Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Heartland's Grass Roots Movement of Barn Quilts

Ogemaw County, Michigan is a few hours drive away. The primeval forest land was logged off in the 19th c and Amish and Mennonite farmers from Ohio and Indiana moved in. Farm land, open fields, and snug towns cuddle between rolling hills. Just off the expressway is West Branch with its smilely face water tower, voted the favorite tourist sight for those traveling 'up north'.

West Branch has a deep history in quilts. The historical musem has several 19th c quilts in its collection. Quilt pattern designer and teacher Kay Wood lived here while her PBS show demonstrated how to simplify quilting. I have attended the annual Quilt Walk Hospice fundraiser (read about it here and here).

Inspired by Donna Sue Groves, whose first Barn Quilt was erected on her Adams County, Ohio barn to honor her mother, Ogamaw County created their own Barn Quilt Trail. (Read my post about the Ogamaw County Quilt Trail here. )

Since 2001 Donna has inspired communities across the country to organize Barn Quilt Trails, with the movement now crossing international borders.

In 2008 Suzi Parron was on holiday when she noticed a painted quilt block on the side of a barn. She had to return and find it. It led her on a journey, discovering Donna Sue Groves and the first Barn Quilt installations.

There was little information available about Barn Quilts and Parron decided to document the art grass roots movement. It involved extensive travel across the nation, photographing the barns and their quilt blocks and interviewing hundreds to learn the stories behind each installation.

Parron's efforts have yielded two books, Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement and Following the Barn Quilt Trail.

Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement documents Suzi's journey to discover the origin of the movement and its growth. The book is an homage to America's heartland farmers and farm wives, their barns and quilts symbolizing root American values and a heritage of industry and family.

The quilt blocks are painted on wood and attached to the barns. A form of communal art,  Donna Sue Groves likens the trails to quilts on a clothesline strung across the land. The quilt blocks often represent a beloved heirloom family quilt and Suzie's interviews are full of heartwarming personal stories.

Suzie's first book includes travels to Adams County, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

The Barn Quilt Movement spread like wildfire. Suzi quit her job and moved into a bus to travel full time to research her second book, Following the Barn Quilt Trail. This books is more relevetory about Suzi and Glen and the ups and downs of traveling. Beginning in Michigan, she includes Canada, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Vermont, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, Wisconsin, and finally west to Washington and California, and south to Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, and the Deep South.

The books are beautifully presented with an attractive layout, quilt block chapter heads, and every page or two includes glossy color photographs of  barns and quilt blocks. They are not comprehensive picture books; it would be impossible to show every Barn Quilt. What Suzi does is capture the human side of the movement, the women and men, and sharing their stories. Most come from generations of farmers. Often a Barn Quilt saved an old family barn from loss, inspiring its preservation. But the movement also inspired towns to create quilt blocks for family businesses and shops.


The Barn Quilt movement's speaks to America's nostalgia for simplier times, the pride, independence,  hard work and satisfaction of the family farms of our grear-grandparents.

Tourists now pick up Quilt Trail brochures and seek out Barn Quilts down dusty lanes and two lane roads, driving past fancy modern farms and the farms of  Plain people, searching for an America few of us today know.

The movement has peaked and Suzi does not plan a third book on the subject.

This spring my quilt guild hosted Suzi for a lecture and a workshop. A former teacher, Suzi has a wonderful presence, articulate and personable, with a great sense of humor. Her worskshop was well organized and we had a marvelous time making our own mini-Barn Quilt.

Following the example of so many I chose an heirloom quilt to reproduce: Gary's great-grandmother's Single Wedding Ring quilt in Turkey red and white, made about 100 years ago.

My Barn Quilt, Single Wedding Ring block
We suburbanites mount our blocks in yards and on houses. Just a few blocks away is a Mid-century ranch house with two 'barn quilts' already!

I received free books from Ohio University Press in exchage for a fair and unbiased review.