Following a Barn Quilt Trail Through Kansas

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by Pixabay/William Sturgell

The road north took us to Ajax, Louisiana, more of a crossroads than an actual town. The RV park sat just a minute or so from the interstate and miles from much else; a saw mill near the highway and a diner across the road were the only businesses nearby. We walked over for a pork chop dinner and took our time returning, overwhelmed by the sight of infinite stars in the blackest sky I had seen. I seldom accompany Glen and Gracie on their pre-bedtime walk, but that evening the three of us strolled along the fringes of the park, Glen and I in silent awe of the bits of light that were always there but so seldom visible to us.

I had been really pleased to find an RV park along the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Online maps displayed a wide span of river, and the reviews mentioned plenty of kayaking. I didn’t let on to Glen but waited for the drive across the bridge near the campsite that would reveal the treat in store. The joke was on me, as the river had fallen victim to drought and had dried up completely, leaving a lunar-like landscape behind. Sensing my disappointment, Glen said, “Oh, you picked a perfect spot for some hiking, Sweetie!” At least he knew I had tried to make the long drive to Kansas more enjoyable.

Chris Campbell had brought the quilt trail to Kansas in 2010 and contacted me soon afterwards, so a visit to Franklin County was one of the first on our itinerary. Along with being a farm wife and mother, Chris is an avid quilter and quilt shop owner. A trip to the renowned Sisters Quilt Show in Oregon included a side trip to Tillamook County. “I was amazed at their farming methods,” Chris said. She described an underground pipeline from a dairy to a cheese factory. “How wonderful is that?” One critical difference she noticed was the size of the farms. Chris said that in Oregon, a typical farm might be sixty acres or so. “In Kansas,” she said, “an eighty-acre farm would be a hobby farm!”

Chris also saw the quilt trail in Tillamook and when she got back home, she kept thinking that somebody in Kansas needed to start the project. “That somebody became me!” she said. The county’s first quilt block, which is mounted on Chris’ Corner Quilt Shop, combines two patterns, New York Beauty and Ohio Star. I thought that the block, which Chris said combined her traditional quilting with the more modern quilting favored by her business associate Brenda Weien, looked pretty good, but Chris affectionately called the quilt block, “the first and the worst.” Chris wasn’t sure at first what type of board and paint to use, but she learned quickly and helped Kansas’s first quilt trail grow to more than forty blocks.

The Boss

One of the proudest barn quilt families is the Krambecks. Pat Krambeck greeted Chris and me sporting a Krambeck Farms t-shirt whose logo included their barn quilt. A number of quilt trail committees had created shirts decorated with quilt blocks, but this was the first I had seen for an individual farm. Pat had initially asked for the Double Wedding Ring, but that pattern was already taken, so a single wedding ring was designed to honor Pat’s marriage to her husband, Chuck. The 1925 barn’s ornate trim left no room for an eight-foot-square block, but a four-foot square would not have been visible on the large structure. A little ingenuity resulted in the Krambecks’ four-by-sixteen-foot painting; the rectangular arrangement makes quite a statement, with an Angus bull in the center, the “boss” of the farm.

Pat began to talk about her family, which included ten grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. Her affection for them was evident in her smile, but each time she mentioned her husband, Chuck, Pat’s eyes shone even more. I thought it was lovely that a great-grandmother would still have romantic ideals and hoped that Glen and I would be similarly affectionate in decades to come. When Pat shared a bit more of their story, I realized that she and Chuck were in fact newlyweds, having met in Kansas City just a few years earlier. The two moved to the farm after their marriage. “I love it,” Pat said. “I didn’t have any qualms about it.”

Pat’s eyes continued to sparkle as she talked a bit more about her husband. She had found a news article about the Grand Champion Steer Chuck raised at the age of twelve. Even at that young age, he had declared, “I want a lot of cows.” Pat went on to proudly share a story of Chuck’s kindness. He had attended a hay sale one recent Saturday, and one of the men who were waiting to purchase hay had a seizure and was rushed home. Chuck bought the hay and delivered it to the stranger’s barn knowing that the animals still needed to be fed. He was surprised on his arrival to find that Jerry Olberding’s barn had a quilt block as well.

North Star

The Olberdings’ farm was actually our next scheduled stop, and their North Star quilt block was visible as soon as Chris and I pulled up. Reita Olberding told us a bit about the farm, which was purchased by her great-grandparents, James and Olive Herring, in 1893, and had been owned by the Herring family since. There was no barn on the section of land where Reita and her husband, Jerry, moved, so they designed and built one, laid out like the barns of the 1890s, with hay storage on two sides and room to drive through the center. The barn was constructed from pieces of several old barns from Axtell, Kansas, where Jerry grew up. The roof and two of the sliding doors are new metal, but the rest, including the windows and cupola, consists of reclaimed material.

Reita said that she and Jerry had built the barn, and I thought perhaps she meant that they had designed the structure and had others do the work, the way that many suburbanites “build” houses. I was astounded when she said that except for some of the work in the loft, with which their son and nephews helped, the couple built the barn themselves in about two months. The barn is home to their Angus cattle and to their riding horses, some of which were very pleased to greet Chris and me along the antique rail fence that day.

The construction of the house was especially interesting. The one-foot-thick walls were built using ICF (insulated concrete form) foam construction. Reita explained that the walls included three inches of foam, six of concrete, three of Styrofoam, and then the siding, which greatly reduces energy use. The two did a great deal of work on the house as well — all of the wood, floors, and tile — driving back and forth from their home in Missouri, sometimes sleeping in a camper in the barn. Once the house neared completion, the Olberdings removed the fireplace mantel from their former home and brought it with them to Kansas to complete the move.

The dozens of family quilts that hang in the home, the stained glass, and the kerosene lamps were evidence of the family’s connection to the past. The home was a contradiction of sorts, with the latest in building materials blended with artifacts of earlier times in ways that complement both.

Dresden Plate

Our last visit for the day was not to a barn at all. Sandy and Russ Sylvester’s Dresden Plate quilt block hangs on what was once the storefront of the Milford General Store. In the mid-1960s the town of Milford was set to be flooded and the Milford dam built. Russ’s father, Wes, purchased the storefront, which was disassembled at the site and reassembled in Franklin County. The building housed Wes’s collection of antique cars and tractors, some of which were still there for us to see. I wished Glen could have been along to see the centerpiece of the collection, a meticulously restored Thunderbird painted his favorite brilliant yellow.

“Wes appreciated his past and also wanted people to learn about new things,” Sandy said. Those new things are part of an annual Day on the Farm that the Sylvesters have hosted for about fifteen years. Over three hundred third graders, along with their parents and teachers, visit the farm, where a petting zoo is set up. With the help of older FFA, 4-H, and FBLA students, the younger ones learn about soil conservation, grains, and dairy production. With any luck they might also get to see the windmill that sits out front of the store, grinding corn for the Sylvester’s chickens.

That evening Glen and I joined Chris and her husband, Allen, at a hole-in-the- wall restaurant known only to locals, our first chance to enjoy Kansas barbecue. Gnawing the tender meat off of a rib bone with sauce oozing down to my wrists, talking and laughing in-between bites, I felt right at home a thousand miles from Georgia.

We made our way west, and those legendary Kansas winds swept in, buffeting Ruby from side to side like a ragdoll shaken by a child. I was relieved to arrive at our park in El Dorado in the Flint Hills region, a section of twenty-two counties that stretches from north to south in the eastern part of the state. The winds still pummeled the bus but at least we were no longer in danger of crossing into the wrong lane of traffic. A creek was visible through trees and brush behind our site, and as soon as we got settled, Glen unstrapped his kayak from the car and dragged it down a steep incline. I am not nearly as sure-footed as Glen, so I stayed behind with Gracie to watch, knowing that if I did make it down to the stream bank there was a good chance I would end up in the water rather than in my boat.

Late Bloomers

My first stop in the Flint Hills was at Pat Mitchell’s home. Pat was waiting for me, and soon her daughter, Jonna, joined us. Pat’s interest had been piqued by a news article about the new quilt trail. Jonna tracked down the information, and within a week of her delivering the boards, Pat had the extravagantly colored block completed. Pat designed the block on paper so that she could mix the colors of the eighty-plus triangles just so. She would paint a couple, then head back to the house to let those dry, just going back and forth until she had them all done.

The project appealed to Pat as a way to break away from the cloth quilting that had recently occupied her time. Pat had stayed home for two years to care for her husband, Glen, who had Alzheimer’s. During that time she made more than twenty quilts. “That’s all I could do at the time,” Pat said. “We all got a quilt that Christmas,” Jonna added, with a bittersweet tone.

The Late Bloomers barn quilt was the perfect answer to Pat’s need to escape the confines of home. I admired the fact that the octogenarian had painted such a detailed block on her own, with Jonna stepping in to help only when it was time to turn the large boards to reach another area.

As I visited with Pat, the infamous Kansas winds whipped around me once again. I was blinded by my whirling hair and barely able to stand upright to take photographs. I returned to the bus to find Glen wiping dust from his keyboards, the countertops, and every flat surface. The fine grains that rode on those fierce winds had infiltrated every corner of the bus. I had chuckled a bit when we arrived to see a tornado shelter dug into the side of a hill within the park and now was grateful for the peace of mind its presence brought.

Pioneer Star

The next day I traveled to Pioneer Bluffs, site of one of the first barn quilts in the Flint Hills. I was excited to visit the historic site and one of the few wooden barns I would see in Kansas. I enjoyed lunch with Lynn Smith, director of Pioneer Bluffs, along with Elaine Jones and Susan Hague, who have been avid volunteers at the site. Susan and Elaine had conducted a program for students at a local school, during which they talked about barns and quilts and how the quilt trail brings communities together. We were surrounded by crayon-colored quilt blocks hanging on the walls, as the third graders were due for a visit and were eager to see their artwork.

Lynn explained that the mission of Pioneer Bluffs is to tell the story of Flint Hills ranching. The history of the property began in 1859, when Charles Rogler, a young immigrant from western Bohemia, walked hundreds of miles from Iowa to stake his claim. The family survived the droughts and financial downturns that broke the spirits of so many other farmers, and the homestead was named Pioneer Bluffs by a later generation in honor of those whose spirit created the family legacy.  The Roglers became pioneers in raising cattle on the tallgrass prairies, and by the time the property was sold in 2006, it was one of the largest and most respected cattle operations in the county, with over sixty thousand acres. The tract that included much of the original homestead as well as the farmhouse, barn, and other buildings was bought by investors to form a nonprofit for preservation. Lynn calls the new visitors to Pioneer Bluffs pioneers in their own right, as they work to preserve Kansas farming and ranch heritage and to foster respect for the land and its natural beauty. The Pioneer Star quilt block pays tribute to both sets of determined Kansans.

Elaine Jones had been involved with preservation of the Flint Hills and its tallgrass prairies since the early 1970s. “The more people come out here, the more they see that the Flint Hills are rare and beautiful and need to be preserved,” she said. I was not certain why a tallgrass prairie was significant, so Elaine explained that the types of grasses and wildflowers comprised a unique ecosystem that had all but disappeared.

Lynn added that there were once four hundred thousand square miles of prairies but less than 3 percent remain. In most of the country, the soils were deep, so the land was plowed as settlers arrived, destroying the tallgrass ecosystem. The flint that lies just below the surface in the Flint Hills region made plowing more difficult, so some of the prairie has never been touched. Aha! Now I knew how the area got its name. The tallgrass is perfect for cattle farming, and for much of the year, the surrounding land is used for grazing. Again I was confused — where were the cattle? I hated to ask a silly question, but I honestly did not know. The cattle would soon be trucked in from Texas and Mexico, though some farms do have a cow-calf operation, which means that they raise their own cows.

The conversation turned to the burning of the prairies that takes place each year. I was fascinated by those fires, whose flickering power held a certain beauty. Lynn explained that the old grass no longer contains nutrients, so it is burned to allow the sun to reach the new growth. The burning also gets rid of the tiny trees that have sprouted in the past year from seeds carried and dropped by wind or birds. “As my husband says, cows don’t eat trees,” Lynn said.

Susan added, “In a few months, it will be so green that it makes the pupils of your eyes contract.” It was hard to imagine vibrant color spread across the khakicolored expanses, but I made a note to schedule our next visit to the Flint Hills for a bit later in the year.

The Kansas Flint Hills Quilt Trail has spread across most of the region but is centered in Manhattan, a couple of hundred miles north, so Glen and I relocated. Glen had lived in Manhattan as a boy, and we stopped by the house where he and his family had resided and the elementary school Glen had attended just a couple of blocks away. Though I had seen childhood photos of Glen in his mother’s home, it was hard to imagine my six-foot-two sweetheart as a little boy walking down those sidewalks.

Flying Geese Variation

Manhattan is home to quilt trail organizer Sue Hageman, whom I had met when she and a group of friends traveled all of the way to Kentucky to meet Donna Sue and me at a book signing a couple of years earlier. Of course, seeing the Adams County, Ohio, quilt trail was a highlight of the trip, and the women left energized. Sue is a quilter, and she loves horses, which means she has been around barns all of her life. “When I go into a barn and smell hay, to me that is the best smell in the world,” she said. Sue had seen the quilt trail in Franklin County on visits to her mother, so she consulted with quilt trail organizer Chris Campbell and was soon on the way to combining her loves of barns and quilting. With plenty of tips from Chris, Sue first painted a two-by-two-foot barn quilt “just to see if I knew what I was doing,” and then a larger version of her Flying Geese Variation, the first quilt she made.

Sue and I had a fun day planned. I hated to leave Glen behind on the weekend, since he had spent five days hard at work. Few seemed to understand that he was not my sidekick or bus driver but the foundation of our lifestyle, that his talents were put to work behind the scenes in order for mine to shine. I was still struggling to feel worthy of Glen’s generosity of spirit, and to understand that no quid pro quo was expected. This time we were fortunate, as we had met tourism director Marcia Rozell when I gave a talk in Manhattan, and she turned out to be an avid kayaker. Marcia and Glen had plans to tour the lake near our park, so no guilt tugged at me when Sue arrived to pick me up.

Arrowhead’s, Dagger, Hunter’s Star

Sue and I visited with Connie Larson, the other force behind the Flint Hills Quilt Trail, in Connie’s home. Connie’s first foray into barn quilting had been when quilter Susan Kesl painted two quilt blocks, both in a pattern called Home Treasure, to be hung on the barn at Ag Heritage Park. The park is home to an extraordinary collection of household and farming artifacts, assembled by Connie’s father, Everett Zimmerman, and her mother, Hazel. Dozens of pieces of farm machinery and implements can be found on the grounds. Inside, an array of everything from horse-drawn wagons to sewing machines to cider presses creates a picture of agricultural life from the earliest days to the present. It was quite an incredible collection, and I could have plundered all day.

When Connie saw her first barn quilts she embraced the concept. “I thought the blocks would be good for Ag Heritage Park, and soon realized that they would be good for the area as well,” she said. Connie is not a quilter, but she loves fabric and color and enjoys the patterns. “I saw all of the ways this could connect to what people do and what they like, even their hobbies,” she said.

Looking around the Larson home, I had a good idea of Connie’s interests, and the pink camouflage cap she wore that day fit right in. Mounted animals watched us from every corner, from heads of deer, elk, and caribou on the walls, to a magnificent deer standing next to the hearth, about fifty mounts in all. “Hunting is our life,” Connie said. She has been bow hunting for about forty years and enjoys going on hunts with her husband, Dale, and son, Matt. Connie mentioned that she had even gone bear hunting in Alaska, but assured me that she wasn’t as brave as it might sound, as a guide stood next to her tree stand to ensure her safety. The Larson’s quilt block includes Arrowheads on one side and Hunter’s Star on the other, perfect choices for this family. The center image represents Dagger, the deer that is the centerpiece of the Larson’s trophy collection.

Connie and Sue had each started talking to Marcia Rozell and the tourism board about a quilt trail at the same time and it seemed natural that they work together. In addition to painting barn quilts and adding new sites to the quilt trail, the two also began a program that allowed hundreds of others to participate. In their “Barn Quilt 101” classes, the women supply primed boards, paint, and supplies and conduct a workshop in which each participant paints a small quilt block to take home. The blocks are not formally part of the trail, but after thirty or more sessions, the number of quilt blocks in the Flint Hills easily neared four hundred. I am always asked how many barn quilts exist across the country, and on hearing of initiatives like the classes Sue and Connie organized, I know that any answer that I give will fall far short of the truth.

The Lancaster Rose quilt block on Chris and Ron Wilson’s Lazy T Ranch in Manhattan was among the first in the Flint Hills. The block was patterned after a quilt made by Chris’s great-great-grandmother, Maggie Thompson Beam, in Manchester, Ohio, where the quilt trail began. The quilt had remained in Adams County and was passed on to a woman who had married into the Beam family. While doing genealogical research, Chris located the quilt, and it was agreed that the heirloom should go to Kansas so that it might return to Maggie Thompson Beam’s descendants. Along with the quilt, Chris showed us a photo of a very stern looking Maggie with the quilt in her Ohio home.

Sue, Chris, and I walked around the property, where each building — even the chicken house — had its own barn quilt. The chicken quilt block was painted as a fundraiser to save a round barn nearby. The Wilsons bought the quilt block and hung it as a tribute to both historic barns and to the 4-H clubs whose fair exhibits they enjoy each year. Corn and Beans on the granary represents Chris’s roots in Illinois where those two crops are grown so prolifically. Farmer’s Daughter on the high tunnel greenhouse adds to the array, and Double Wedding Ring graces an arena building.

Also on the arena building is Sunbonnet Sue, with a few tulips in the background. This quilt block represents Chris’s grandmother, Myrtle Beam Mosher, whose strength as a South Dakota homesteader had served as an inspiration. Myrtle was known to wear sunbonnets and was also an avid gardener, so the block is a perfect tribute. Chris added that the ranch hosts many family events where parents “celebrate their children,” so the quilt block is also a reminder of those parents and their devotion.

The final quilt block on the farm is Wagon Wheel, which hangs on the building the Wilsons call the Cowboy Café, where the family hosts visitors to the ranch Chris explained that pioneer women would often use the spare wheel from the wagon as a sort of loom to make rugs, which took on the round shape. On arriving at their new homes, they would have rugs already in hand. “From those strong pioneer women have come strong Kansas women in agriculture,” Chris said.

As we enjoyed refreshments, Chris shared with us some of the cowboy poetry that her husband, Ron, had written. I wasn’t sure what to expect from cowboy verse, but I enjoyed Ron’s work, which was both humorous and imbued with reverence for the ranchers of the past and the more recent era. One poem described the marriage of a Hereford man to a woman from an Angus family, and another talked about a flock of  unwanted sheep given as an unlikely gift. In one of my favorites, a young man explains to his rancher father the merits of the Internet. The father at once complains about his son’s time spent with that “high tech stuff ” and praises his son’s newfound skill at roping.

The boy said, “Our computer, Dad. It’s made my roping good. Y’see, it helps my homework, just like Ma said it would.

If there’s a school project that requires a research line, I just find it on the Internet–I’m done in half the time.”

I left Lazy T hoping to return sometime for one of Ron’s performances and, of course, to bring Glen along.

Chris said, “Our clothesline of quilts is a tribute to Donna Sue Groves; her love for her mom; Adams County, Ohio; and all the quilters and farmers who have settled, grown, and worked the land and fed the nation.” As Donna Sue would say, “She gets it,” as do the many barn quilt owners along the quilt trail in Kansas.

Reprinted with permission from Following the Barn Quilt Trail, by Suzi Parron and  published by Swallow Press, 2016.

  • Updated on May 3, 2022
  • Originally Published on Nov 9, 2016
Tagged with: barn, barn quilt, Kansas, quilt trail