A road trip through the eastern countryside brings two friends on a tour of the quilt barns of Kentucky and Ohio.
Story by Linda Rinta
West Wareham, Massachusetts
How comforting is a quilt! We give them to babies and brides. We curl up in them when we’re cold or sick, spread them on our beds and hang them on our walls. A quilt is a piece of art created in the home and made even more beautiful with use.
So it is with a quilt barn. There is a widespread movement across rural America to hang painted quilt squares on barns and historic buildings. Together, the square and the building become a quilt. A barn itself is a work of art on a landscape linking us to our cultural heritage. Counties have strung these quilt squares and barns along driving trails that tell the stories of communities.
My friend Char and I celebrated my 60th birthday with a road trip through nine counties and following more than 15 quilt barn trails in Kentucky and Ohio. Every mile carried us closer to the heart of the country.
We were inspired by the resilient spirit of what I like to call true homeland security. It stood out most boldly on the Patriot Trail in Kentucky, where each quilt barn is painted red, white and blue in tribute to the sons and daughters who have served in the military. Against the patina of well-worn barns, they seemed to say, “Come home, come home.”
In Lewis County, Kentucky, our road trip climbed up and down bumpy roads in the hollers, sensationally green. I became quite good at waving with one finger while both hands were firmly on the wheel. Char and I learned the names of quilt squares like Broken Dishes, Hole-in-the-Barn Door and Around-the-World.
Down the road to Paris and Lexington, to bluegrass horse country, the quilt barns persist. Different counties have different styles of trails: Some are themed and some not, some are planned and some random. Sad barns teetered on their last legs. Proud working barns stood sturdy as steamers, reminding me of fishing boats back in New England. I believe that those adorned with a quilt patch fared better than most. We were truly seeing a renaissance in progress.
During the road trip we saw corn, hay, horses and cows, and sometimes we saw nothing. We visited wineries and country bakeries, art galleries, museums and craft shops, picking up more maps and following more trails. The little cities caught the fever, too. In Char’s hometown of Maysville, Kentucky, quilt squares hang not on barns but high on the walls of historic buildings that are now inns, shops and museums. In the mid-1800s, Maysville was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a square painted on one of the flood walls honors that legacy.
We ended our road trip where it began, in Adams County, Ohio, when we met Donna Sue Groves and her mother, Maxine, who is a fifth-generation quilter. Donna Sue dreamed of starting a quilt trail—what she thought of as “a clothesline of quilts.”
She began one in 2001, when she placed a square on her family’s barn in Manchester, Ohio, in honor of her mother. Word of mouth and community action took over from there, and in a few short years quilt trails cropped up all over Appalachia and beyond.
Anyone can help paint squares and often does so. Kids, artists and oldsters come together with a shared purpose and pride of place. Next year Char and I will road trip to North and South Carolina. We will avoid the beaches and head straight for the countryside. There’s a trail we need to drive.