Today’s barn decorating revival became popular with a woman named Donna Sue Groves, from Adams County, Ohio. She wanted to honor her mother by hanging a colorful painted quilt square on her barn.
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,” Groves says.
The history of barn decoration dates back to the mid 1800s. Painting symbols on barns originated from traditional folk art passed along from the German and Swiss immigrants who settled the Pennsylvania Dutch region in southeastern Pennsylvania. Once these groups including Lutherans, Moravians, and Mennonites built their family farms and communities, they would paint small patterns on their barns to celebrate their heritage. Originally these patterns were simple stars, compass roses, or stylized birds from traditional folk art.
In 2000, when Donna Sue Groves set out to fulfill her promise to paint a quilt square on her mother’s tobacco barn, 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 encourage visitors to travel through the countryside.
Groves organized volunteers for the Adams County Quilt Barn Sampler committee as they 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.
This was the start of the first quilt trail in America. Quilt trails have now being organized all across the country. Barn quilts are displayed around communities and then mapped out for tourists to follow these amazing works of art. They promote tourism and help draw visitors into rural communities.
Traditional stars and various quilt patterns are now being displayed on barns, homes, sheds, and sides of buildings. They are also put on posts and displayed in yards and parks.
Today, more than 4,000 quilt squares adorn barns and other buildings in 34 states, most situated along more than 120 designated barn-quilt trails.
“The trails are very localized. What’s going on is local pride,” says Suzi Parron, author of Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement, published in 2012.
Parron, an English teacher from Stone Mountain, Georgia, became smitten with the folk art phenomenon after seeing a Flying Geese quilt square on a barn in Cadiz, Kentucky.
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.
In Morgan County, Colorado, quilting enthusiast Nancy Lauck has painted nearly 200 barn quilts since 2007 because she treasures the barns built by pioneering farmers.
Another barn preservationist, Marcella Epperson in Johnson City, Tennessee, 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.
Barn quilts remind people of their agricultural roots, as Donna Sue Groves intended, and bring attention to the endangered status of century-old barns.
A day patched with quilting seldom unravels.