When Donna Sue Groves and her mother Maxine moved to an Adams County farm in 1989, an old Mail Pouch Tobacco barn sat on the property of their new home. Finding it to be ugly, Groves made a promise to her mother, an avid quilter, that she would paint a quilt square on their barn. Little did she know that her idea would one day become a national phenomenon.
The first barn quilt, the Ohio Star, was hung at Lewis Mountain Herbs in 2001. Donna Sue, who was working as a southern field representative for the Ohio Arts Council at the time, helped develop the first quilt square. The square was dedicated to Maxine Groves and became the first of 20 stops on the Adam’s County driving trail, the Clothesline of Quilts.
According to Tom Cross, executive director of the Adams County Travel and Visitors Bureau, each barn on the original trail has a different quilt square pattern honoring the county’s heritage. Many patterns originated in the 1800s and have newer, similar variations, such as Shoo Fly’s close relative, Hole in the Barn Door.
According to Elaine Lafferty, original owner of the Shoo Fly quilt square, Maxine Groves played a huge role in designing squares for the quilt trail. Lafferty describes how Groves had a three-ring binder with her favorite quilt square patterns that she had hand-drawn and colored sorted into individual plastic sleeves.
After the dedication of the Ohio Star in 2001, the Groves family had people eagerly seeking them out to become a part of the barn quilt movement. According to Tom Cross, not a day went by where Donna Groves was not answering questions about it.
As people drove across the county, be it for reason or by accident, they saw barn quilts that would stick with them in their memory for years to come. Barn quilt trails then began to pop up sporadically in new locations.
The barn quilt trail has grown from a local trend to a nationwide phenomenon, stretching from one end of the country to the other, eventually making its way into Canada. There was even a documentary made by filmmaker Julia Donofrio about the barn quilt trails called Pieced Together.
“It started as wood and paint, and it’s grown into so much more,” said Donofrio. “But I think the beauty in these patterns and in choosing your own colors is that anyone can create barn quilts. I really just think it is a way for people to celebrate their community, to preserve old barns and an art form that is truly accessible.”
Twenty years after the first barn quilt was painted, 15,000 barn quilts make up a patchwork of designated trails. Tens of thousands more exist on private property to honor family members, heritage, or to salvage old barns.
The Groves’ quilt, Snail’s Trail, was added to the Adams County driving trail in 2003, finally fulfilling the promise that Groves made to her mother 14 years before.