The Van Trump Report

How to Find America’s “Barn Quilt” Trails

Rural America is dotted with countless barns of all shapes and sizes, most of which take their form from the specific function they serve. In some parts of the country, you may have noticed a number of barns adorned with giant quilt-like decorations. The so-called “barn quilts” are a new take on an old tradition that was rekindled about two decades ago. In fact, they’ve become a full-blown agrotourism draw in communities across the US, with some even creating “quilt trails” that entice visitors to drive through their sleepy towns.

For those not familiar, barn quilts are simple geometric shapes typically derived from traditional quilting patterns. Because quilting is often a family tradition, many of the patterns have been passed down for generations. The patterns are painted on wood and hung on buildings. Although most are traditionally displayed on barns, they are also found on various buildings including homes, cabins, and even stores. The common barn size is an 8ft X 8ft panel but it’s not uncommon to see miniature versions on mailboxes, or even shrunk-down pieces sold as artwork.

While the modern-day barn quilt movement got its start about 20 years ago, the tradition dates back at least 300 years to the arrival of America’s first European immigrants. According to American Barn Quilts, barn painting/quilting originated in Pennsylvania with these immigrants and then spread to much of the New England and Midwestern states.

Paint was very expensive in those days but painting a distinctive quilt pattern on their barns was an affordable way of allowing for decoration. It was also an easy way for travelers to find particular families or crossroads, as townspeople would just tell them which pattern to look for. During the Revolutionary War, barn quilts were used to show American forces that an area was safe, secure, and supplies were available. Years later during the Civil War, the Underground Railroad used Barn Quilts for the same purposes.

As painting became less costly around the 1830’s to 1840’s, barn painting/decorating became an actual trade with specialized artisans. However, the trend of decorating barns with colorful designs slowly gave way to a more pragmatic form of barn painting – advertisements.  

Most credit the modern-day barn quilt revival to an Ohio woman named Dona Sue Groves who came up with the idea to do an art project inspired by her mother, a quilter, while working for the Ohio Arts Council. “I realized that the majority of communities held annual quilt shows and everyone seemed to have a quilt story,” shared Groves in the book ‘Following the Barn Quilt Trail.’ As Groves explained, “Most rural communities did not have large, blank, store walls or a floodwall for murals, but they did have barns.”

Adams County Ohio, where Groves lived, launched the first quilt trail and dedicated their first quilt square in October 2001. Other states that have developed quilt trails include Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, and Michigan. You can find a list of all the barn quilt trails in the US HERE.  There is also a sizable barn quilt community in Canada, which you can learn more about HERE.

Barn quilt panels located in rural Sturgeon Bay.

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