Quilt barn trails
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It’s been called the biggest grassroots public arts movement in America

By Suzanne McMinn

When an historic barn is matched up with a quilt square, it tells a story that reaches beyond a simple geometric pattern. Twenty-nine states across the country—from the Jersey shore to the cliffs of California—now boast “Quilt Barn Trails,” roads that guide visitors on two-lane scenic drives through some of America’s most beautiful farmland, as well as to some of its most picturesque quilt-adorned barns. Many states even host festivals where you can purchase quilts—from traditional antiques to modern design marvels—then load them into your 2014 Chevrolet Traverse, along with the kids and perhaps even the family dog. With best-in-class maximum cargo space and space behind the third row, there’s room for everyone and everything!

These now-popular road trip pilgrimages first began in Adams County, OH in 2001 when Donna Sue Groves launched what has since been called the biggest grassroots public arts movement in America. Inspired by her mother and her Appalachian heritage, Groves conceived the idea of displaying large quilt squares on historic barns and creating a driving trail through her county. She invited barn owners to sign on, and they did. These quilt squares, most painted on 8 x 8 pieces of plywood and resembling traditional quilt blocks, were mounted on barns to form what Groves referred to as a “clothesline” of quilts for visitors to enjoy as they toured the rural routes.

Groves’ idea quickly spread to other counties, other states and even to Canada. According to Barn Quilt Info—which offers history, photos, and videos (as does Appalachian Ohio’s tourism page)—more than 3,000 barns across the United States are now part of designated quilt barn trails. While most squares continue to be mounted on barns, today’s trails include squares displayed on fences, homes and various farm outbuildings. The routes also take visitors to farm stands, galleries and other local points of interest along the way, and are chockablock with local events and fairs.

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Patterns for quilt squares are often chosen from traditional quilt block designs, sometimes simply because of personal taste and other times to reflect a unique quality of a particular farm, such as a “cherry basket” design for a cherry orchard, or “corn and beans” for a farmer growing those crops.

Many counties go to great lengths to make their quilt barn trail a reflection of local pride. Plumas County, California, for example, provides detailed self-guided tours for both driving and biking, combining their route with a walking tour in town where shop owners display small versions of quilt squares. Sac County, Iowa offers an annual “Quilt-a-Fair” with speakers, designers, quilters, vendors and displays of hundreds of quilts, along with the biggest quilt barn trail in the state. Alcona County, Michigan not only was the first county in its state to host a trail, but also created a photo tutorial demonstrating how a block is created and mounted.

Taking a trip on a quilt barn trail is one of the most unusual and rewarding ways to explore rural America today—one square of folk art at a time.

The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.

Suzanne McMinn lives with her three children on a farm in West Virginia, where she writes the blog Chickens in the Road, about finding “the true meaning of home—and life—beyond the noise of suburban sprawl and suburban convenience.”

Photo gallery images by Suzi Parron/barnquiltinfo.com