Poignant Story Behind Main Street’s Sesquicentennial Quilt

Here’s a true story that gave me goosebumps. It’s about a community-made quilt in a library, a random question, a family bereavement, and amazing coincidences.

About six weeks ago, I visited Main Street Library and was very taken by a large quilted tapestry hanging on the east wall of the attic. It had been made in 1984 to celebrate 150 years since the founding of Toronto. At the bottom of the piece, I noticed the name Hilary Rowland written in thread. I assumed that she had designed the art project, which featured 35 individual blocks in rows of five.

(pardon the glare on the glass)

I wanted to learn more about Hilary Rowland, but a Google search didn’t turn up anything. A few days later, I called Main Street branch to see if the staff had any recollection of her. The person who answered my call couldn’t help me, but she promised to pass on the question to Susan Truong, the branch head. Ms. Truong very kindly called me at home and helped me out with another question I had posed about earlier renovations to Main Street Library. However, she told me that nobody could remember anything about Ms. Rowland. After all, it had been twenty-six years since the quilt was completed.

A few more weeks passed, and then I received another communication from Ms. Truong. Her e-mail stated that she had received a call from Hilary Rowland’s daughter, Susan Plummer, entirely by coincidence. Susan had called the library to see if they were interested in some postcards and posters of the quilt which she had recently unearthed while going through her late mother’s effects. When Ms. Truong mentioned my query about the quilt’s creator, Susan was touched that someone had shown interest in her mother’s work. She gave the branch head her phone number and said she would be glad to talk to me about the quilt.

When I spoke to Ms. Plummer a few days later, she confided that she’d had the box containing the Sesquicentennial quilt’s promotional materials since her mother died in May, but she hadn’t been able to face opening any boxes until recently. It has been a very tough year for her, as she also lost her father in July. Susan was extremely generous to share such a personal story with someone she’d never met. It was almost like opening the box with her when the memories came tumbling out.

Back in 1984, Susan’s mother, Hilary, was the coordinator for the Beaches Sesquicentennial Committee for Ward 9. She ended up recruiting about 90 volunteers to work on a commemorative tapestry that depicted Beaches images. Each panel was a visual answer to the question, “What do you think of when you think of The Beaches?”

Hilary selected 25 different background fabrics but left the artistic interpretation of each block up to the people working on them. She must have been a charmingly persuasive woman because she managed to convince Beaches residents with highly variable sewing skills to contribute to the project. Abilities ranged from complete non-sewers to fancy quilters who could pull off reverse appliqués (as can be seen on the Fire Station #17 block below).

Hilary even got her whole family to join in the quilt’s co-creation. Her husband made the train station panel, and Susan explained that the green diamond represented his perspective as a child looking through the fence at the station. (Like his future wife, who moved to Toronto from England at age six, he grew up in the Beaches).

One of Susan’s two sisters sewed the lifeguard panel, and the other one made a cloth rendition of Main Street Library.

Susan herself, who was 19 at the time, created the seagull square. Her grandparents were responsible for the Woodbine Racetrack block. And Hilary did the Fox Theatre segment in addition to her design and coordinating work.

Once all 35 blocks were finished, Susan’s mom experimented with different arrangements before deciding on the final composition. Like a collage artist, she spread all the squares out on the floor and studied the colours and themes. She ended up choosing a navy blue border to pull the entire piece together. Then the quilt was put on a frame in the living room of a woman named Carol Wilkie. The rest of the work was completed by hand on the frame. Carol would leave her door unlocked, and volunteers arrived in shifts. “They’d come in, have tea and cookies, and quilt for an hour,” recalled Susan. (I love the concept of “Come on in and quilt!”).

Susan’s pride in her mother, who had “taken a quilting class and got excited,” was apparent in her voice. She also fondly remembered the community spirit that animated the Sesqui tapestry project. Out of the 90 or so volunteers, she personally knew the ones who had worked on 20 of the 35 blocks.

The Sesquicentennial textile piece is a priceless legacy to Hilary Rowland’s memory, her family, and the history of the local community. I’m so grateful that Susan Plummer told me this story because I believe it’s an important part of Beaches and library history.

On a personal note, connecting with Torontonians like Susan Plummer and April Quan (the creator of the Deer Park woolen castle) has been a really positive and unexpected benefit of writing a library blog. If I hadn’t blogged about the woolen castle or the Main Street Sesqui quilt, I would never have learned that April fashioned the castle from an old wool coat or that Susan discovered historical treasure in a box that was painful to open.

7 thoughts on “Poignant Story Behind Main Street’s Sesquicentennial Quilt”

  1. Wow Catherine! Talk about serendipity. Amazing when you throw your passion – writing about the libraries -into something what miracles evolve!! Would not Grandma love this story! And I could just hear her talking about how much she enjoyed reading about the libraries, what a wonderful writer you are, and how she just adored you. She would talk to me that way about you. AND I really love…the c’mon in and quilt idea! This is a beautiful piece that you have written and it gave me goosebumps also!! It makes me want to put Toronto at the top of our travel list or even our list of places to relocate…..With much love, Your cousin Dee

  2. Your lovely comment made my day, Dee! Hooray! I think Grandma would have loved the story, too. Hopefully quilters are becoming more and more recognized as true artists. Come on up to Toronto and come on in and quilt!

  3. Thank you for writing this story. It is wonderful to know that my mother’s hard work is appreciated, she lives on!

  4. You are super welcome, Sara! It was a honour to learn more about your mother and the wonderful quilt that never would have existed without her efforts.

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