How quilts recovered from a flooded Kentucky home comforted a grieving family

Despite several people saying it was a lost cause, a Latter-day Saint couple and others did their best to preserve 16 vintage quilts salvaged from a waterlogged and muddy home for a family that lost its mother

At first glance, the flooded Kentucky home appeared to be a total loss.

“Even in the middle of just horrific devastation and sorrow, God is present and comfort can come to those who are in need of comfort.” — Ruth Ann Baxter

The interior was a hopeless swamp of mud, debris and sorrow — an elderly woman had died inside the house during the flood — but a group of Latter-day Saint volunteers were willing to search for any items that might be salvaged for the owner’s family.

Some urged the volunteers to just walk away from the waterlogged disaster. But they were determined and felt divinely guided, said Ruth Ann Baxter.

“I said a prayer in my heart and asked for help to have eyes to see anything that could bring her family some comfort,” Baxter said later. “Glancing down, I saw a muddy rotary cutter sticking out of the sludge that clung to the bedroom floor and experienced my first tug. I wondered if she was a quilter?”

Flooding in eastern Kentucky

In July 2022, historic floodwaters engulfed homes, destroyed property, displaced residents and left more than 40 dead in eastern Kentucky and the surrounding region, according to news reports.

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One of the victims was Gilla Ann Noble Patton Miller, an 83-year-old woman who lived along Troublesome Creek in Breathitt County. As her home filled with water, she was unable to get out.

The Kentucky home of Gilla Ann Noble Patton Miller after the July 2022 flooding where the quilts were found.
The Kentucky home of Gilla Ann Noble Patton Miller after the July 2022 flooding where the quilts were found. | Tim and Ruth Ann Baxter

Finding the quilts

Tim and Ruth Ann Baxter, members of the Nicholasville Kentucky Ward in the Lexington Kentucky Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, arrived at the overwhelmed home with a team of volunteers weeks later on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022.

Dressed in yellow “Helping Hands” shirts with gloves, boots and other working attire, the group was ready to provide community service.

“Devastation of property took on a new meaning as I entered the home,” Ruth Ann Baxter said. “To give you an idea, the glasses in the top cupboard in the kitchen were completely full of water, still standing. Her house completely filled up with water.”

As Baxter walked through dark rooms, carefully scanning for any items that might be rescued and saved for the family, she spotted the rotary cutter, followed by ribbon and fabric. She realized she was in a sewing room.

Retrieving her headlamp, she moved to the closet and discovered two large bins stacked on one another. They were full of black, foul-smelling water — and something else.

Another volunteer warned Baxter not to open the bins and unleash weeks of mold and toxic air, but she said she couldn’t help herself. She reached in and pulled out a neatly-folded quilt. There were 16 in all, and most were hand-sewn quilts.

The quilts were passed out the window and spread out on the grass. Others told her the quilts were ruined — “You can’t do anything with those,” they said.

Maybe so, Baxter thought, but she was still going to do her best to save them. Baxter felt she had found a “treasure of love.”

Cleaning the quilts

There was no time to waste in attempting to clean and preserve the quilts. The smell was “horrific,” and black mold had started to grow.

“You have to understand, this wasn’t just wet, soggy quilts,” Tim Baxter said. “These were putrid and black. They had been in water for weeks, and creek water after several weeks is not pleasant.”

They found an open laundromat after two hours of driving, and a friend showed up to help. The laundromat employee was not thrilled about the rancid odor but agreed to help when she learned the full story.

In preparing to clean the quilts, Ruth Ann Baxter remembered another friend had given her a “recipe” of various detergents that effectively clean vintage hand-stitched quilts, but she couldn’t find it. Her friend had passed away less than a year earlier, so she couldn’t call her. Baxter thought to contact her sister in Arizona, who found the recipe in minutes.

Baxter gathered the ingredients, and the group began a long night of washing each of the 16 quilts four times each.

Each quilt was sanitized during its last wash, then hung on a clothing line that stretched the full width of the Baxter’s 1.3-acre lot and dried in the sun. By the third day, the smell was gone.

A neighbor provided pillow cases for half of the quilts, and more pillow cases were sewn as a way to safely store the quilts.

A gift for the family

The quilts, many with bright colors and various ornate designs, were sent to a chapel in Hazard, Kentucky, where they were delivered to Miller’s family. Volunteers were also able to save some photos, musical instruments and other items from the home.

Ruth Ann Baxter also sent a letter that told the story of how the quilts were found and preserved. She hopes the quilts will help cherish the memory of Miller’s life.

“Although I have never met her, there is a part of me that feels like I know her,” Baxter wrote in the letter. “My hope is that we have honored her through attempting to preserve these beautiful labors of love we found on what became a sacred Sabbath day.”

Stacy Heilig, a JustServe specialist who also serves in a Church public affairs calling, was present when the family arrived. She said they were “very grateful and very overwhelmed.”

Rhonda Combs, Miller’s daughter, said the circumstances leading up to the recovery of the quilts were some of the hardest and most difficult she and her siblings have ever faced. She and her family are deeply grateful for the efforts of all involved.

“The quilts are a beacon of love,” Combs said. “The compassion, hard work and dedication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints showed us will always and forever hold a warm spot in our hearts.”

Lessons learned in service

The house on Troublesome Creek was just one of more than 800 homes and businesses where over 2,700 Latter-day Saints volunteered 27,000 hours of serve in the weeks following the flood, according to Heilig.

Ruth Ann Baxter’s hope in humanity and the goodness of people was boosted by the experience.

“So much sorrow and destruction, but so many willing hands to give comfort,” she said. “It felt like a divine power was guiding us the whole way. Many prayers were said, and many answered that day.”

Tim and Ruth Ann Baxter, Latter-day Saints from Nicholasville, Kentucky, stand in front of the line of quilts saved from a flooded Kentucky home.
Tim and Ruth Ann Baxter, Latter-day Saints from Nicholasville, Kentucky, stand in front of the line of quilts saved from a flooded Kentucky home. | Tim and Ruth Ann Baxter

“It was a combined effort of a lot of different people who gave of their time, resources and energy,” Tim Baxter said.

Ruth Ann also learned that sometimes it’s necessary to ignore the outside voices and naysayers telling you to give up and move on. Tim admits he was one of them.

“I think the biggest thing for me is that even in the middle of just horrific devastation and sorrow, God is present and comfort can come to those who are in need of comfort,” she said.

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