Traverse City, Michigan – Surrounded almost entirely by the deep blue water of Grand Traverse Bay, the long narrow Old Mission Peninsula is best known for its stunning views, picturesque orchards and award-winning wines.
But the Peninsula is also saturated with history. Home to the region’s first permanent settlement, its 18-mile length is dotted with picturesque farms, schoolhouses, homes and churches. And with the possible exception of its cozy two-story lighthouse, the most iconic structures on the Peninsula are its many barns, enduring reminders of rural culture in this rapidly gentrifying landscape of wineries, vacation homes and beaches.
“All these people who came out to Old Mission came from somewhere else and made something out of nothing,” says Traverse City resident Evelyn Johnson, a retired kindergarten teacher who became interested in barns when her children purchased an old barn on Old Mission in 2002. In 2006, she authored a book, Barns of Old Mission Peninsula, about the Peninsula’s 104 surviving barns that won a Michigan Historical Award.
Johnson’s book has become a popular guide for the kind of barn enthusiasts who revel in architectural details and historical trivia. But even casual visitors to the Old Mission area can now visit some of the Peninsula’s most prominent barns – thanks to the addition of yet another popular rural symbol: the traditional quilt.
With help from barn owners and dozens of community volunteers, Johnson has created the “Quilt Barn Trail of Old Mission Peninsula” – a leisurely itinerary that leads visitors to 10 barns, each decorated with a painted quilt block chosen or designed by its owner. The designs are painted on 8x8-foot wooden frames with long-lasting outdoor paint and mounted in prominent spots on the barns.
It’s a diverse collection that includes everything from an 1870 pioneer barn on Old Mission Road decorated with a traditional “Bear Paw” pattern to a classic 1912 barn on Smokey Hollow Road whose customized quilt square proclaims the owners’ Finnish heritage, Lutheran faith and love for International Harvester tractors.
The trail is hardly unique; in fact, it’s part of a rural movement that has been sweeping the country since 2001, when Donna Sue Groves of the Ohio Arts Council painted the first quilt pattern on her family’s tobacco barn. Today there are thousands of quilt barns located in over 24 states, and numerous quilt trails – particularly in Iowa, Kentucky and western North Carolina. There’s even a “national quilt barn trail” on the East Coast that includes some 400 stops.
The Old Mission Peninsula trail is a good deal less intimidating. In place of sheer quantity, it offers a diverse selection of quilt barns set against the panorama of lakes, hills, orchards and vineyards that have long made the area popular with sightseers. Most of the decorated barns are located on scenic side roads that branch off Center Road, which follows the Peninsula’s high narrow spine.
Johnson found it easy to recruit barn owners for the project, since she had already established relationships with many of them while researching her book. Some chose traditional quilt designs or reproduced quilts that had been handed down in their families – like Brendan Keenan and Teri Gray, who decorated their pole barn/studio with a depiction of the quilt made by Teri’s great-grandmother Christine Gifford.
Others treated the project as an exercise in personal heraldry, designing quilt squares to commemorate their families, spiritual values or personal accomplishments. Emily Gray Kohler, for instance, designed a square for her family’s 1904 barn on Gray Road that emphasizes the farm’s steep terrain – and the contour farming system her ancestors developed to meet those conditions.
Finding the decorated barns is no problem, thanks to a well-written and easy-to-follow brochure that gives clear directions to each site. To download a copy of the brochure and learn more details about the individual quilt barns, go to the website.
Johnson is hoping the trail will persuade more visitors to leave main roads to enjoy the Peninsula’s less traveled charms. And although organizers have no immediate plans to increase the number of barns on the itinerary, they’re eager to help neighboring rural areas start their own trails.
To learn about other activities and attractions in Michigan’s scenic Traverse City area, and for assistance with lodging, dining and other activities, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at the website or by calling 800-TRAVERSE.
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