April 11, 2018

Flexner Family Names on a Signature Quilt

Esther Abraham Flexner and Moritz Heinrich Flexner

A series of happenstances has lead me to connect names on a 1910 fundraiser quilt to one of my ancestors!  A whole new branch has been added to my family tree!

So pour a cup of tea and follow along on the detective trail.

The story of the research and discovery began back in 1984.  I was visiting a friend in Iowa when my obsession with quilts was brand new.  She and I went to the historical museum in Kalona.  There, among other things, I photographed a signature quilt with a dedication block that reads "M E Society / Jan. 1910 Kalona Ia."

When I returned home and was showing my travel slides to my mom, she sat straight up when the close-up of this quilt was on the screen, and said "Wait a minute! There are people named Flexner on this quilt!"

The names caught her eye because Flexner was her maiden name.  We have quite a bit of genealogical information on the Flexners, but these folks, Dave, Etta, and Helen, were not anywhere on the family tree we knew about.


My mom enlisted my Iowa friend to help her research the names.  My friend traveled to Iowa courthouses that house census records and my mom wrote letters to the Kentucky resource centers.  (This was before the internet, after all, in the era of paper letters and SASEs!)  My mom was interested in the Kentucky records because the ancestors we knew about had all settled there when they came to the US in the mid-1800s.  Thankfully, my mom, as a reference librarian, kept copies of all the correspondence and census information that was retrieved in both states.

Eventually, my mom and my friend reached dead ends in both states.  The final status was:

Iowa census records show that Dave and Etta (short for Henrietta) were baby Helen's parents.  Helen was just 10 months old on the 1910 census.  Dave's mother's maiden name was Julia Godshaw.  But the Kentucky records gave no further clues at all.

Godshaw was not a name anywhere on the family tree as we knew it.....except for the tantalizing oral history my mom knew that my great-great-grandmother Esther nee Abraham had lived for a while upon her arrival in the US with an uncle, last name of Godshaw but first name unknown.  He had arrived in the US several years ahead of Esther and was proprietor of a china store. 

Next chapter.  A few weeks ago, while preparing a lecture, I came across the images of this quilt again, and decided to see if the files at Ancestry.com held any further information.

Lo and behold, I found a Morris Godshaw, proprietor of a china store in Louisville, KY, who had arrived several years earlier than Esther, and had a daughter named Julia!  This seems to be too perfect a fit to be a mere coincidence!

To sum this up:  My great-great-grandmother Esther nee Abraham and Etta's mother Julia nee Godshaw were more than likely cousins!

So how did the name Flexner get involved?  Both Esther and Julia married men named Flexner!  I know my great-great-grandfather's name - Moritz Heinrich Flexner - and I found Dave's father's name - John Flexner.

Since both these men were immigrants, the next step will be to subscribe to the international version of Ancestry and see if I can find out how Moritz and John were related.  I feel that they almost certainly were related, maybe brothers, maybe cousins.

Dave, Etta, and Helen didn't live in Kalona very long.  They were in Kalona in 1900.  Dave was proprietor of the general store, and Etta worked there as saleswoman.  In 1910, Helen had just been born and Etta was at home mothering their new baby.  By the 1920 census, the family was in California, and Etta, sadly, had died in 1919.


Next chapter.  Last weekend, I attended the spring meeting of the Iowa-Illinois Quilt Study group.  I wrote Nancy Roth, director of the Kalona Historical Village where the study group meets.  Nancy graciously brought out the quilt, and I was able to speak about it during the show-and-tell portion of the meeting.

Not only was it exciting to see the quilt again, but several people whose families were long-time Kalona residents were able to identify other names as the owner of the hardware store, etc.  A couple of the names are ancestors in Nancy's family as well!

The quilt is pretty clearly a fundraising quilt, made by the Methodist Episcopal Society.  The auctioneer, John A. Yoder, was given a special position on the quilt.  And yes, Kalona is in Amish country.

I discovered that many of the patches and the binding are velvet, made of the luxurious silk velvets of the time.  The back is a heavy, textured, striped fabric.

Interesting further research topics are:  There's another Flexner family on the 1910 Davenport census, headed up by a Leopold Flexner, who also had moved from Kentucky to Iowa.  Could he be yet another relation of John and Moritz Flexner?

This is so much fun!!!

P.S.  An exciting addition to this story came along in summer 2020.  In Part 2 and Part 3, you'll learn how I met some cousins on this new-to-me branch of the Flexner tree, and see more wonderful family photos. 


  1. You have your great-[etc.]-grandmother Esther's eyes! That's amazing!

    1. I know! And so does Katrina. She also has Esther's round face. My mom always said they were the Flexner eyes, but this photo certainly indicates that the Flexners got them from the Abrahams. :-) Thanks for all your legwork and input way back when! I did send you an email about this. Did you get it? Do I not have your current address? Anyhow, I'm glad you know the current status of the research!

    2. Yes, I did get your email. Somehow, things penetrate more when they're accompanied by photos.

  2. How beneFit to combine love of quilts with genealogy research!!

  3. John Flexner married Julia who's last name I didn't know. They have Jacob flexner my great grandpa.. the Flexner came from Kentucky but it's hard for me to find anything on the not so famous Jacob J Flexner.. Jacob intended up in Jefferson county Nebraska.. he was married to Mollie (Mary).. lillycatshaw@gmail.com is my email maybe you can fill in some blanks for me.. I had a great aunt Etta.. not the same you mentioned but names are often passed down.

    1. It's looking like we are relatives! This quilt is, as they say, the gift that keeps on giving. I'll be writing to you!