Telling a quilt's tale

Storyteller Brett Dillingham blends fact and fiction in a theater piece inspired by a 100-year-old quilt

Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2002

For each of the thousands of threads running through the "Soldier's Quilt" at the Alaska State Museum, there are unseen accompanying threads of fact, history, story and legend about its creator and his intriguing life story.

It is from those invisible threads that Juneau storyteller Brett Dillingham has woven the program "Quilt: A Soldiers' Story," which will be performed Friday and Saturday at the museum.

The "Soldier's Quilt," on a year-long loan to the museum from the Smithsonian, was created by Civil War veteran Jewett Washington Curtis and may have been completed while he was serving with the U.S. Army in Alaska.

"It's a really phenomenal quilt in all of American quilt history," said June Hall, who served as guest curator for the original quilt exhibit last year. "Its large size, its piecing technique, the history behind it ... is all a pretty amazing combination."

The exhibit had to include educational components to secure a Museum Loan Network grant, which brought the quilt to Juneau.

"One of the things that came to mind was having Brett do a historical interpretation of Curtis' life," Hall said.

Dillingham took on the challenge and, along with Hall, researched Curtis, the era he lived in and the background of the quilt.

Their research found that Curtis enlisted to fight in the Civil War in 1862 at the age of 14. He was wounded at Gettysburg the following year and was discharged in 1865.

For the next 35 years he periodically rejoined the Army for various assignments, eventually ending up in Alaska in 1898 to maintain order during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was at that time, in Dyea, that Curtis is believed to have completed the quilt.

Curtis married and had three children, but only one son survived childhood. After his wife died in 1904, Curtis sent his son to relatives. Curtis died in 1927.

Dillingham explored the idea of soldiers making quilts, tracing the tradition to the Crimean War of the 1850s.

"I think it's a way to deal with what we call post-traumatic stress syndrome," he said. "I think that happened to this guy in the Civil War."

Finally, Dillingham read journals, news accounts and other primary sources to flesh out the facts of Curtis' life and form the atmosphere of the story.

"Quilt: A Soldiers' Story" is an amalgam of the facts and traditions found through research and fictional elements of Dillingham's creation. Jewett Washington Curtis does not directly appear in the piece. Instead, the play focuses on people from the periphery of his life.

It opens with Curtis' fictional cousin, William, receiving a letter from Curtis' surviving son, Clark, in the late 1920s.

Clark, who had never seen his father after being sent away, has just received a trunk of his father's belongings - including the quilt - and is seeking information. William lapses into a vivid recollection of the Civil War, thus beginning the tale of the quilt. The quilt's journey ends up in Dyea decades later, where a bartender brings in elements of the Tlingit culture and narrates how the quilt - and Jewett Washington Curtis' wartime experience - were patched together.

Dillingham plays three roles - William Curtis and the Dyea bartender, as well as a black man who served with the Confederacy and whose life has many parallels with Jewett Washington Curtis. The rest of the cast includes Bruce Massey as a doctor, Linda Frame as a nurse, and Victoria Johnson as a Tlingit drummer, with Bob Banghart playing fiddle.

Dillingham said the piece should give the audience a sense of history and an understanding of the experience of war.

"I want them to walk away with a gift," he said, "a knowledge and further insight into humanity."

"Quilt: A Soldiers' Story" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Alaska State Museum, 395 Whittier Street. Admission is free, and seating is limited.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at

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