Spring Colors Brighter this Year
Quilt Barns
By Jim Winnerman (2008)

It is difficult to improve on spring colors, but Donna Sue Groves may have done it with quilt barns

There was never a grand plan for the single quilt square Donna Sue Groves envisioned painting on the family barn in Adams County, Ohio in 2001. It was just meant to be a gesture honoring her mother, Nina Maxine Groves, and her rural heritage along with the five generations of her family that have shared a love of quilting.

Groves never imagined her idea would lead to colorful quilt patterns with names such as friendship star, bowtie and brown goose appearing on over 900 barns in 16 states. Most are located along quilt barn trails, giving "leaf peepers" a second reason to explore the countryside this fall.

The "barn quilting bee" began when friends gathered to plan painting Nina Maxine's favorite snail's trail pattern on her barn. Conversation lead to the suggestion of a "trail of quilt barns" people in Adams County might enjoy. Groves' mother mentioned about 20 squares are on an average quilt, and that number became the target.

The informal group asked Mrs. Groves to select the different quilt squares, and then they set off to find willing barn owners. Enthusiasm was so instantaneous and participation so quick, the project took on a life of its own. Mrs. Groves would wait another three years for her own barn to be painted.

As the 20 Adams County quilt squares began to appear, photos and conversation about the project spread to other counties in Ohio, then into other states. Similar quilt barn trail initiatives blossomed as quickly as a quilter buys fabric. The trails are usually the result of county committees made up of volunteers who have adopted Groves' idea as effortlessly as a quilter buys fabric.

Today Ohio, Iowa and Kentucky have over 250 in each state, and the grassroots art project continues to spread.

There are several reasons for the popularity of quilt square barns. Volunteers see them as an opportunity to contribute to the community in a fun, unique and visible way. Farmers see them as a way to get people into the countryside, share their love of the land, and honor someone in their own family.

Underlying all is the belief that combining a barn with a quilt square pattern honors quilting and farming, two important aspects of American life since colonial times.

One farmer has received a very personal benefit. Several years ago an older gentleman approached Groves and told her that all his life he had been getting up and going to work in the dark, and then going back to bed when it was dark. "Young lady, no one cared about me," he said. "Now that I have a quilt barn, everyone wants to know how I am. Thank you."

Quilt trails also bring an economic benefit to communities by attracting tourists to the countryside. County websites and brochures have maps to their quilt barns, and some incorporate sites of historical interest along the route.

Brandy Boggs, the Vinton County, Tennessee, Marketing Director leading a 20-quilt barn initiative says until recently her county has been known for covered bridges and outdoor sporting activities. "Now, despite no advertising we get calls all the time wanting to know if we have any quilt barns," she remarks. "Our surveys have not been reprinted to mention the barns, but a lot are returned with handwritten notes indicating people want to see more."

A typical county quilt barn trail committee selects a route so a new quilt square becomes visible every five or ten miles. Often it works out to be one per township, so many times willing farmers are bypassed. Now, however, some farmers are hiring artists to paint their barn squares, and paying for the work themselves.

"There are no 'quilt barn police,' " Groves says, laughing at the thought of just how colorful a uniform patch might be. "People can do what they want if they are not on an official quilt barn trail."

How the pattern used on a barn is selected varies by county. Some squares represent quilts that have been in the family of the barn owners for generations. Squares on the Athens County, Ohio trail represent a historical tie to the area. For example, a colorful star brick block recalls the turn of the century when brick making was an important area industry. Elsewhere patterns are selected by an artist to ensure a wide pallet of colors and patterns is displayed.

Some counties have used local artists. In Vinton County one square was done painted at a local festival where anyone could add a few brush strokes. Others were done by senior citizens, boy scouts and 4-H members who raised the money to fund the project.

JoAnn May is a professional artist who was hired to paint 20 squares on barns in Brown County, Ohio. "This is a wonderful way to bring public art into a rural community and make it accessible," she says adding her own reason quilt barns are popular. "From my perspective it ties art to a craft women have always done."

The cost of a quilt square originates from a variety of sources. Community art grants, public and business donations and fund raising events have all been used to cover expenses which range from $300 to $500 per barn. Much of the effort is invariably donated by volunteers.

Even though barns are selected partly based on the overall appearance of the farm, May says farmers begin to tidy up well before she starts working on their square. "There is a sense of excitement and anticipation," she has noticed. Family reunions and picnics frequently follow once the square is completed. Some are being lit at night.

There is, however, one barn quilt square that will never be seen by the public. This past summer Groves was very ill for several weeks. When she came home from the hospital, her mother had a surprise waiting. Groves' favorite quilt square had been painted on their barn where it cannot be seen from the road. "It is just for the two of us," Groves says.

While Groves is thrilled at the "clothesline of quilts" she started, she is quick to mention they are just "sprinkles on a cupcake," emphasizing the countryside holds a pleasant surprise around every turn.

As the number of barns and barn trails continues to increase, Groves is traveling to counties around the country offering advice and support. She does it without charging. "The return I have received has been equal to 'zillions' of dollars in joy and happiness watching people have fun with this project," she says.

The only thing Groves asks is that each barn owner know the idea was to honor her mother, and that they do the same for the women in their family. Her attitude might just be the biggest "sprinkle" of all.