Bonnie Montgomery:
Quilt Detective!

Bonnie Montgomery 2010

   
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Assistant Editor's note: I had the pleasure of meeting Bonnie Montgomery in January at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. Bonnie is an independent historical consultant with a master's degree from San Jose State University . Her in-depth research of the origins of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic quilt for her presentation was quite intriguing, and it was fun to hear about the methods Bonnie used to bring further information about the quilt to light.

The Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic was a social group restricted to blood relatives (including wives) of members of the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was a fraternal organization of men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The American Legion is its modern equivalent, with one big difference. World War I veterans formed the American Legion, but have allowed veterans of later wars to join. The GAR decided never to open its membership to other veterans and went out of existence with the death of the last Civil War veteran from the north in the 1920s. The Sons of Union Veterans formed in the 1880s and, as male blood relations of the original soldiers, participate in re-enactment events and Memorial Day ceremonies.

The Sons of Union Veterans were the first people I contacted after I agreed to research the quilt for the museum. I knew the local chapter maintained the GAR section of San Jose 's Oak Hill Cemetery . They ended up being the perfect source, because they keep a database of the service records of every Civil War veteran who ever lived in San Jose and belonged to one of the two GAR posts. The Sons of Union Veterans pointed me to a newspaper article from the turn of the century that listed all the then members of the GAR and the LGAR in San Jose.

Once I had a membership list, it wasn't too hard to identify most of the quilt blocks. The year 1892 appears on the quilt, and a number of blocks identify it as "To Hattie" with Christmas greetings. So dating the quilt was easy. It was identifying the recipient that was the trick. One block had the word "Mother" embroidered into it, with two other sets of initials that ended in the letter "B." "Mother" I took to mean Hattie's mother. Another block had five women's first names arrayed in a spokes of a wheel. That was unusual, since most of the other blocks had only one name. My hypothesis was that Hattie's family had a surname that began with the letter B and that she had five sisters. I looked up every LGAR member with a B surname in the 1880 and 1900 census. The Burgess family had members with all the right names. I concluded that the quilt was made for Hattie Burgess Shattuck, the eldest daughter of LGAR member Abby L. Burgess. Hattie married Charles Morton Shattuck on September 5, 1889. Mr. Shattuck was from the city of Brazil , Indiana , and it appears that Hattie went to live with him there after her marriage. Perhaps her family and friends sent the signature quilt as a Christmas gift to Indiana .

Another quilt that has recently caught my attention is one that Julie Silber, of The Quilt Complex, loaned to the San Jose Still Crazy exhibit. Sewn into it were ribbons from events that happened in San Jose in the 1880s and 1890s. Only three of initials gave any clue of the maker: "J," "A," and "SS." The quilt had been in the collection of the late Gaby Burkett, whose family has no information on the quilt's provenance. Gaby had probably collected it in California in the 1980s or early 1990s. The quilt has become my latest research project. I believe that I can locate one family in San Jose that would have belonged to all those organizations, and the maker will match those initials. After determining that I have the correct family, I'll then begin the hunt to find which descendant might have put the quilt up for sale. If the quilt is correctly identified, its history tells a poignant story of two pioneering California families. The research process on both the LGAR quilt and the Burkett quilt will be written up for the Quilt Study Group conference in 2011.

You could say that Bonnie's interest in textile history comes naturally. Her grandmother and great aunts were garment workers on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1900s. Bonnie learned to sew as a matter of course and made many of her own clothes into her twenties. Between careers as a book editor and a speech-language pathologist, Bonnie worked for two years as a seamstress and cutter in upholstery shops in Baltimore . She has never made a quilt. Bonnie now lives in San Jose, California, with her ten-year-old daughter Katie.

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