Extension News

Barn Quilts Give a Shot in the Arm to Agritourism through Art, History and Nostalgia

Sac County Star barn quilt


AMES, Iowa--Take a drive down the country roads of Appalachia, the Midwest or the Northeast and you’re likely to see a new phenomenon— old barns adorned with favorite quilt patterns.

Dubbed a “Clothesline of Quilts” by Donna Sue Groves of the Ohio Arts Council, the barn quilts make a trail in Appalachia from New York to Georgia. Groves was instrumental in starting the movement, embellishing a barn in 2001 on the family farm in Adams County, Ohio, with a pattern matching one from her mother’s quilts.  (See http://www.adamscountytravel.org/quiltbarns.html.)

The idea caught on and soon what began as a promotion of the region’s quilting heritage became a way to bring visitors into local shops and restaurants.  An Iowa State University Extension staff member heard Groves speak at a conference in 2003 and brought the idea to Grundy County. Today the county offers not only a barn quilt tour, but a barn quilt calendar, a barn quilt cookbook, and brochures of county attractions, entertainment events,  shopping and dining along its 64-mile Barn Quilt Loop. (See http://www.grundycountyia.com/.)

What is a barn quilt?
Imagine a large, square, colorful wooden block with a painted quilt pattern that is mounted on the side of a barn. Most are 8’ x 8’. Barn quilts currently are in at least 16 states and embellish more than 900 barns.

The enthusiasm generated by quilt projects is contagious, especially when it’s youthful enthusiasm of 4-H’ers whose leadership projects can reinvigorate whole communities. In 2005, Kevin Peyton, then a high school junior in Sac County, Iowa,  chose barn quilts as a 4-H project and as his Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student project.  (See more at http://barnquilts.com/.)

Today some 55 barn quilts lead visitors on a tour throughout the county, boosting the local economy. Peyton, currently an Iowa State University (ISU) sophomore, maintains close ties with the project.

“Never underestimate the ripple effect of the work of 4-H’ers,” wrote Caine and Carissa Westergard as they chronicled their club’s efforts for the Plymouth County Barn Quilt project. The Iowa sisters were following the lead of Peyton as they put up their first quilt in July. They plan to display eight new quilts by summer 2008. At least 15 Iowa counties now have felt the ripple effect of enthusiastic ISU Extension 4-H members. (See more at www.extension.iastate.edu/news/2007/sep/092101.htm.)

Private donors, corporations, community organizations and businesses often provide needed cash to get the quilts painted and hoisted to their lofty perches. In Iowa, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. offers grants to 4-H clubs working in conjunction with community groups. The Westergard sisters and their 4-H club worked with the LeMars Arts Council, which coordinates the county barn quilt project. LeMars, home to Wells Blue Bunny ice cream, is no stranger to promoting its local assets and recognized the value of bus and car tours stopping in the community.

Sac County even holds a Quilt-A-Fair each September .This two-day quilt show not only features the barn quilt tour, but also stops at selected gardens and shops. Attractions at the fair grounds include two buildings filled with quilts and vendors as well as demonstrations, drawings for barn quilts and barn quilt art.

“It was a huge success,” said Sue Peyton, strong backer of the project as well as Kevin’s mother.  “We had over 1,000 people from 81 different communities, 32 counties, six states. The streets of Sac City were full of cars, restaurants were busy, shops were busy. It was a great weekend.”

The barn quilt project also spawns other entrepreneurial pursuits, according to Peyton. One woman paints barn quilts for others as a part time business from her home.

Each county project is a little different. In Harrison County, Ohio, members of 4-H clubs painted quilt squares as did students in a high school industrial arts class and other volunteers. This county project is coordinated by the Puskarich Public Library, the county office of Ohio State University Extension, and the Harrison County Community Improvement Corporation. Also assisting are the county commissioners, who applied for grant funding, and the county engineer’s office, which coordinated the installation of the quilts. (See http://www.harrisoncountyohio.org/community/quiltbarn.htm.)

For more information on Iowa barn quilts and preservation, see The Barns of Iowa at www.extension.iastate.edu/emms/barns/.

For more information on Appalachian states, contact the Appalachian RC&D Council (Resource Conservation & Development) at 1105 East Jackson Boulevard, Suite 4, Jonesborough, TN 37659, 423-753-4441, ext. 4. See the Appalachian Quilt Trail at http://www.vacationaqt.com/.

Read about a Kentucky based project in the second article of this three-part series at “Extension Incubates Barn Quilt Agritourism.”


Contacts :

Carol Ouverson, Extension Communications and Marketing, (515) 294-9640, couverso@iastate.edu