Take a drive through certain rural parts of Michigan, and the barns have a unique characteristic; they are decorated with large colorful quilt-like patterns, each with its own personality. The barn quilt patterns can signify and memorialize historical preservation efforts, family traditions and the beauty of rural Michigan.
Some historians claim their roots run deep, that barn quilts and barn quilt trails date back to an era when slavery existed and the rise of the Underground Railroad in America. Others say it all began as practice borne of an Ohio woman’s desire to make her mother happy. That story spotlights Adams County, Ohio, where Donna Sue Groves wanted to beautify her mother’s barn while honoring her mother’s lifelong love of quilting.
“I call myself the visionary and the birth mother of the whole concept,” said Groves, now 70 years old. “My mother quilted, and when I was growing up, she created a car game for my brother and I. We counted barns instead of cars.”
That early introduction to quilting and barns remained with Groves, and in 1989, she made a promise to her mother.
“I said, ‘I’ll paint a quilt square on it for ya,’” Groves recalled. “My friends kept asking when I was gonna paint that quilt square. … They offered to help. I said, ‘I have an idea. Let’s paint a bunch of them and create a trail. We’ll make an opportunity,’” Groves said.
Thus, the first modern-day barn quilt trail was born: by way of a barn quilt with the Ohio Star pattern, displayed at an Ohio fair in 2001. The second created was a “Snail’s Trail,” painted onto the side of Groves’ mother’s tobacco barn in 2004.
Today, barn quilt trails are emerging throughout Great Lakes states as well as across the United States. Michigan’s first was the Alcona County Quilt Trail near Lake Huron. It was established in 2008 and today has 28 quilt sites. More recent trails, like the Pigeon River Quilt Trail in Olive Township (southeast of Grand Haven) with 31 quilt sites, launched in 2013. The Vicksburg Quilt Trail, which started with a single barn quilt in 2008, became an established trail in 2013.
Kitch Rinehart was living in Ohio when news of that first barn quilt trail concept was circulating. By the time she moved to Vicksburg in 2004, she’d mulled over the idea of putting together another and though a neighbor was first to put one up, Rinehart and her husband Hugh designed, painted and hung their first quilt square in 2013. They chose a “Catch of the Day” pattern and, in the absence of a barn on their property, displayed their 4-by-4-foot square on the back of their shed, facing the lake for fishermen to see.
The Rineharts approached the Vicksburg Historical Society, seeking to establish a barn quilt trail in the town. Their notion was met with enthusiasm, and today, there are 24 barn quilts displayed throughout the Vicksburg area. The Vicksburg Barn Quilt Trail is a 45-mile tour.
“We called barn owners and explained what we would like to do. I gave them books and asked them to find (a quilt square pattern) meaningful to them. The barn owner had total control over the pattern and the colors,” Rinehart said.
Although barn owners have creative freedom, there are guidelines for size. Some homeowners also had the desire but no barn to hang one. Deb Fisher is among those who used an alternative location — an old, metal silo that faces the road. With help from the Rineharts, Fisher is now part of the Vicksburg Barn Quilt Tour, having chosen the pattern, a 4-by-4-foot “Drunkard’s Path,” for her square.
“I have a Drunkard’s Path quilt that belonged to my great-grandparents,” Fisher said. “My great-grandmother was a strict Presbyterian who did not believe in drinking at all. Women would sell these quilts (Drunkard’s Path) and make money to make their (pro-temperance) pamphlets. I really felt like I was honoring my great-grandmother.”
Although the public is asked not to park in the family’s driveway or walk around their property, Fisher feels being part of the tour allows for a friendly connection with visitors.
“It’s been a great way to be friendly and break the ice and let people know Michigan is a good place to be, and we’re the friendly Midwest,” Fisher said. “I think people tend to be a little socially isolated these days. I think it gives a little of the old-fashioned friendliness because if you’re curious enough to stop and talk to me, I’m friendly enough to talk to you.”
Dan Fish, another barn owner on the Vicksburg Quilt Trail, said in good humor, “Our daughter got us into all this.”
Fish removed a scrub pine, pulled down ivy and painted the side of his barn facing the road. The Fish family barn is the grand finale of the tour route and has four quilt squares on display. Dubbed “The Gallery,” theirs is the first barn in Michigan to display four quilt squares — each one done by one of the four quilting groups in Vicksburg.
Maybe the most colorful barn quilt square on the tour is the “Around the Corner” pattern square painted in vibrant yellow, orange and red, and displayed on a rustic barn built in 1910 that now belongs to Chuck and Deb Peterson.
“‘Around the Corner’ just made sense for us because we’re around the corner,” Deb said. We get a lot of compliments on it. When I’m outside, people stop, and they say, ‘It’s just beautiful! We love it! We love the colors!’”
Developing a barn quilt trail can have several benefits, according to Reinhart, including the restoration of old barns, some over 100 years old, and agritourism, which brings people out into the country to enjoy the area. While there, people may buy honey or fruit at a local farmers stand or stop for ice cream at a locally owned shop.
Olive Township native Sandy Karsten is vice president of the area’s historical society that oversees the local barn quilt trail. The Pigeon River Quilt Trail started five years ago.
“There was a handful of barn quilts up, but we weren’t a trail yet. We jumped into, ‘Let’s get bigger!’ and we grew and grew,” Karsten said. “We’re part of the Michigan Barn Quilt Association, which is a larger group of other quilt trails that have come together.”
Like the Rineharts and Fisher, Karsten was without a barn but determined to participate.
“We live in an old farmhouse, but the barn that was originally here burned down,” Karsten said. “We have a chicken coop and we have a quilt (square) there called ‘Hens and Chicks.’ We have another on our garage called ‘Patriotic.’ My husband, his father and my father were in the military. We had a number of uncles and aunts, and our nephew and our own son were in the military and we wanted to pay tribute to them. We have their names inscribed on the back.”
Julie Williams is an award-winning poet and a professor at Grand Valley State University.