Operation quilt rescue began with a vigilant thrift shop volunteer on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. While sorting donations one day she came across an old-fashioned quilt with beautifully hand-stitched names and dates. Horrified at the thought of this genealogical treasure ending up as a dog bed she carefully copied down the names and dates, then set the quilt aside instead of putting it out on the sales floor.
After her shift ended, she went home to put her amateur genealogical sleuthing skills to work on the internet hoping to connect the names on the quilt with descendants or an institution that would care for it. The oldest names and dates appeared to be Franklin Oakes (1832) and Caroline Tenney Oakes (1835) so she began with them. With Family Search, an online genealogy database, she found just enough information to connect a few of the quilt names to Salem, Oregon and decided to make a call to the former Marion County Historical Society, now the Willamette Heritage Center.
As she described the quilt and shared the names and results of her initial research we were intrigued. Asking her to take some photos and e-mail the names and dates with her research results, we swapped contact information and ended the conversation. Imagine our surprise when a carefully boxed quilt arrived on our doorstep via the postman a few days later!
At first glance we have to admit we were a little shocked. The quilt had obviously been remade at some point and the modern fabrics chosen to coordinate were shall we say, not an exact match to the time-period or style. But we had to give points for creativity and speed, especially the rush job in machine-quilting that left large puckers and multiple long unclipped threads in the fabric replaced on the back. On closer examination however, we made some interesting discoveries.
First the make-up of the quilt. The quilt top is made up of alternating rows of “tree of life” blocks and embroidered blocks. The embroidered blocks feature a name and date as well as an acorn with oak leaves motif. Twenty tree blocks and twelve embroidered blocks in all, framed with red calico triangles, a row of plain red sashing and backed with red and black plaid flannel. The twelve embroidered blocks bear the following names and dates: Franklin Oakes (1832), Caroline Tenney Oakes (1835), Albert N. Oakes (1870), Pearl Warner Oakes (1881), Milton A. Oakes (1899), Myrtle Taylor Oakes (1908), Albert R. Oakes (1902), Marian Sprague Oakes (1913), Raymond F. Oakes (1912), Gordon M. Oakes (1914), Mildred M. Oakes (1918), and Elliott W. Oakes (1921).
Building on the quilt donor’s research which confirmed that the dates embroidered underneath the names referred to birth years, we were able to construct a rudimentary family tree from census records. Franklin and Caroline Tenney Oakes, the oldest couple represented were the parents of Albert N., the next name embroidered on the quilt. The first block on the next row represented Pearl, Albert’s wife. The pattern seemed clear. The blocks traced the family from grandparents, to parents, to children and we surmised, the spouses of children. Hoping to confirm our suspicions about the daughters-in-law, our next step took us to online newspapers. We suspected that perhaps this quilt represented an important event such as an anniversary in one of the couple’s lives. And if so, it might have been reported in the local newspaper.
And here we struck gold. According to a Capitol Journal article from June 1938, the 40th anniversary celebration of Albert & Pearl Oakes was held at the family residence 375 S. 17th St. In Salem on June 8, 1938. And along with the article was a picture of the extended family listing all of the children, wives, and grandchildren. We were quickly able to confirm that yes, the quilt represented the Oakes children: Elliott, Mildred, Albert Jr., Milton, Raymond and Gordon and two daughters-in-law: Myrtle Taylor and Marian Sprague. Missing from representation on the quilt were the grandchildren and one daughter-in-law named Veda, Raymond’s wife. After a quick bit of follow-up research on Raymond and Veda we discovered that they had only been married a short time and divorced a few years later. Prescient perhaps?
Albert and Pearl, the anniversary couple were married June 8, 1898 in Bennington county, Vermont. Their first four children were born here: Milton, Albert, Rosamond and Roy. Following the deaths of Albert’s parents and two of their small children, the family sought a fresh start. They followed the railway west to Spokane, Washington in 1908. Here two more children joined their family Bertha and Raymond. Tragically Bertha only lived a year. In 1914 the small family moved to Sheridan, Oregon and an additional three children were born: Gordon, Mildred, and Elliott. Pearl bore 9 children in all, only 6 of whom lived to adulthood (and are represented on the quilt). Albert was by profession a farmer and general laborer. In 1927 the family moved to Salem to be closer to their married children and grandchildren. Albert died in 1942 and was buried in City View cemetery. Pearl died in 1963. The family were members of the Salem Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
We have to admit we wonder at the stories this quilt could tell of its travels and time spent on the Navajo reservation. Do quilts go on walk-about? But for now, we are happy to give it a new home in the textile collection of the Willamette Heritage Center where it will be preserved and continue to tell the story of the Oakes family.
This article was written by Kaylyn F. Mabey for the Statesman Journal Newspaper where it appeared on Sunday, March 19, 2017. It is reproduced here with sources and additional notes for reference purposes.
- 1880, 1930, 1940 U.S. Federal Census Records
- Vermont, Vital Records 1720-1908
- Oregon Death Index
- Find-a-Grave Memorial website
- Obituary for Caro Pearl Oakes – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR), April 1, 1963 p. 5
- Obituary for Albert Newton Oakes – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR), October 15, 1942
- “Oakes Family Enjoys Anniversary” Statesman Journal (Salem, OR), June 11, 1938, p. 6