ARNOLD WEAVES OLD-FASHIONED RAG RUGS FOR 44 YEARS
By Julia Scher, from the Northwest Allen County News of June 27, 1984
Tucked back off the highway on Johnson Road is a woman whose hobby is internationally recognized. MARY ELLEN ARNOLD is a weaver of rugs, over 15,000 to be exact, some of which have been displayed in the Fort Wayne Historical Museum.
Mary Ellen said of 10 rugs on display in the museum, nine were bought by collectors. She has rugs in almost every state and in Germany, Turkey, Japan, China, Korea, England, Scotland, Canada, Central America and Australia.
She started weaving in 1947 when an accident left her hand crippled. “ I needed something to exercise the hand and get it back in shape, so I started weaving.”
The hobby began with a correspondence course. “They sent designs on a paper and then I’d weave them and send it back for a teacher to grade.” Mary Ellen also learned through experience and by attending conferences and workshops. She is a member of Indiana and Michigan Weaver’s Guild.
On her back porch, Mary Ellen sells her rugs and other knitted items such as baby clothes and slippers. She explained her weaving and how to care for rugs.
“I usually go upstairs and weave in the morning from 6:30 to 7 a.m. and weave one or two rugs. Then the rest of the day I do housework, prepare material to weave and do gardening. I keep supplies of weaving material ahead all the time so if I get an order for a special rug, I can go to my supplies and do it. The longest rugs I ever wove were 23 feet long. I had to make three strips.”
Preparing material for weaving takes a lot of time and knowledge of each material. “You make it according to what your material is. If you’re using denim overall material, I usually cut it about an inch wide. But if you use sheets, it could be up to two inches wide. Then you roll it up and get the feel of it to see how thick it should be.” “I make some with a hem so the fringe doesn’t get kicked up. I make mostly fringe because that’s what people expect. Some rugs are used on walls for decoration.”
A tip on care of rugs was given. “You should never wash a rug in hot water. It will last twice as long if you wash it in cold water and don’t put it in a dryer.”
Mary Ellen knows how she did every rug in case she wants to do that same rug again. “When it comes to ordinary rag rugs, I’ve pretty much covered everything.”
“There’s a lot of different ways of setting up your loom. I’ve kept a notebook through all the years and every time I thread it up, I put something different on it. That gives me a variety of colors, stripes and checkerboards.”
An experienced rugweaver herself, Mary Ellen isn’t afraid to teach others her secrets. “I’ve taught other people. There was a lady that lived in our tenant house, years ago, and she wanted to know if she could learn to weave on my loom. I said, well, you get a loom of your own and I’ll come up and show you on your own loom. She said, ‘Can I do that?’ I said sure.”
“So I helped her make out the order and we sent for the loom. Mr. Arnold (DEWEY) took his truck and went and got it. We set it up. She had her customers and I had mine. And we’re still good friends. Plenty of room for both of us. She did a real good job of weaving. She never had a chance to make any money on her own and she thought she’d like to try that.”
In addition to being rich in rug lore, Mary Ellen is also rich in the lore of the area, having lived here all of her 77 years and being descended from one of the first families around Huntertown, the KELLS.
“My great-grandfather and great grandmother were the first couple married in Perry Township, NATHANIEL and SARAH FITCH. He was a blacksmith and he made the irons for the Erie Canal. My brother, JACOB KELL, has his anvil. FREDERICK KELL was my father. His father came from Alsace-Lorraine when he was ten. My father told me his grandfather was the cook for Napoleon Bonaparte. He didn’t want to go to war with him anymore, so he brought his family to America. If he would have stayed with Napoleon for the next campaign, he would have been captured by the British.”
“I was a farm girl. I taught piano when I was a young lady until the Depression hit. I studied music for a number of years in Fort Wayne. At one time I had over 20 pupils. I like living out in the country. My father was a farmer. My brother, JACOB, is a well driller. He lives on Kell Road at the place I was raised. I’ve lived here all my life.”
I graduated from Huntertown High School, 60 years ago. I went to Garrett the first year. Then the next year we had high school in Huntertown in churches and the old hall. There was a one-room schoolhouse north of the corner of Shoaff Road and old 3. Then there was one in Huntertown where the fire house is now. Then they built the north part of the school, the part they are talking about tearing down. It didn’t have the gym on it yet……just the center part. The gym was down in the basement. Basketball wasn’t the big thing it is now.”
“They had a fight every time they wanted to build a new section to the old school, just like they are having now. My father fought for years to get a high school because he wanted his kids to have an education. And they argued about where to put it. My father wanted it on the north end of Huntertown, up on the high ground. Instead they put it on the south side and had to have a sump pump to keep the water from going in.”
Her parents taught Mary Ellen the importance of a good education. “If you don’t have good schools, you won’t have a good community. That’s important. My mother went to old Fort Wayne High School and graduated in 1898. She went down and boarded in Fort Wayne and went to school. She lived northeast of Huntertown on the Fitch Road. Her name was FITCH.” (FLORENCE BESSIE FITCH)
Mary Ellen reminisced about growing up around Huntertown. “We didn’t have an automobile until I was 16. My father bought an Overland the first time, made in Auburn. When we went to high school, we drove a horse and surrey. When we had parties, my brother would take a whole load of us in the surrey. It was nice times. We didn’t have drugs and smoking in those days. We’d play games and just enjoy ourselves.”
“My brother would borrow my uncle’s bobsled and we’d get a whole bunch of kids and go to someone’s house and they’d have supper for us. One time we had an oyster supper, oyster stew. Another time we had a taffy pull. It was good fun. They have so much now, the’re bored with the simple things. They have to do something exciting. That’s for the birds.”
Throughout our conversation, Mary Ellen told of the things she did and the fun she had doing them. At 77, she is one of the youngest people I know. I think the fun she finds in everything makes her so.