Barn Quilts in Rural America
By Bill Nelson
Drivers are taking note of a colorful new crop sprouting up all across rural America – king-size quilt blocks mounted on back-road barns. The brightly painted designs, patterned after traditional quilt blocks, are placed on plywood sheets often using an 8-by-8-foot scale so they’re easy to see from the road. The quilts offer a comforting slice of Americana, and movement organizers hope that eventually, like a clothesline, quilts on barns will stretch across the nation.
Why such enthusiasm for these colorfully adorned barns and, in a few cases, garages, corncribs and other rural buildings?
“We want to entice people to take roads less traveled, to visit businesses and rural locations they might not otherwise encounter,” says Mary Jo Stutenberg of Cuba City, Wisconsin, whose barn carries an “American Pride” pattern.
A matter of choice
The choice of pattern for Mary Jo and Mark Stutenberg couldn’t be more appropriate.
“It’s a tribute to our son who served 15 months in Iraq and to our fathers who served in World War II,” Mary Jo says. “We absolutely love it. The barn looks better than it has in a long time.”
Her county – Lafayette, in southern Wisconsin – now has close to a dozen mounted quilt patterns, with more to come.
“Quilts,” she says, “are symbols of our rural heritage. They provide not only warmth and comfort, but a social opportunity and artistic outlet, too.”
Donna Sue Grove, the Ohioan behind the U.S. movement to erect barn quilts throughout the nation, says, “Barn quilts are public art that celebrates the place people call home. (The quilts) make people feel good about themselves and where they live.”
The quilt squares definitely are warming the Wisconsin countryside. In the Badger State’s Racine County, 21 barn quilts are already mounted, part of a “Quilts on Barns – the Beauty of Rural Art” project co-sponsored by the Racine Arts Council and the Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Call it what you will
Names of the patterns bring smiles. One is called “Wild Goose Chase”; others include “54-40 or Fight,” “Indian Paintbrush” and “Tulip Basket.”
In each location, volunteers assist in the projects. In Racine County, for instance, volunteers number 200, a total that includes members of garden clubs, quilt groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, plus businesses, dozens of interested individuals, and a variety of sponsoring organizations.
A third southern-Wisconsin county – Green – is busy, too, on a similar project. In fact, “busy” doesn’t do it justice. Green County can boast of 64 such quilts at the moment, and more are planned. And Kewaunee County, in northeast Wisconsin, has 18 quilts mounted.
Wisconsin may be a “quilting” leader, but by no means does the state have a corner on the project. Currently, it’s estimated there are more than 1,500 painted “quilts” mounted on barns throughout the United States, with Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Missouri also in the top ranks.
One frequently asked question is how are choices made for quilt patterns?
Typically, a steering committee works closely with barn owners on the quilt design and colors. Walls are selected so that each painted quilt is visible directly from the road. Volunteers do the painting, and volunteer crews, frequently using cherry picker equipment, tackle the mounting process.
Connecting the blocks
For the benefit of travelers, maps showing the locations of the painted quilts are available, often at chamber of commerce offices or at convention and visitors bureaus.
An early barn-quilts leader, Grundy County, in the corn country of Iowa, has developed a “Best Practices Manual” – how-to material for counties considering such a venture. Its methods work. The county now boasts more than five dozen mounted barn quilts.
The genesis of the dream of a “Clothesline of Quilts” spanning the nation goes back to the artistic Midwesterner mentioned earlier, Donna Sue Groves, and her childhood. As a game on family trips, she and her family would count barns and barn-
advertising signs – such as “Chew Mail Pouch,” “Drink RC Cola” or “See Seven Caves.”
Later, as an adult, she thought about all the empty barn walls she saw as the southern Ohio field representative for the Ohio Arts Council. She realized they presented a golden opportunity for public art that would foster community pride. A starting point might be the colorful barn quilt on the nondescript tobacco barn at her Adams County (Ohio) farm home, in honor of her quilting mother.
And why just one? She crusaded for many – a driving trail, in fact, that would entice visitors to tour her county. Of course, the idea was too good to restrict to just one county. The barn-quilt trail kept spreading and, from its inception in 2001, gains momentum each year. At the moment, quilt squares can be seen on buildings in 23 states, plus British Columbia.
“That’s very gratifying,” Groves says, “and I’m confident there will be more to come. This is rural pride – the most joyous, the most fun project I’ve ever been involved in.”
Chances are, you’ll see a barn quilt the next time you and your family take a drive through the countryside. Be on the lookout!
Bill Nelson is a Brookfield, Wisconsin, freelance writer and photographer. He formerly worked on the Sunday magazine of the old Milwaukee Journal and for Morgan & Myers, a Milwaukee-area based public relations firm.
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