While driving around the rural town of Manchester, along its “Tour de Barn Quilts” route, I felt inspired to cue up the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces.”
Why? Because that’s the kind of easygoing, verdant, plenty-of-breathing-room vibe that envelops you as you follow a rutted dirt road over a narrow bridge, and around curves – all of them unwinding beneath a boundless blue sky. You pass several fields of tall cornstalks, and you notice that the number of houses that have barns nearby seem to outnumber those that don’t.
But it’s only been within the last decade or so that large-scale quilt squares – usually painted on a medium density overlay (MDO) panel, made of plywood overlaid with a weather-resistant resin – began appearing on a handful of Manchester barns.
Retiree Barb Fuller was among the first to hang a painted quilt square in Manchester. In late 2007, she read about a young man in Iowa who designed and hung a barn quilt for his Eagle Scout project. Inspired by the story, Fuller bought a few books with quilt square designs; found a pattern she liked; and “drew it, traced it, and played with it with some colored pencils.”
Estimating that she spent about three hundred dollars on materials, she completed and hung her square in 2008 – only to find that there were a couple of other barn quilts already on display in Manchester.
“I thought it would be a nice addition to our pole barn,” said Fuller. “ … I appreciated the artwork, the quilt concept, as an homage to the agrarian lifestyle, and to the quilts women have made through the years.”
Fuller isn’t a quilter herself, but her paternal grandmother was a seamstress who made dolls with heads made of china, and her maternal grandmother crocheted and knitted.
“I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated the effort it takes to create something,” said Fuller. “And there’s something about the symmetry of a quilt square that appeals to me as well. Though I confess I’ve never made a quilt, this offered a way to be artistic in a way that enhanced my home, and provided a personal touch to our home and the town where we live.”
After a few more barn quilts appeared over the years, community leaders noted realized that there were enough of them around Manchester to make a tour for visitors. So when Manchester landed a tourism grant, its leaders officially established and advertised a self-guided “Tour de Birds” – a highly popular option for local birdwatchers – and “Tour de Barn Quilts,” which invites visitors to bike or drive to see not only barn quilts, but also local historic farms/barns, churches (and a cemetery), a cider mill, a park, a “shoe tree,” and the downtown business district.
“We had a car full of women who stopped in the road,” said Fuller. “ … They were looking at our barn quilt, so we invited them to pull into our driveway. They’d been in town and saw the brochure, so they loaded up the car with friends and came out.”
Barn quilt tours have grown so popular in rural areas that nearly 30 counties within Michigan feature at least one, and they exist in more than forty states in the U.S.
The origins of barn quilts, though, is generally traced to another Manchester – in Ohio, where Donna Sue Groves had the idea of dressing up a plain tobacco barn with an artistic homage to her quilter mother: a large, painted quilt square.
Though it took a few years for Groves to make her idea a reality, she also, during that time, expanded on her original vision from a single square to twenty squares – traditionally the number necessary for a bed-sized quilt – on different barns in the area, thereby laying the foundation for the nation’s first barn quilt tour in Ohio’s Adams County in 2001.
Since then, the DIY public artform has boomed, and Fuller has some ideas as to why.
“It’s kind of like a treasure hunt,” Fuller said. “It’s a fun activity for a nice day. It’s inexpensive, and it’s something that’s not so common, locally.”
For more information about the Tour de Barn Quilts, click HERE.
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