Oakes’ Family Quilt Finds its Way Home

Have you ever read one of those stories about someone finding an heirloom in an antique store or flea market and researching it to help it find its way home? I have. Many times. Little did I know that this past week my family would be on the receiving end of one those lost-heirloom stories.

Sunday morning I was visiting my mother when her cousin unexpectedly called and asked if she’d read the morning’s edition of the Statesman Journal (an Oregon newspaper). She doesn’t get that paper so pulled it up online. She excitedly called me and said, “You HAVE to see this.” There on the screen was a photograph of her grandparents and other family members – it was a photo from 1938 taken at her grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary. My first thought was wondering how did someone get that photo off my family tree on Ancestry. My second thought was wondering why it was in a newspaper article.

The reason is a good one. Back in October, someone was working in a thrift shop on a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona. She was sorting donations when she came across an old quilt. The quilt pattern featured trees with embroidered acorns and names with birth dates. The family name was Oakes. The dates went back to the 1830s. Not wanting someone to use the quilt for a dog bed or just toss it out she set it aside. Later she took it home and started researching the names on the quilt. Discovering that most of the names were connected to Salem, Oregon, she next contacted the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem. The staff member she talked to was intrigued and a few days later the woman in Arizona mailed the quilt to the Center in Salem.

Kaylyn F. Mabey, a staff member at the center, continued the research begun by the donor in Arizona. She found an article in a 1938 edition of the Capital Journal that recorded the 40th anniversary of Albert & Pearl Oakes. The aforementioned picture accompanied that article. The names identified in the picture corresponded to the names on the quilt.


Kaylyn did some additional research to confirm dates and names, and on Sunday, March 19, 2017 published her findings along with the Oakes’ family picture and a picture of the mystery quilt. The photo of the quilt in the paper featured the name of Mildred M Oakes – she just happens to be my maternal grandmother.

This event turned out to be a great opportunity for cousins far and wide to call each other – cousins spread out from Alaska to North Carolina.

On Monday morning I met up with my mom’s cousin at the Willamette Heritage Center and he asked if we could see the quilt. Even though we hadn’t called ahead (we were so excited it didn’t really occur to us), they graciously took time to find a room where we could examine the family treasure. To be honest, we don’t even know who made it. Quite possibly Pearl herself did. She had made other quilts in her lifetime but no one knows if she embroidered or not. Maybe others contributed to it. Maybe a friend or daughter-in-law made it. We suspect it was done just a few years before the 40th anniversary – maybe even in anticipation of the anniversary. We don’t know and probably never will. We also don’t know how it ended up in a Navajo Indian reservation thrift store either – though we have some suspicions. The important thing – the really important thing – is that it is in a safe place now – and back in Oregon. It won’t serve as a dog bed or be lost in a trash heap. The hours and hours of work spent creating it – the names memorialized on it will not be lost to history. They are in a museum where members of our family – current and future generations – and museum visitors will be able see it for years to come.

Our family is grateful to the kind person in Arizona who recognized the quilt’s value and the time and effort she spent researching it and helping it find its way back to Oregon. And we’re grateful to Kaylyn and the Willamette Heritage Center  for the research, for accepting the quilt into their collection — and for publishing the story so our family could read about it and reconnect with it and each other.

The full story is available here in the Statesman Journal — Heritage: Quilt with Salem connection shows up in Arizona.


3 thoughts on “Oakes’ Family Quilt Finds its Way Home

  1. Pingback: Veda: A Novel | No Stone Unturned

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