Quilts turn barns into works of art

Sunday, January 11, 2009 | 2:55 p.m. CST; updated 5:03 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 11, 2009
Margot McMillen feeds her farm cats outside her Calloway County barn adorned with a quilt pattern in Hatton, Mo.

HATTON — To the untrained eye, the old barn on Margot McMillen's Callaway County organic farm is merely a relic. A faded memento to an agrarian life better suited for history books — if not the wrecking ball.

McMillen had another notion. With the help of a local artist, a colorful and prominent quilt now adorns the barn's side. The afterthought is now a work of art, part of a growing movement to promote rural tourism through driver-friendly quilt trails along the nation's back roads.

"These buildings are valuable and wonderful and precious. We can't let them die," said McMillen, a Westminster College English instructor. "An awful number of barns have disappeared, or are just falling apart."

The preservation effort remains a work in progress in Missouri, with a smattering of barn quilts in Callaway and further west near Boonville and Marshall.

Organizers hope to some day match the ambitions of Tennessee, home to an 81-quilt driving tour in the Appalachian region; or Ohio, Iowa and Kentucky, which each boast more than 250 barn quilts.

The Tennessee project stretches through six counties in the rugged Appalachian Mountain foothills in the state's Northeast corner. The effort enjoys state support, draws inquiries from as far away as Japan and has proven so popular that the state has commissioned a Tennessee Appalachian Quilt Trail license plate.

"We originally thought it would be something local people would enjoy," said Roy Settle, coordinator of the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council, the quilt trail's organizer. "We had no idea it would take off like it has."

In Tennessee, schoolchildren paint the colorful patterns on 8-by-8 plywood squares. In Callaway County, members of a local food circle fill in the blanks once artist Jenny Czyzewski outlines the pattern.

Most credit the creation of modern barn quilts to Donna Sue Groves of Adams County, Ohio, who embarked on a project in 2001 to honor her mother's agrarian heritage. Word quickly spread among avid hobbyists and farm preservation types in surrounding states.

Quilt barn organizers hope that roadside travelers will do more than slow down to snap a photo. They see the project as a means to promote greater appreciation of rural history and culture, as well as funnel money into related businesses such as roadside produce stands, farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture purchasing clubs.

Mary Humstone, a University of Wyoming research scientist in American studies, helped start a national barn restoration program a decade ago called Barn Again! She sees the barn quilt projects as a related effort to preserve history.

"There's a nostalgia for barns," she said. "They're a limited resource, and one that is disappearing fast."

For Carol Raynor, 69, the gable-roof barn she has decorated near Marshall is more than just a roadside distraction. It's the place she toiled in as a child, a landmark on the 140-acre cattle farm that has passed through three generations of women in her family and will soon be taken over by a fourth generation — one of her adult daughters.

"I grew up when that barn was used for every imaginable thing," she said. "When I was a kid, I stayed in that barn all the time. It was just a wonderful part of my growing up years."



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JEAN PORTER January 15, 2011 | 3:30 p.m.


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