
A recognizable design that identifies a particular maker or source. Grace had several trademarks that knowledgeable viewers would recognize as hers, such as her tiny, perfectly even stitches and multiple, tiny pieces in her quilts.