From trash to treasure to triumph.
Residents of a tiny community in the Canadian province of Ontario have been left in awe after a nearly century-old quilt made by women from a local church miraculously found its way back to town.
This story was first published on Soo Today
And it’s all thanks to the attentive eye of a Berkeley dumpster-diver.
In September 2021, Leslie Buck, a gardener and author living in Southwest Berkeley, was taking a walk with her friend in Oakland when she noticed something peculiar.
Buck could see that there was a quilt in a pile of garbage, which left her curious why such a thing would be tossed away.
“My grandma was a quilter,” Buck said. “I found the quilt on West Street near the overhead crossing of the BART in Oakland, a very quiet street with many shuttered shops.
“I picked up the quilt, and my friend said, ‘Don’t touch that!’ She thought I was crazy,” she laughed. “It was a quilt of plaid pieces, and I love plaid because my heritage is Scottish.”
Buck took the quilt home and washed it before leaving it on her front porch for a few days to air out.
“I noticed it had an orange stain and a tiny hole, so I was afraid that the embroidery had caused the stain,” she said. “The back of the quilt seemed so odd because it didn’t match the front at all.”
She took it to Berkeley’s New Pieces Quilt Shop to make sure the threads inside wouldn’t cause more stains over time, and the workers at the shop made a discovery.
They “peeked inside of it and they said there was writing on it,” Buck said.
Buck took the quilt home to investigate it further, eventually opening it up like a pillowcase from inside out.
“When I did that ‘whoosh’ to open it, I felt this energy released,” she said. “I looked down and there was a ton of these names sewn onto the sheet.”
“I opened the quilt in my back garden and found a secret inner panel with all the names embroidered so lovingly by different hands.”
The quilt was discovered to have 19 pie shapes of around 240 embroidered names, featuring one large pie of names in the center that reads, “Echo Bay United Church 1930.”
Once Buck had some time to examine the quilt and do some research on Echo Bay — located near Sault Ste. Marie, it’s best known for having the world’s largest loonie — she contacted the church.
The church received a letter from Buck on Oct. 31.
“My cousin Mary McKay is the church secretary and was handling this,” lay worship leader Vivian Hall explained. “It’s a crazy miracle. We were beyond excited.”
After making several attempts to get it shipped north, Buck was able to successfully send the heirloom to the church, and it was received by the Echo Bay Post Office on Jan. 12.
“It’s just crazy that I pulled this from a gunky trash pile,” Buck said. “Several people told me to give up on trying to send it to the church and that I should just keep it. But I couldn’t do that.”
Featuring 240 embroidered names, including ministers, doctors, members of provincial parliament and dozens of members of the church at the time, the attention to detail, as well as the condition of the quilt, is leaving residents astonished.
“They’re quilted amazingly,” Hall said. “The embroidering to put these names on is quite remarkable for how wonderful they did.”
Once pictures of the quilt began circulating on social media in Echo Bay, many residents started making connections to past friends and relatives who were listed on the sheet.
“We’re trying to figure out the history and we’d like to find out a little bit about everybody who was on the quilt,” Hall said.
A mystery endures
While the community has begun uncovering the backstory to some of the names, nobody has yet solved the mystery of how the quilt found its way to California.
“We believe it has something to do with the Great Depression as people were heading west to make a living at that time,” Hall said. “Way back when, they’d reverse the quilts so there would be something inside of it, as opposed to the writing being on the outside. It was turned inside out, likely to preserve the names.
“For it being from 1930, it’s in amazing condition.”
Hall’s brother-in-law Ralph McPhee, the president of the Echo Bay Museum committee, said members of the church would often pay a few cents to get their name on a quilt back then as a fundraiser for the church.
While they’re unsure if that’s what happened in this case, they are nearly certain about what to do with the quilt now that it’s in their possession.
“The quilt will likely end up in the Echo Bay Museum because they have a number of quilts that have been made in the area already,” Hall said. “None of them have the history like this quilt, however, and to be that old is quite amazing.”
The quilt spent some time at the Davey Home in the Sault on Tuesday as some of the residents had recognized their relatives’ names on the sheet.
“It’s wonderful,” Hall said. “We all need a bit of a hope story because we’ve all been through a lot.”
Echo Bay residents would like to find out more about the quilt and how it came to the East Bay. If anyone has any information regarding the quilt or who may have owned it, please contact Leslie Buck through her website.