Documentation of SMILEs historic quilt to begin
- Eileen G. Fitzsimons
- The Bee - Features
On August 7, during 'Sundae In the Park' in Sellwood, several dozen individuals visited the Oaks Pioneer Church to inspect and puzzle over a historic quilt, described and discussed in the August issue of THE BEE.
The quilt seems to commemorate the activities of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization for Civil War veterans who served in the Union Army. One local man selected two names from the Sellwood chapter blocks, ran them through databases on his home computer, and returned the same afternoon with the obituaries of two of the signers!
Building upon this enthusiastic beginning, a group of volunteers (which could include you!) will this month begin transcribing the information on the quilt. The initial meeting is scheduled for Sunday, September 11, between 2 and 6 pm at SMILE Station, 8210 S.E. 13th (the old Sellwood fire station, on the corner of Tenino and 13th, one block south of Tacoma Street). This will also be a second opportunity to view the quilt, if you missed the August 7th display.
As explained in the previous article, the crazy-style quilt was donated to SMILE, the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood association, by a descendant of the Lance family, residents of the Woodstock and Sellwood areas from 1878 to 1935.
Although founded in 1866 in Illinois, the GAR was not established in Oregon until 1882. But soon after, chapters rapidly organized in dozens of Oregon communities. In Sellwood, the A.J. Smith Post was for men who had served in the Union Army, while Blackmar Circle No. 20 was the women's auxiliary. The Post and Circle honored veterans by organizing annual services at the Milwaukie Pioneer cemetery, welcoming visiting veterans and their families at their twice-monthly meetings, and working through the national GAR to obtain federal pensions and medical care for surviving soldiers.
In addition, women of the Blackmar Circle planned such fundraising events as banquets and bazaars, where they sold handmade items, like quilts. However, while SMILE's quilt may not have been one of those raffle items, it is certainly a textile documentation of the statewide GAR between 1911-1914. A meeting of all Oregon Circles, an event known as the Encampment, was held in a different town every year in mid-June. From the dates on commemorative ribbons, and those executed in the embroidery, the quilt blocks were made between 1911-1914. Preliminary research reveals that in 1914 several hundred GAR members attended the five-day Encampment in Tillamook.
The quilt is composed of 81 blocks of many 'fancy' fabrics (silks and taffetas) sewn onto a heavy cotton cloth. Each block features the embroidered names of members and officers of various GAR chapters; occasionally the name of a post or circle and its location is included.
In true crazy quilt fashion, the blocks are further embellished with intricate embroidery stitches. The quilt is backed with red cotton sateen, and tacked with thread through all three layers of fabric. In spite of being stored in a suitcase in an attic for many years, the quilt is in good condition, and where the fabrics have deteriorated, the embroidery survives.
Although the names of several members of the Lance family and other Sellwood residents, are visible in the Blackmar Circle block near the center of the quilt, Lance family members say they do not know why it was in their possession.
But the significance of the piece extends beyond the boundaries of Sellwood, because it constitutes an historic documentation of an organization that was once socially and politically very influential, both nationally and at a state level. Some GAR chapters were active in Oregon for at least 50 years. Presumably, like the Sellwood chapter (as recorded in THE BEE of the time), they held meetings on a regular basis. But so far, only limited records of those chapters have surfaced in publicly-accessible collections. The Oregon Historical Society lists 15 boxes of miscellaneous records from a variety of posts, but there is no on-line catalogue for the collection.
As an organization, the GAR ceased to exist once its final national President died in 1950. It is now up to volunteers to help uncover the history of the quilt and, if possible, reconnect with descendants of those whose names are on the blocks.
The initial step will be to commence an orderly transcription of the information on the quilt. This may require more than one session, as the names are placed in different directions and angles from block to block. Once the information has been collected, research can begin. Sources to be consulted include on-line computer searches, libraries, historical societies, and quilt groups in the communities listed on this quilt. Hopefully, biographical profiles of signers will be developed, and possibly photographs can be included.
Perhaps we will be able to discover why the quilt was made around 1914, just a few years before the United States became involved in World War I.
Who were the signers and what was their connection with the Civil War and the GAR? What was the purpose of the quilt, and how did it end up in the possession of the Lance family?
Once the documentation is complete, it can be shared with a wider public, including the Oregon Quilt Project, at the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center in Tillamook, to which the quilt will be transferred, as well as national organizations that focus on historic quilts.
If you would like to volunteer to help with this, or would just like to view the quilt, on Sunday, September 11, between 2 and 6 pm come to SMILE Station. And, if you have a pair of clean, white cotton gloves, please bring them with you.