The Dress that Opened Doors…

It all started with a dress.

If you follow this website, you might remember that my great grandparents were married in Gunnison, Colorado in 1907. I inherited her wedding dress, and repurposed the damaged skirt into a 1910-inspired traveling suit to wear during my tour of mining towns and family stomping grounds on the Western Slope of Colorado. (You can review that project at “The Traveler’s New Clothes” and The Traveler’s Shirtwaist”.)

I contacted the museum in Gunnison about donating the blouse, which was in near perfect condition. Pam answered my email, and after reading about the theme of my tour, said that she wanted to introduce me to a couple of local historians while I was there. Gunnison was my last and most important stop on my 10 day tour, so I made an appointment for 2 PM Friday.

I arrived in my traveling suit with the dress donation, notebook and files in hand, and met the two local historians, David Primus and Larry McDonald, the Outreach Coordinator for the Pioneer Museum. Larry had prepared a 16-page digital book on a USB drive, containing links to hundreds of articles about my family from both the Gunnison Museum archives and the Denver Digital Library. I showed them the wedding blouse and a couple of other textiles I had brought to donate. David was especially intrigued with the pillowcase with blue-on-white photos of J.J. Carpenter and Cebolla. I think we talked for about two hours, and Larry scanned the small collection of photos and newspaper clippings from the files I had brought to share.

I was looking for the marker for the Sportsmen’s Hotel – a hunting and fishing lodge built by my great great grandfather in about 1904, and was flabbergasted to hear that it had not been swallowed up by the Blue Mesa Reservoir, but had in fact been moved and is now an apartment building at the edge of town. I was also looking for Jack’s Cabin, where my grandmother and family lived during the 1918 Pandemic. I had spotted it on a historical map but could not locate on a current road map. David knew where that was, and gave me directions, which I would follow the next day after touring the museum.

The next day, Larry met me at the door and took me through the main building. My first stop was a wedding dress worn by Rose Mauer on October 23, 1900. It was fun to see the pleating at the hem, which was similar to the pleating that I was wearing from the repurposed hem from my great grandmother’s wedding skirt.

Larry invited me into a golf cart, and off we went. The Pioneer Museum can rightly be called the Smithsonian of Gunnison, comprised of 30 buildings and several outdoor displays on a 16 acre property. Larry pointed to the buildings and what they contained as we drove by; he knew of my interest in textiles and was taking me to those buildings first. I did not keep track of which building I was in for the next set of garments, these may be in the La Veta building.

This traveling suit belonged to Florence “Flora” Johnston Outcalt (1861- 1936) but no date specific to this dress. So if you can identify the date, please drop me a comment…

This dress was taffeta with a brocade vest and no informational signage. Larry pointed out the buttons made from tiger eye set into silver bezels. It would lead me to start a series on Facebook and Twitter called “Date That Dress” to tap into the knowledge of the costume historians I follow on those platforms. As of this writing, this dress has been dated to 1896 due to the shape and size of the leg-o-mutton sleeves, and identified as daywear due to its color, and the high collar (edged in netting rather than lace)

Another pair of dresses, not dated. I apologize for the lack of clarity, my hands were now shaking. I had brought a tape measure with me, the dress at right measured a 23″ waist, the one next to it, a 21″ waist. The draping at front and back was asymmetrical, and the velvet under panel was only exposed on the one side. It’s an inspiring piece…

There were so many shoes and accessories that I am compelled to put those into a separate post…

I believe this next set was in the Gray House, a building that dates to the 1920s but converted to give visitors an idea of what a Gunnison home was like between 1880-1910. Walking in, it felt as though the inhabitants had just walked out, leaving all their possessions in the spots they had last used them.

In the laundry area was a display of underwear. A sign informed that in the 1880s, women’s undergarments were made from muslin and nainsook – textiles that held together through lye soap and boiling. By the 1920s, silk and rayon came in to use, and below-the-knee bloomers of glove silk replaced the ‘slip’ under long skirts. Shown here are a crotchless bloomers and corset cover set, and another corset cover (at far right) that had “stay-like seaming to a 21 inch waist. The figure was laced in to match this measure.”

Upstairs in a bedroom I found this men’s shirt, starched so stiff that it was board like. I did not see any of the detachable collars or ties that would have been worn with it. Larry started to pull things out of drawers for me to look at, and turned on a still-operational 1912-era Victrola. I probably should have noted what the song was on that scratchy, time-worn record.

In the nursery we found a little girl’s fur coat, bonnet and purse, that I identified for Larry as being made from karakul. A little boy’s velveteen suit, that Larry handed to me and asked if I could straighten the pants so they wouldn’t hang crooked. “Sure!” Just as soon as I pick my jaw up off the floor and snap a few photos (darn my shaking hands)…

In the next bedroom, Larry pulls me over to a table and asks about a large white tin with a dial on top. I tell him it’s from a mercantile, and it’s how sewing machine needles and bobbins were sold. The clerk would turn the dial to the item you needed, and slide open the door, and select from the wooden cases in that section. Larry allowed me to demonstrate.

Another bedroom, another closet, this one filled with garments that appear to date from about 1880 through the Flapper era. Larry hands me a shirtwaist to photograph. I carefully turn up the waist to see the hook and eye closures.

We exit this home so Larry can show me one of his favorites – a bear skin coat from the 1920s that belonged to Edmond Leonard, who came to Gunnison in 1894 and who would become a rancher. Larry is a pretty big guy but this coat would have swamped him, I’m sure it must have weighed at least 50 lbs. There was also a horsehair coat that I didn’t get a photo of, and pair of leather breeches, no tag or sign, that I wish I had been able to get better shots of, especially of the embroidery.

At this point my battery died, so I tried to make mental notes of the other buildings so I could come back and photograph them later.

I would return with my camera, and then drive to the edge of town, where I found the old Sportsmen’s Hotel, now the Cebolla Creek Apartments. A couple of the tenants were in the yard, so I explained that my great great grandfather had built the building they were living in, and that it used to be a hunting lodge where the Blue Mesa Reservoir is now. They had no idea…

Jessica invited me inside so I could see what it looks like now. She called her landlord and left my phone number on his voicemail, and he called me back when I got back to Seattle. How he acquired the building, will probably be subject to a separate post.

I returned to the museum on Sunday to retrieve a flash drive I had loaned to Larry, and told Pam I had found the marker for Jack’s Cabin, where I believe my grandparents met, and where my grandmother harvested hay for the Spann family. Pam disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with the contact information for the Spann family, who still own the property, and who’s patriarch is old enough to possibly remember my grandmother…

My great grandmother’s dress – both the piece I donated and the part that I wore – opened more doors than just the ones at this museum. It helped me find the people, who knew the places, where there were people who knew other people, all of whom would help me to piece together the puzzle that family history can present.

And it all started with a dress… (to be continued…)

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