At 'Sundae in the Park', in upper Sellwood Park on Sunday, August 7th, those coming for the cheap ice cream and free entertainment will also have an opportunity to see a quilt made almost a century ago by members of the womens' auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R).
It will be during the hours of noon to 4 pm, and to do so they will have to walk a block south to S.E. Grand at Spokane, from the southwest corner of the park, to the historic Oaks Pioneer Church. The textile is too fragile to be exposed for a long period of time, thus the indoor display.
But it was the wish of the former owner, who recently donated it to the neighborhood association, SMILE, that residents have a chance to see it before it goes into safe storage.
Between 2-3 pm, yours truly will be take a break from the SMILE History Committee booth in Sellwood Park to be on hand at the church to discuss the historic significance of the quilt, and to recruit volunteers to help in unraveling its history.
It is serendipitous that the quilt is resurfacing as commemoration of the Civil War that was beginning on the east coast of America just 150 years ago.
Although the war had been building for decades, it reached a flashpoint when Southerners fired on Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861. Oregon residents were not much involved in the war; many of them had recently settled after six months on the Oregon Trail, and some emigrated to avoid the war they sensed was imminent.
Oregonians of that time were aware of the battles, as most of them had family members back in their home states who were affected by it. But few were motivated to return to participate in what would turn out to be four years of carnage.
At the close of the war, a large number of veterans and their families came west, especially after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.
During the war, women, who could not fight, found ways to support their men in the field. In both the North and South they began by sewing, in order to provide their poorly-supplied soldiers with clothing, bedding, and bandages. Soldiers who were wounded or disabled required assistance, but there was little money left in the nation's treasury nor political impetus to provide medical aid or pensions for veterans.
Among Union supporters, these concerns led to the establishment in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). This was a membership organization for Union veterans, and its stated purpose was 'fraternity, charity and loyalty.' Its initial tasks were promoting voting rights for black veterans, lobbying Congress for pensions, and electing Republican candidates to political office.
According to online information, at its peak level of membership in 1890, the GAR had 490,000 members. It was influential in many elections, and five U.S. Presidents held GAR membership. As veterans passed away, especially in the early 20th Century, its political impact also declined. In 1950 the GAR was officially dissolved when its last member died.
In another remarkable tie to Sellwood and Westmoreland, the ashes of the last national GAR President, Theodore A. Penland, are inurned in the mausoleum of Wilhelm's Portland Memorial Funeral Home, at S.E. 14th and Bybee Boulevard. A native of Indiana who later moved to Portland, Penland enlisted in the Union Army at the age of sixteen. A long-time GAR member, he rose to the position of (national) Commander-in-Chief, a position he held from 1947 to 1949. When he died, so did the G.A.R., although a new group was established - the Sons of Union War Veterans.
Evidence that a large number of Union veterans had moved to Oregon after the war is clear by the number of G.A.R. chapters organized across the state. Founded in Oregon in 1882, the G.A.R. soon had 77 'Posts', or individual lodges, which were often named after Union Army commanders. Predictably, there were posts in cities such as Salem, Eugene, and Portland, but there were also chapters in small, far-flung communities like Needy, Hilgard, Huntington, and Latourelle Falls.
In addition to the men-only Posts, women were welcomed to a separate form of membership in auxiliaries, referred to as Women's Relief Corps, or 'Circles.' Sellwood had a very active Post, the A.J. Smith Post (named after Gen. Andrew Jackson Smith), and Womens' Corps, or Blackmar Circle No. 20 (after Capt. Wilmon W. Blackmar).
Well into the late 1930's, THE BEE announced meetings, elections, and fund-raising activities by members of the Blackmar Circle No.20. One reference suggests that this local group was founded in the 1880's, but this is unconfirmed. Nor have any written records about the local Circle or Post turned up.
However, the women of the Blackmar Circle No. 20 were busy with bazaars, sewing projects, and banquets, whose profits were donated to Old Soldiers Homes, especially one in Roseburg.
During the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905, the Sellwood G.A.R. provided camping accommodations on the grounds of Oaks Amusement Park for veterans and their families who were attending the Expo in northwest Portland. Tents were erected, firewood was provided by the East Side Lumber Mill, and members of the local Post and Circle acted as hosts - holding a nightly campfire, sharing reminiscences, and singing familiar songs.
They also organized a yearly ceremony to honor the veterans - leading a procession from Sellwood School to the Milwaukie Pioneer Cemetery (at the entrance to Waverley Country Club), and placing flowers on the graves of veterans. According to cemetery records, there are at least 32 Civil War veterans buried within that two-acre cemetery. Graves with stone markers sometimes display the distinctive five-pointed G.A.R. star.
By 1911 the Blackmar Circle and A.J. Smith Post had raised funds to place a large concrete marker just inside the gates of the cemetery (behind the sign) in honor of 'the unknown dead of the Civil War.' It was dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1911, and the SMILE historic photo collection has an image taken at the event.
The quilt that will be displayed at Oaks Pioneer Church on the afternoon of Sunday, August 7th, was not made as a raffle item, although there are BEE references that fund-raising quilts were made and sold by local Circle members.
Gerrie Carlson, daughter of long-time Sellwood resident Charles Lance, discovered the quilt in a suitcase which had been stored in her parents' attic for many years. She does not know how the quilt came to be in her family's possession, although four of their names are stitched onto one of the blocks. However, recalling her family's connection to Sellwood led her to contact the SMILE History Committee to see if it was interested in accepting it. Once it had been examined, the answer was, 'Yes!'
The neighborhood association now owns the quilt, which, after documentation, will be donated to the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center in Tillamook, where it will join a quilt already in their collection that is made entirely of GAR ribbons.
The SMILE quilt appears to commemorate the annual statewide meetings ('encampments') of Oregon Posts and Circles. It is composed of 81 blocks, each with the embroidered name of a post or circle, with members or officers' names, and sometimes a town. It is made in a 'crazy quilt' style, and includes some satin GAR ribbons, which help place date the quilt just after 1914 - ironically, just before the beginning of WWI.
Scraps of silk were used in many of the blocks; and since this fabric deteriorates, some of the blocks are 'shedding.' For now, the quilt is in an archival textile box, padded with acid-free tissue. But it will require safe storage in a climate controlled facility such as the one at Latimer, whose collections focus on textiles.
Before the quilt is transferred to Tillamook, it will be carefully photographed in detail, so these images can remain with SMILE to be displayed and made available for future research. It will also be registered with the Oregon Quilt Project, a recently-established all-volunteer effort to record historic quilts in Oregon. Because the records generated by this multi-year project will be housed at Latimer, it seems appropriate to record this quilt through this endeavor.
The SMILE History Committee also needs assistance in transcribing all of the information on the 81 blocks. Once this is accomplished, the research on the quilt, and re-connection with descendants of GAR groups, can begin.
Perhaps a revived 'Blackmar Circle' can be formed to begin the documentation, soon after Labor Day. If you are interested, please come to the Oaks Pioneer Church on August 7th between noon and 4 pm, to view the quilt, and if you are willing, to volunteer.
If you have additional information about the GAR, please bring it to the church on that afternoon, or leave a message at 503/234-3570.