Last spring, my husband, Bob, and I were driving from Iowa City to Ft. Madison, Iowa, when I spotted a huge quilt square painted on the side of a barn. “Look! Isn’t that cool!” I said, wishing I’d brought a camera and could take a picture. A few miles later, we spotted a second quilt piece painted on a barn, and then another. I was so enchanted that I told my friends in Ft. Madison about the colorful paintings.“Barn quilts,” they explained. “They’re all over Iowa.”
And all over America, it seems. There are 31 states—New Mexico is the latest–that now display quilt patterns on barns, on tobacco sheds, and even on houses. The painted quilts are so popular that communities organize “quilt trails” with maps directing visitors to the various barns.
Since so many of us love quilts and quilt imagery, I thought I’d find out about barn quilts and tell you what I learned.
The idea started in Adams County in southern Ohio, some 100 miles from Cincinnati. Donna Sue Groves and her mother, a quilter, purchased a farm there in 1989. The farm had a tobacco barn that was “boring,” says Donna Sue. “I said I’d paint a big quilt square on it. That got to be a joke.”
A dozen years later, a friend reminded her of the promise. Donna Sue decided if she painted a quilt square, why not get others to do the same thing. They could create a “quilt trail” to bring tourism dollars into the county. So she started the Ohio Quilt Barn Project. The first square in what was to become a 20-square trail in Adams County was completed in October, 2001.
At first the “quilters” painted the squares directly onto the barns, but that was difficult because of the weathered barn wood, and dangerous because of the scaffolding needed to hang the painted quilts. So they painted the squares on wood panels instead, then hung the panels on the barns. Adams County now has about 60 barn quilts, and the idea has spread to 16 other Ohio counties.
Barn quilts are not only a new art form in Ohio, but as Donna Sue, former Southern Ohio Field Representative for the Ohio Arts Council, hoped, they are bringing in tourists. And just as important, they are bringing neighbors together. “We are using art to celebrate where we live. People truly have had fun,” she says. For information on southern Ohio’s quilt barns, check out www.appalachiandiscovery.com.
Back in Iowa, Sue Peyton embraced the barn quilt idea in 2005, after she and her husband read an article about barn quilts. “Kevin, this might be a project for you,” Sue’s husband told their son.
Kevin was instrumental in organizing a project to erect 10 quilt squares on barns and corn cribs in Sac County, Iowa. The project was more successful than the Peytons could have dreamed. The first year, 23 barns quilts were erected. Now there are about 65.
The Sac County quilts were painted on eight-by-eight-foot, three-quarter-inch plywood squares (two four-by-eight sheets put together.) The “quilters” made eight-inch patterns (using a 1 inch=12 inches scale). Each pattern had a seven-and-a-half inch square with a three-inch border surrounding it. The plywood was primed and the pattern drawn onto it. The painting was done mostly by school children. The local rural electricity provided equipment to hang the quilts.
As in Ohio, the Sac County, Iowa, project has increased tourism and even inspired a cottage industry of quilt-related items. Sue’s daughter, for instance, published Barn Quilts of Sac County, filled with pictures, history, and anecdotes, which she sells through www.barnquilts.com.
I hope that if you have pictures of barn quilts in your community, you’ll post them on my Sandra Dallas Author page on Facebook so that we can all see them. -SD
Sandra loves western history. In fact, history is like a character in her books. In True Sisters, her eleventh novel, which will be published next year, she explores an event little known outside the mountain states: the Mormon handcart expeditions.
In 1856, the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons) conceived the idea of bringing impoverished converts from Europe to Iowa, where they would be fitted with handcarts instead of ox-drawn wagons. The emigrants would pull and push the carts the 1,300 miles to Salt Lake City. The carts, which were essential square boxes on two wheels, would cost a fraction of the price of wagons, and emigrants would not have the care of oxen or mules.
The idea might have been a good one, but the execution was poor. The carts were not waiting for the converts when they arrived in Iowa. The people had to build the carts themselves, and out of green lumber. That not only delayed their departure but meant the carts fell apart as the wood dried. Moreover, supplies were not waiting along the trail for the travelers, as they had been promised. Worst of all, the last two of the five handcart companies left late in the year and were trapped in the snow. More than a quarter of the 575 members of the last company, the Martin Company froze or starved to death.
True Sisters is about four women, three of them converts, who are members of the Martin Company. The characters are fictional, but they are based on journals, stories, and accounts of real women who braved the horror and hardship of the handcart trek, finding faith, friendship, and even joy in the journey.
We’ll have more about True Sisters in the next issue of Piecework.
Bride’s House Open for Tour
Sandra and her husband, Bob, will open the Bullock House in Georgetown, Colo., scene of Sandra’s latest novel, The Bride’s House, to the public on Saturday, Sept. 24, from 12 to 3 p.m. The open house is a benefit for the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum. The cost is $85. Reservations may be made through the RMQM at 303-277-0377 or www.rmqm.org. The 1881 house, built by lumberman Charles Bullock, was in poor condition when Sandra and Bob purchased it four years ago and began an extensive restoration. Because it is Sandra and Bob’s home, the Bullock House has not been open to the public.
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. By Dorothy Wickenden. Scribner.
In 1916, two New York society girls accepted positions as school teachers in Elkhead, Colo. Elkhead was still the frontier, a remote land of cowboys and hardscrabble homesteaders, and the teachers were chosen as much for their looks as their untried teaching skills; women were in short supply in northwestern Colorado.Undaunted, the two, Rosamond Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff, brought education and culture not just to their students but to the community.
Ros and Dorothy were the first teachers at the new Elkheart school. They “came riding into our lives in a spring wagon late one afternoon,” a former student said years later. “Little did I realize at the time the importance and lasting influence…not only on me, but on most youths and many adults of the Elkhead community.”
Nothing Daunted, written by Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of New Yorker Magazine and granddaughter of one of the teachers, is a first-class story of the two women, based on letters, recollections, and personal interviews. Wickkenden tells about the women’s challenges, their disappointments, and their adventures. The most harrowing experience was the kidnapping of a friend and suitor of one of the women. She eventually married him, while her friend married a beau she’d been secretly engaged to. So they quit teaching after just one year. But they agreed it had been the best year of their lives. —SD
We’ve completely redone my website, www.sandradallas.com, to make it friendlier and easier to use. I love it! And I hope you do, too. Thank you, Deb, Abbie, and Povy, for all your work. Let me know what you think of it. -SD