Spreading barn quilts

by Melody Warnick

After nearly 100 years of sheltering hay and hogs, the whitewashed barn near Conrad, Iowa, had reached the end of its practical life. Fifth-generation farmer John Conrad III, 54, was ready to tear it down.

Before he got the chance, however, he was approached with a novel idea that would give his old barn new purpose”as the background for a painted quilt square, part of an outdoor art project. “The barn at this point has lived beyond its useful life for agriculture,” he acknowledges. “But I made a decision that, well, we could hold off on demolishing it.”

In Iowa’s rural Grundy County, 25 8-by-8-foot quilts in traditional patterns, including “County Fair,” “Hole in the Barn Door” and “Windmill,” have been painted, mostly by community members and other volunteers, directly onto the sides of weathered barns and aging corncribs. And though the project originally was intended to emphasize local agricultural heritage, it’s also preserving historic barns for future generations, a fact that doesn’t surprise Donna Sue Groves, 58, a field representative with the Ohio Arts Council who founded the original barn quilt project in Adams County, Ohio.

“The barn quilts are public art that celebrates the place people call home,” Groves says. “They make people feel good about themselves and where they live.”

Groves conceived the idea in 2001 to brighten an abandoned tobacco barn on her family’s property in Manchester, Ohio. The barn became her canvas to paint a colorful quilt square to honor her mother, an accomplished quilter. But the mural soon morphed into an arts-based tourist attraction that other communities began imitating.

In 2004, 13 barns in Grundy County were painted, followed by another 12 in 2005. The colorful quilt murals have attracted a steady stream of visitors”some in cars, some in buses”who follow the county’s seven-town “Quilt Loop,” along which they often grab lunch or peruse local shops. To Julie McNair, co-owner of the General Store in Conrad (pop. 1,066), the barn project came at a good time. A recently completed highway, U.S. 20, had set a faster pace that encouraged cars to whiz past area towns without stopping. “We needed to have something that would pull people off the highway, that would get people to come and say, ‘Gee whiz, there is something in Grundy County besides black dirt, corn and soybeans!” says McNair, 53, who heads the county’s barn quilt committee, which coordinates painting assignments.

Grundy County residents aren’t the only Iowans who have noted how barn-side quilts encourage tourists to “get off the beaten path.” In 2004, Kevin Peyton, 18, of Sac City, Iowa (pop. 2,368), began his own version in Sac County as a 4-H leadership project. So far, some 1,000 volunteers have painted 23 quilts, with more than two dozen others in the works. “The quilts are a real novelty item, almost a bragging right,” says Peyton, who grew up on a cattle farm and hung Sac County’s first quilt square at his grandfather’s home.

Currently, more than 400 quilt squares are spread across 63 counties in Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia, prompting Groves to thread them together into a “national clothesline” of quilts by working to create a website with locations and maps of the quilt art state-by-state. She’d also like to organize a national conference where communities that already have quilt projects can share patterns, advice and encouragement with those wanting to start their own.

That idea sounds good to barn owner John Conrad III. “Rural America really has to take hold of its own destiny,” he says. “We don’t have mountains, and we can’t create a big lake, but we can create other points of interest, like the barn quilts, that reflect our history, our heritage, who we are and where we’re going.”