Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
The first barn quilt was painted in 2001 on an old tobacco barn in southern Ohio. Donna Sue Groves, a representative for the Ohio Arts Council, and her mother, a master quilter, decided to decorate their barn with the lively colors and patterns of an old quilt. It would, they thought, be a three-fer: a means to improve their property, a nice mother-daughter project and a way to honor their Appalachian heritage.
What they didn’t know is that it would also start a movement.
Neighbors liked the idea, and they began decorating their own barns as well. Some chose to paint directly on the building. Others, like Donna Sue, painted their design on a large piece of plywood, which they then posted on the barn. Some used historic patterns, while others preferred more contemporary designs. And while the first squares adorned barns, they soon began popping up on homes, shops, government buildings and even churches.
Travelers, who previously would have bypassed these small towns to hurry along the Interstate, began to exit in order see the folk-art barns. Some of them even had lunch at Blake’s Soda Fountain and purchased locally-made crafts.
Other communities took note. In many cases various service organizations, art guilds or ad-hoc groups became involved. They published brochures that helped visitors explore the back roads and introduced them not only to their mom-and-pop shops and eateries but also to their history and culture.
Today there are more than 7,000 quilt squares throughout the United States and Canada, forming a trail of barn quilts that goes from coast to coast.
While all parts of the quilt trail takes folks into rural areas, each community organization operates independently.
For example, The Southern Quilt Trail, which is centered in the counties west of Atlanta, is concerned with economic development but it’s even more concerned with preserving the area’s heritage. To be officially included on this trail, a building must be at least fifty years old and the quilt pattern must be historic.
“The Southern Quilt Trail is for more than tourists,” says Judy Rowell, who works with the steering committee. “It is for our children, who need to know their past.”
Folks in Northeastern Colorado are also concerned with preserving their old barns, especially those that were built by Swedes who originally settled parts of the area. But at the same time, they are concerned with practicality. Thus, visitors may find bright quilt squares on aluminum sheds as well as on old weathered barns.
And in Schoharie County, New York, where in 2011 a devastating hurricane left much of the area under water, both literally and figuratively, the focus was on uplifting the community’s spirit as well as its economy. By incorporating art into their restorations, they transformed “wet and soggy” into “bright and beautiful.” Today their quit trail, which is on of the most vibrant in the country, features quilt blocks that range from traditional to whimsical.
In addition, the organization sponsors a variety of special events to promote not only the commercial establishments but also the creativity of the residents. Quilts are exhibited at an annual fall show, “The Airing of the Quilts,” as well as at various fairs throughout the year. As word of the quilt trail grows, an increasing number of folks exit nearby Interstate 88, an east-west highway that people from Schenectady in the east to Binghamton in the west, and spend time exploring small towns like Schoharie and Middleburgh.
My husband and I now make following barn quilts an integral part of our travel, although we actually discovered them quite by accident. It happened like this: We had just finished a tour of Oregon’s Tillamook Cheese Factory when my husband decided to photograph some of the venerable cows that, according to our tour guide, were the secret behind the famous cheese.
So there we were, moseying the back roads in search of a picturesque cow when we spotted a cowless but extremely picturesque barn. On the white siding below its green gambrel roof there was a huge geometric painting that looked just like one of the squares that make up old-fashioned quilts.
He snapped a picture, and we drove on. A minute later, we came upon another barn adorned with another brightly colored square. And back in the village, we saw quilt squares on a church as well as on shops and even government buildings. A kind woman at the visitors center explained that we’d just stumbled across the Tillamook County Barn Quilt Trail.
This is our type of travel — different, unpredictable, and most of all, personal. Now, when we begin planning a trip, we go to Barn Quilt Info (www.barnquiltinfo.com), the website put up by Suzi Parron, a former English teacher who became so enamored with barn quilts that she now spends most of her time promoting the movement. Then we click onto the map that’s on the home page and search for a quilt trail we can work into our itinerary.
Sometimes we call or email in advance and get tips from a local resident — where to eat, what to see in the nearby area, who to talk to. Other times we depend on serendipity, as when we stopped to admire a barn quilt, fell into a conversation with the owner and ended up accompanying him for a day of spectacular birding.
By getting lost on the back roads, we are able to find, and better understand, parts of America that we might otherwise miss.