Barn quilts lead you on a colorful treasure hunt

September 21, 2012

Cozy quilts and drafty barns: What could they possibly have in common?

Memories! Both represent a connection to a simpler time in America.

Quilts are often made from scraps of fabric, sewn together into pleasing designs and lovingly handed down through generations. Barns also vary in style and size, but they remind us of our country’s farming heritage.

Both symbolize a sense of community. Quilters often make one or more sections, or blocks, of a quilt, then gather together in “quilting bees” to sew those blocks together. Barns, used for sheltering machinery, hay or animals, are also gathering places for social events such as dances and family celebrations.

In 2001, Donna Sue Groves, who worked with her local arts council in Ohio, had a small wish that prompted a much larger dream.

A childhood game

As a child, she enjoyed road trips with her family in her native West Virginia. Along the way, they played a game much like the car games kids play today, but instead of counting license plates, they counted barns. Points were earned for various barn styles and colors that they saw.

Donna’s mother, Nina Maxine Groves, is a quilter, so Groves also grew up knowing about quilt block patterns with such imagination-fueling names as “delectable mountains,” “double pinwheel” and “snail’s tail.”

When she and her mother bought a farm in Adams County, Ohio, with an ugly old tobacco barn on it, Donna wanted to honor her mother by painting a pretty quilt block on the barn to make it look more cheerful.

But why stop there? Groves wanted to create a driving route through her rural county, so others could enjoy the beauty she saw and experience a place where horses and cows graze in rolling fields.

“I hope children will turn off their electronic games and that the quilt trails will spark quality time for them and their family as they explore the back roads looking for barns and quilt squares,” Groves said. She compared looking for barn quilts to playing a game of “I Spy” in the country.

Barn art history

The outsides of barns have long been used as backdrops for art and advertising. In parts of Pennsylvania, they often were decorated with circular folk art that became known as “hex signs.” They were believed to signify the blessings of prosperity, health or a loving family. In the 1900s, barn sides and roofs were often covered with ads for tobacco products.

So Groves, who is 64, began talking to artists, farmers and others about her idea of a barn quilt trail — decorating barns with painted wooden quilt blocks, each representing something meaningful to the farmer’s family or the area. Searching for these pieces of art would be like a treasure hunt.

How the art gets made

Rather than painting quilt patterns directly on the barns — a difficult and dangerous task — Groves and her friends decided to create them on wood panels, usually eight feet square, and then attach them to the barns. That way, designing and painting the blocks becomes a group effort in which everyone can help without having to climb up and balance on tall ladders.

The first barn quilt trail was in Groves’s Ohio community and had 20 stops, representing the number of blocks her mother said it takes to make an average-size quilt. Twenty is also an easy number of barns to find during a one-day hunt.

In the 11 years since, Groves’s dream has grown into a nationwide network. At last count, 45 states have similar routes through rural communities. Several thousand barn quilts now exist.

Barn quilt trails are self-guided, which means people just need a map and a car to explore on their own schedule. It’s a great way to enjoy another old-time tradition: a family drive on a Sunday afternoon! Most barn quilts are easily viewed from the road, so you won’t be intruding on private property.

Along the way you’ll see some gorgeous scenery, and you might meet a farmer willing to chat. You’ll definitely get a sense of a slower pace of life.

— Ann Cameron Siegal

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