Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2018 - 66
Gems, Just Around
Suzi Parron is the author of "Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement"
and "Following the Barn Quilt Trail." She and her husband, Glen Smith, left Georgia
in 2013 in a converted bus RV for Suzi to give talks on barn quilts to quilting groups,
libraries and other organizations. They return home each year to celebrate the holidays
with family and to kayak on Georgia and Florida rivers. For more: barnquiltinfo.com.
by Suzi Parron
I was two days into a cross-country camping trip when a flash of
color on a Kentucky roadside compelled me to stop and
inquire: "Why do you have a quilt on your barn?" Nine
years later, I still ask that question every chance I get.
The owner of that first quilted barn shared with me
that the painting was a barn quilt, a quilt pattern painted on wood to honor the work of farm women and their
quilting artistry. Soon I was armed with a list of addresses and ready to embark on an impromptu tour of the
county. Each barn along the path was home to a new
discovery-some simple geometric patterns painted in
bold colors, others more intricate and detailed. By the
end of that June day, I was hooked.
A bit of investigation led me to quilt trail founder
Donna Sue Groves, a West Virginia native, who conceived of the idea of decorating barns with wooden quilt
blocks as a community project. The project she started
in Adams County, Ohio, quickly spread to the hills of
Tennessee and Kentucky and has become a nationwide
phenomenon, with over 13,000 painted quilts.
I was eager to write about barn quilts but was not
certain that I would find a book's worth of material. I
could not have been more wrong. My first foray into
rural Tennessee left me already overwhelmed with stories to tell. One quilt block hung on a farm founded in
1848, with the pattern taken from a cloth quilt still on
the premises. A county over, a Dutch Boy and Dutch
Girl quilt block marked the oldest business in the state,
a mill that had been in continuous operation since Colonial times. The owner regaled me with tales of the soldiers who had once occupied the property and showed
off the original grant documents for the land.
Often the names of the quilt blocks were significant.
A Virginia family chose the pattern Jacob's Ladder to
honor the founder of their property and the prosperity
he brought to the community. A North Carolina farmer
chose a Texas Bluebonnet quilt, as a tribute to Ladybird
Johnson's wildflower initiative.
My favorites were the painted quilts that were replicas of cloth quilts. A Kentucky farmer shared with me
the significance of two quilt blocks on either end of
his barn: One was taken from the first quilt that his
mother had made as a young bride, while the other
represented a quilt made by his paternal grandmother
for his dad. His mom still had the two quilts in her
home and was pleased to be able to share them with
her neighbors since her advanced age made it difficult
to entertain visitors.
Each painted quilt both decorated a barn and served
as a reminder of something that was important to its
owner. Whether painted in school colors to designate
loyalty to a team or taken from a vintage quilt passed
down for centuries, each design was significant.
Barn quilts serve as visible reminders of our origins.
They celebrate connections to family and to places that
speak to our souls in a digital age. Since the publication
of my second book, I no longer have a professional reason to wander the back roads in search of painted quilt
squares. But every now and then I give in to the impulse
and make a detour into the rural countryside, knowing
that a hand-painted gem and a grounding in the ways
of the past are just around the corner.