In 2000, when Donna Sue Groves, 64, set out to fulfill her promise to paint a quilt square on her mother’s tobacco barn in Adams County, Ohio, she decided to expand her folk art idea beyond their farm. As an Ohio Arts Council employee, she had a hunch that quilt squares painted on the sides of barns throughout Adams County would provide work for local artists and attract tourists.
Donna Sue rallied volunteers for the Adams County Quilt Barn Sampler committee, which established guidelines for the 8-foot-by-8-foot painted wooden squares called “barn quilts.” Her mother Maxine stitched a sampler quilt with 20 traditional patterns chosen by the group and, in October 2001, they unveiled their first painted quilt square—an Ohio Star—on a barn during the Lewis Mountain Olde Thyme Herb Fair in Manchester, Ohio.
From the beginning, tourists roamed the back roads of the county in search of the colorful quilt patterns, taking photographs and visiting with barn owners.
As the folk art spread across the countryside, Donna Sue’s gift to her mother became a gift to rural America.
Blanketing the nation
Today, more than 4,000 quilt squares adorn barns and other buildings in 34 states, most situated along 120 designated barn-quilt trails.
“The trails are very localized. What’s going on is local pride,” says Suzi Parron, 52, author of Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement, published in 2012.
Parron, an English teacher from Stone Mountain, Ga., became smitten with the folk art phenomenon after seeing a Flying Geese quilt square on a barn in Cadiz, Ky.
The quilt squares are painted by farm families, professional artists, high school art students, quilt guilds, 4-H groups and other organizations.
Each community organizes its own trail. Many groups seek art and tourism grants and donations to pay for paint, wood and brochures. Local utility companies, fire departments and building contractors often provide manpower and trucks with lifts to hang the wooden blocks. Sometimes, barn owners pay a few hundred dollars for their own barn quilts.
“For some people, it’s the idea that I can paint something that people will look at and say, ‘Wow. That’s beautiful,’” Parron says. “For others, it’s pulling together of communities. A guy in Iowa said, ‘We just don’t neighbor anymore. People are too busy. We don’t come together and play cards.’
“Then they get together to paint barn quilts and the next thing you know, they’re having potlucks,” Parron says.
Barn quilts remind people of their agricultural roots, as Donna Sue intended, and bring attention to the endangered status of century-old barns.
In Morgan County, Colo., quilting enthusiast Nancy Lauck has painted nearly 200 barn quilts since 2007 because she treasures the barns built by pioneering farmers.
“People came to this country and built these barns with their hands,” says Lauck, 65, who painted 16 small quilt squares on her family’s 1909 cattle barn in Fort Morgan. “The Swedes settled in different parts of Morgan County and their rounded barns reflected the old country.”
Several barn-quilt owners have renewed pride in their barns, painting and reroofing the old structures to make them more attractive for admirers who stop to take photos.
Another barn preservationist, Marcella Epperson in Johnson City, Tenn., enjoys meeting visitors and sharing stories about her wooden-pegged barn built in 1898 by her grandfather. A combination of two quilt patterns—a LeMoyne Star set inside Swallows in the Window—decorates the barn.
“My grandmother wanted to build a house, but my grandfather said, ‘We need to build a barn first. That’s where our living comes from,’” says Epperson, 82. She also recalls how her mother suspended a quilting frame from the farm’s smokehouse ceiling and invited friends to quilting bees.
Family stories like Epperson’s are remembered and shared when barn quilts are displayed, says Roy Settle, who helped create a barn-quilt trail in eastern Tennessee.
“People start pulling out quilts and telling stories about Aunt Sue and Granny quilting or a quilt that was buried during the Civil War to keep soldiers from getting it,” says Settle, 49, of Kingsport, Tenn. “One family tells about a country doctor who made house calls and got paid with a ham, a chicken or a quilt.”
From the start, the mother of the quilt-barn movement envisioned mile after mile of quilt trails throughout Appalachia, but the folksy phenomenon has exceeded her expectations.
“We’re celebrating quilting as an art form. We’re celebrating our agricultural heritage and supporting entrepreneurial opportunities,” Donna Sue says. “People are using quilt squares as their label for jams and jellies, creating destinations and opening gift shops.”
Barn quilts have become so popular that homey patches of Churn Dash, Sawtooth Star and Sunbonnet Sue now are being painted on downtown buildings, houses, garages, fences and even floodwalls in Ashland, Ky.
Ruthann and David Kern, a retired couple in Bloomington, Ill., have visited and photographed hundreds of painted quilt patterns since setting out on a mission in 2005 to travel all of America’s barn-quilt trails. They often spend two or three days touring one trail, staying overnight at local motels and dining at small-town eateries.
“It’s a grassroots movement in every sense of the word,” says David, 79.