Some objects have symbolic and emotional value that is far more powerful than their physical nature.
Such is the case with a quilt, which I had the privilege of viewing last Monday. The quilt, object number 72.1.39f, and information about its origins and content, were bought out for me to examine by Colleen Dirmeitis of the MacBride Museum.
The quilt is made of plain and serviceable white cloth. It is slightly faded, wrinkled and smudged. There is a stain that appears as though coffee or tea may have been spilled upon it at some time in the distant past.
One side consists of 316 small squares of coarse white cloth sewn together. Turn it over, and you will find a large red cross stitched into the fabric that runs the entire length of 231 centimetres and across the width of 190 centimetres. There are 192 more cloth squares on this side that fill the four quadrants formed by the cross.
Sewn on each square, in red thread, is a name. There are 506 in all. Most of the names are written diagonally, although the names in the squares around its perimeter run perpendicular to the length of the quilt.
The pattern created by the placement of these autographed squares was purposeful and symmetrical.
Despite its modest construction, it is an object of great power and contains many memories from a little-known, but important part of Yukon history that was at once both noble yet tragic.
It was created by devotion to duty and the nimble fingers of the Martha Munger Black chapter of the IODE (Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire) in Dawson City. Its creation began in October of 1916 when several yards of material were given to Martha Black, wife of Commissioner George Black, before she left Dawson City with her husband. He and 90 other men were going to volunteer to fight in the war raging in Europe.
On board the steamer Casca, as it laboured upriver to Whitehorse, many of the men helped Mrs. Black tear the fabric into small squares, which they signed. The autographed squares were sent back to Dawson, where the ladies of the IODE tirelessly sewed over the names with red thread, then carefully stitched them together with blue and white cross-stitches.
The work of sewing in the autographs and stitching together of the squares took the ladies, who were constantly organizing fund-raising events for the war effort, 18 months to complete. By March of 1918, the quilt was ready to be raffled off. A thousand tickets were sold at 25 cents each, to people from as far away as New Zealand; a quarter of them were purchased by the volunteers, with Mrs. Black buying a large number of the tickets herself.
The draw was made the evening of March 15 during a patriotic bonspiel at the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building. Little Mary Ross, the daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Ross, drew the ticket. The winning number was 173, and the lucky ticket-holder was …. Mrs. George Black. The quilt was bundled up and quickly mailed off to Mrs. Black in London, England.
She kept the quilt with her for many years, finally giving it to her son Lyman, when he married in 1930. Lyman died in a car accident in 1937, and presumably, sometime after that, it was returned to his mother. It appears that it later came into the possession of the IODE again, and from them to the museum.
George and Martha Black’s names appear on the quilt in a large square, right in the centre. Joe Boyle’s name is on the quilt too, as is that of Robert Service. Boyle and Service were too old to be accepted into the army, but Service volunteered for the American Ambulance Service, which inspired him to write a best-selling book of poetry about the war. Boyle volunteered to go to Russia during the tumultuous times of the Russian Revolution. He became a national hero in Romania and was awarded medals by four nations, though not by his native Canada. Also sewn onto a square is the name of Jim Christie, who in 1909, fought hand to hand with a grizzly bear, and survived the attack to become a war hero.
Frank Berton signed a square. After the war, he returned to the Yukon and fathered Pierre, who became one of the most prominent Canadian authors of the twentieth century.
There are four nurses named on the quilt. One, Marie Thompson, was the daughter of a doctor practising in Dawson City. She was 29 years of age when she enlisted in London, in 1916, and had already been in France for the American Ambulance Corps for eight months, where she has been in charge of a ward. While not actively engaged in combat, she would have seen the horrifying effects of bullets, shrapnel and gas.
Jimmy Matthews was a student of the Dawson high school when he enlisted, having just turned 16 years of age. Only 159 centimetres in height, he had to stand up one step in order to be shoulder to shoulder with his taller classmates when they were photographed in front of the school. When he reached Victoria, he was almost rejected by the army on account of vision problems. But George Black arranged for a surgeon to operate on his eyes and correct the condition. Matthews suffered a head wound August 28, 1918, and was admitted to hospital near Etaples, France.
Morris Anthony caught a sniper’s bullet to the throat near Vimy in 1917. He recovered, but his war was over, and he was sent home.
More than 30 names on the quilt were fatalities. Hugh MacDonald, son of a First Nation mother and a missionary father, died in February of 1919. Angus McKellar was a former Mountie who came to the Yukon before the gold rush. Charlie O’Brien, the son of Dawson City brewery king Thomas W. O’Brien, joined up fresh out of high school. Both were killed on August 10, 1918, when a shell hit their armoured car.
These were people who were committed to duty in the service of their country. Many of them were wounded; some never came back to the Yukon, while others remain buried in the cemeteries of France and
Belgium. By this quilt we remember them all.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org