Welcome to Episode #32, Barn Quilt Pioneers. What happens when an age-old art form and a means of cultural expression morphs, and migrates, and transforms itself, at the hands of a new generation, into a new art form? Well, you have something pretty special. And that’s exactly what has happened with the concept and implementation of the phenomenon known as “barn quilts.” In Garrett County, we are fortunate to have had the benefit of a group of dedicated volunteers who had a vision to keep alive in a new way, the art of the quilt, and who worked hard and got creative, in finding a new way to keep that quilting tradition alive and bring it’s joys to a whole new and bigger audience and generation. Let’s face it, most of us today don’t have the skill, time, or patience to actually make a real, live quilt, but we can all enjoy the large-scale versions of these time-honored quilt patterns that have been lovingly and carefully adapted and transferred to the side of a vintage barn. Speaking of barns, how gorgeous is a country landscape, in any season, adorned with an iconic barn? Totally awesome.
And when that barn is decked out in a colorful quilt square, it’s, well, something to behold. And beyond that, we can hear and appreciate as part of the Mountain Maryland culture, the stories behind these patterns, and what they meant to the pioneering women and men who artfully and thriftfully pieced together with geometric precision these practical yet artistic pieces. You can actually take a driving tour of the Garrett County countryside, using the GPS coordinates provided on the website and via the Garrett Heritage app, to get up close and personal with each and every one of these barn quilts! And they have such charming names, too: “Delectable Mountains,” “Turkey Tracks” and “Summer Star Flower.”
Now before I go any further, I want to pause for a minute to thank our supporters, the organizations without whose assistance we couldn’t keep this thing going. So, I’m pleased and proud to be able to say that this podcast is funded in part by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority & the Garrett County Mountain Maryland Gateway to the West Heritage Area.
[Click below for complete audio podcast file. Subscribe over to the right so you never have to miss a future episode. Interview with Cheryl DeBerry starts at 12:15 minutes in and concludes at 20 minutes]:
Quilts in General
What does a quilt mean to us? I would venture to guess that quilts symbolize home to most of us: somewhere warm, somewhere safe, something beautiful and comforting. So, a quilt brings us a sense of place and home. And speaking of home, one of the main themes of Mountain Maryland as a Gateway to the West was the journey westward by families looking to build new homes and new lives, and all that it involved. There were plenty of hardships and sacrifices. Many more than I can name here.
But disease, Indians, accidents, harsh weather, and other calamities awaited the families at every turn. One report states that there were twenty thousand deaths on the Oregon Trail, resulting in a grave every 80 yards.
While quilts were used on a daily basis for comfort and dust control in the covered wagons rumbling westward, did you know they were also used during Indian attacks for protection, being hung over the exposed open areas of the covered wagons, to catch stray arrows, and such? Hardships increased the further west their travels took them, and often their precious items such as china and small items of furniture had to be abandoned.
Quilts had been used to protect those fragile items, and often the quilts would be abandoned as well. Of course, when they arrived at their destinations, they needed the quilts for bedding and so had to make them all over again. They provided covering for crude cabin windows, a way to separate a one-room cabin into sleeping vs eating areas, and many other uses. In fact, those pioneering women headed out West didn’t have much time for “idleness,” and there wasn’t much quilting done on the trail. But when they finally found a place to settle down, the quilting bees were the closest thing to a girls night out that they could have. Here’s a song a about the joys a quilting bee would bring:
From the Overland Trail to the Underground Railroad, quilts played varied and unsuspected roles in the evolution of our country. For example, there are some theories that quilts were embedded with patterns that held special directions or messages that would help the slaves find their next destination on the Underground Railroad. Although those theories aren’t as prevalent as they once were, it’s hard to imagine how else slaves who could not read and often had never been beyond the confines of their master’s property, could manage to find their way under such arduous circumstances. I know they used the stars and constellations to navigate, but I can’t help but think that quilts could have provided some navigational assistance as well. And the photo below shows an underground passageway beneath a church in Cumberland that was part of the Underground Railroad. (More info on that at the Western Maryland Historical Library website, tab on “Slaves and the Underground Railroad.”)
Washington County, Allegany County, and to some extent Garrett County played a significant role in the slave trade, being situated between slave-free Pennsylvania to the north and slave-dominated Virginia to the South. The narrow boundaries of Western Washington County at Hancock and Williamsport provided a convenient route for runaway slaves from Maryland and Virginia, and there were apparently five such designated routes that slaves could follow. Who knows what quilts might have led these these terrified, hunted people to safety? It’s a question historians are still trying to answer.
Finally, in 1861, a group of women in Hagerstown, MD got together for the purpose of gathering items for the soldiers in the war, as this photo from the Western Maryland Historical Library digital archive shows, and again, quilts played a major role in that effort:
So, quilts have a storied history, and are very much a part of Americana. And in Appalachia, where families often struggled to just get by, quilts provided not only a practical way to stay warm, but just as importantly, a means of artistic and creative expression. Now, fast forward to quilts of today and the 42 barn quilts decorating the barns in Garrett County. How did these start? Well, it all started with Donna Sue Groves, a native Appalachian ,who purchased an old farm that included an old tobacco barn.
To honor her mother, an avid quilter, Donna Sue came up with the idea to have a quilt block painted on the old structure. Barn Quilts began from this idea in Adams County, Ohio. The Quilt Trail movement has now spread to 48 states and to Canada as well, and visitors come from all over the globe to see and take part in the barn quilt movement.
A documentary called “Pieced Together” has been created to tell the story of how this movement was born, and it’s really good, there are interviews with Donna herself as well as others, and you really get a feel for what this is all about and you begin to really feel connected to it:
Here in Garrett County, Karen Reckner of the Garrett County Arts Council, first discovered barn quilts during a trip to Ohio. After a few years of admiring barn quilts across the nation, a group of four women got together to make barn quilts a reality in Garrett County, Maryland. In December 2007, the group met to organize their ideas. By February 2008, the whole community was represented in the effort.
The vision of the project, among, other things, was to speak to issues vital to the economy of Garrett County:
- Add value for tourism
- Preserve agricultural history
- Preserve cultural history
- Increase traffic to local businesses
- Involve every type of group in the county into one activity
Cheryl DeBerry was one of those four women, and we recorded an interview with her to find out a little of the back story and to learn just what kind of modern day gumption it took to pioneer this effort, and to make their vision come to life throughout the Garrett County landscape.
[Audio file with interview with Cheryl]
- Tell us a little bit about how the four women came together and how in those early days they were able to pull this whole thing off and get it launched?
- What kind of support and collaborations have helped keep it going? How did you “Piece It Together,” so to speak?
- What has the response been to this project, both by visitors and local residents?
Keeping it Going
An initiative like this doesn’t run itself, as we’ve just heard, and with the call out for a new group of volunteers and the involvement of the next generation, I hope we can all consider some way, large or small, to lend a helping hand with keeping this tradition going. The website at www.garrettbarnquilts.org, lists many ways to do that, from sponsoring a quilt, to making a donation, to helping with administration. And, as well, wouldn’t it be awesome to make your very own quilt? Well, one of the largest quilting retail shops on the East Coast is right here in Garrett County! In Grantsville, which is right off of Route 68 just east of the exit for Deep Creek Lake and Rte 219, you will find Four Seasons Stitchery, and they have an absolutely amazing collection of kits, fabrics, and all the things you’d need to make your very own quilt. There you can also pick up Barn Quilt Lapel Pins, Magnets, and Posters! Also Visit Englanders in Oakland, Maryland to pick up Barn Quilt Lapel Pins and other Barn Quilt merchandise.
Samples of real quilts made back in the early 1900s can be viewed right up close at the Garrett County Historical Museum in downtown Oakland.
So I think that just about wraps up this episode, and I will close with these words, from the Garrett Barn Quilts website, about their mission to stay connected, in a variety of ways, to a variety of things:
Like individual squares sewn together
to form a quilt, To each other,
To our collective history,
To our quilts,
To our rural landscape,
To the people, places, stories and patterns
that make it possible,
Now and forever more
The Barn Quilt Association of Garrett County offers special thanks to:
· FTC team 2818 G-FORCE, the Robotics team that has worked tirelessly to lay out and paint our barn quilts each year
· Garrett County Arts Council, for providing grant opportunities for the Barn Quilt Association
· Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and the Mountain Maryland Gateway to the West Heritage area, for providing grant funding for this podcast project
· Beitzel Corporation, for helping us mount the squares on barns
· Our volunteers, who help us research, design, paint, mount, and promote our barn quilt project
· Donna Sue Groves, whose vision started an international barn quilt movement, and whose gracious nature has been a tremendous blessing to our project
Many thanks also to the talented Carolyn Carter, for permission to use her original song, “The Quilt,” as part of the sound design of this episode, and also to the band, Lonesome Redwing for their song, “Quilting Bee.” Other music was made available via the website, FreeMusicArchive.org, which is a great resource for podcasts such as this one. Also a shout out to Cheryl DeBerry, without whose dedication and assistance this episode would never have been completed.
Oh, yes, don’t forget: Stay Wild, My Friends!