Seeking the Barn Quilt
I am off the beaten path, combing the ridges and valleys of Appalachia on a different kind of scavenger hunt; I’m seeking a Barn Quilt Trail in North Carolina. Following GPS coordinates and a trail map from the Madison County Visitor’s Center in Mars Hill NC, I am exploring the lesser-known backroads and hollers of the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of barns adorned with colorful quilt-block patterns. Each barn has an individual quilt patch and is a part of a “quilt-trail,” created by local artists and community members. To see the entire quilt, I have to leave the main roads and dive deep into rural Appalachia, following the trail to each different location.
The History of Barn Quilts
The first barn quilt was “knit” in Adams County, Ohio. The idea was formed by Ohio Arts Council member Donna Sue Groves, in honor of her mother’s love of the craft. The first patch was a traditional “Ohio Star” pattern painted on the side of a greenhouse in 2001. The project grew from there, with local artists taking it upon themselves to create a driving trail that features a 20-square quilt, with patches that spread all the way across Adams County. The quilt became a way to bring visitors to the area, promote Appalachian heritage, and increase sales for local artists and businesses.
Over the last few decades, the barn quilt project has spread across Appalachia and even down the mountains into the rest of the USA. Groves calls the movement she started “a clothesline of quilts,” which now hangs on over 3,000 barns in 43 different states and three Canadian territories. The idea is still growing; Pennsylvania is currently planning a series of quilt trails, and Alabama is in the process of extending their Alabama Quilt Trail across the entire state. Many counties are now providing trail maps to highlight the locations of different patches in a specific quilt, as well as offering background on the specific Appalachian community’s heritage skills and traditions.
Following the Trail
Following my map I locate a barn quilt patch. The trail map tells me that I have found the Powell Barn. The quilt pattern is a traditional one, known to quilters as a “Grandma’s Flower Garden” design. It was made by the Upper Laurel Community and mounted on the barn by the Upper Laurel Fire Department Volunteers.
Many quilt-trail patches are based on traditional quilt patterns. Often a family will choose a pattern inspired by a quilt that they already own, or they will choose a traditional pattern to represent their heritage, patriotism, occupations, or hobbies. Sometimes community programs such as 4H, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and local schools collaborate to design a barn quilt that represents their programs as well.
While there are many traditional quilt blocks, some of the patches on an Appalachian Quilt Trail scavenger hunt can be quite unique. Flowers, favorite pets, portraits, and elaborate mandalas decorate barns alongside the classic patchwork designs. In Burnsville, NC, a quilt-patch that doubles as a sundial hangs on the Yancey Times Journal building. It is accurate within six minutes and can be used to determine daylight savings as well as standard time.
My next stop is at the Memory Mountain Event Center. Converted from an old barn, this building and the surrounding grounds are available to host weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. The interior of the quilt pattern is called “The Drunkard’s Path,” and the border pattern is known as “Lover’s Knots.”
I spotted several more patches that were not on my map. I know how these folks stay warm in the winter, Madison county is covered in quilts!
So, whether you are in Adams County, Ohio, or Madison County, North Carolina, or anywhere in between. The next time you are looking for a new mountain adventure, spend an afternoon or two discovering the hidden idyllic farms, quaint cabins, and scenic vistas of backcountry Appalachia, all while seeking out these wonderful old barns that have been turned into works of art.
Tune in next time, when I return with the second leg of my quilt-trail adventure!
Timothy Burkhardt is a blogger and freelance journalist. He lives in the mountains outside of Asheville, NC with his two children, and a small menagerie of animals.