By Kerri Rempp
Discover Northwest Nebraska
Quilt blocks tell a story, and barn quilts use the colors and geometric patterns of quilting legacies to create a visual element that shares a region’s heritage and industry in an eye-catching large format. They call to visitors, “Slow down, take your time, explore.”
The Northwest Nebraska Barn Quilt Trail will launch this summer with more than 40 locations for visitors to view the colorful quilt blocks and delve into the stories behind them. Little House on the Table and Gibbon’s Honey connect visitors to the land that feeds them, while Herren Brothers two locations provide the tools necessary to live and work in the region. The Crawford Public Library instills a love of knowledge through books, and school pride and patriotism are on display in other quilt blocks.
Quilting, the method of stitching together multiple layers of fabric, dates back to at least the 14th Century. By the early 19th Century as cotton fabric became more affordable, the method became more accessible, and pioneer women began making quilts for their family. The individual blocks often symbolized the family’s heritage, telling their stories across the ages.
Barns, too, have long been used as a canvas for art.
“The barn has been a kind of format for decorations for hundreds of years in different regions of America,” said George W. Neubert, director of Flatwater Art Foundation and Flatwater Folk Art Museum, in Nebraska Public Media’s 2017 documentary “Patchwork on the Plains: Nebraska’s Barn Quilt Culture.”
Barn builders often incorporated artwork into their construction, and as paint become more widely available, residents began painting their barns and adding embellishments of their own, Neubert said. Hex signs were common in the American colonies, mainly in the Pennsylvania Dutch areas, and eventually barns began featuring commercial art as companies paid farmers to advertise on the large structures.
The modern barn quilt and barn quilt trails, however, are a 21st Century phenomenon. They trace their roots to Adams County, Ohio, after Donna Sue Groves went to work for the Ohio Arts Council. Groves had long wanted to paint a quilt square to hang on her family’s barn in honor of her mother, a quilter. Her work with the art council introduced her to murals many communities were painting to inspire pride and spur economic development, and that encouraged her to create the first barn quilt trail, according to a 2012 interview in the Seattle Times.
Today, there are quilt trails in more than 40 states and in Canada.
Discover Northwest Nebraska Director Kerri Rempp introduced the idea of a regional barn quilt trail after visiting Lusk, Wyoming, and viewing that city’s barn quilts. Located just across the state line from Northwest Nebraska, Lusk features more than 100 of the quilt blocks and calls itself “The Heart of the Wyoming Quilt Trail.” According to the Wyoming Quilt Trail website, Lusk’s efforts originated in 2015 after the local fabric shop spread hundreds of yards of fabric out to dry in the city park after a devastating flood. A photo the park draped in fabric went viral as a representation of the city’s recovery and sparked the idea of a barn quilt trail.
“I put the idea on my list of projects for my summer interns through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Rural Fellows program to research. Shortly after that, Rose Mapel of Artistic Innovations in Eustis, and a volunteer with Cozad Tourism, reached out to gauge our interest in creating a barn quilt trail and offering assistance,” Rempp said. “Everything aligned at the right time to establish the trail. We had a fantastic intern through Rural Fellows to guide the project through the steps with Mapel’s help, and a grant from the Heartland Center’s Rural Prosperity for Northwest Nebraska project gave us the funding we needed to commission the barn quilts.”
Initially, the plan was to host barn quilt workshops and have individuals and businesses make their own barn quilts. Rural Fellow and Northwest Nebraska intern Faith Junck ran into logistics issues with that approach and determined the most efficient way to kick-start the trail would be to commission the artwork. Rempp secured funding through the Heartland Center’s Rural Prosperity grant, and Junck worked with more than 30 businesses in Harrison and Crawford to design their quilt blocks.
“The project was a significant contributor to my understanding of Northwest Nebraska’s culture,” Junck said, adding that she was able to interact with business owners, learn their history and incorporate it into their designs. “I loved interacting with the business owners to come up with the perfect barn quilt design, and I’m excited to come and visit the Barn Quilt Trail the next time I make a trip to Northwest Nebraska.
As awareness of the project spread, the Corn Valley 4-H Club members decided to take part, and they hosted a barn quilt workshop at the Crawford Community Building in April. Club members committed to making quilt blocks, which will then be combined into one “welcome” sign at the Crawford Tourism Booth. Community members from across the two-county area also started work on their own barn quilts, so the trail now includes artwork in Chadron, Crawford and Harrison, along with several rural locations in the region.
Mapel, who has also written a book about barn quilts, “The Complete Barn Quilt Creation & Painting Guide,” has family ties to Northwest Nebraska and is excited to see the barn quilts decorating local businesses and homes.
Her grandmother lived in Northwest Nebraska in the early 1900s.
“As a little girl I would listen to my grandmother tell stories about growing up here,” Mapel said. “She would talk about Smiley Canyon, and she talked about hearing the train whistle blow and going to Fort Robinson. Just stories about life. It was always fascinating to hear.”
Mapel hadn’t spent much time in the area, however, until a vacation last year, which allowed her to see all the places her grandmother told her about.
“It was so neat driving around and feeling the presence of her there,” she said.
The opportunity to work with the Northwest Nebraska Barn Quilt Trail feels like it has brought her full circle.
“I get to leave a bit of my mark on the community that was so important to (my grandmother).”
Artistic Innovations opened in 2016, and Mapel painted her first barn quilt the next year as part of the Barn Quilts of Dawson County project, hoping to lure customers to her business. The quilts were a great way to get people to slow down and explore the region, bringing revenue to businesses and a deeper understanding of the rural, agricultural lifestyle as visitors see and talk to the people involved, she said.
“It opens up a lot of doors, especially for rural communities.”
When barn quilts were first introduced, they were painted on wood or medium density overlay, an outdoor sign material. Today, most barn quilts are made on aluminum composite, a high-quality outdoor sign material. It’s lighter but still strong and doesn’t suffer from weather wear-and-tear.
Since her first barn quilt, Mapel has presented workshops across the state and written her book to provide quality information on the process. Communities can request a workshop at no charge; they just have to provide a location and 10-15 participants.
More than a dozen of the Northwest Nebraska barn quilts have been delivered, with the rest expected later this spring.
“Some of our Northwest Nebraska locations already have their barn quilts on display, and more will continue to appear as they are delivered,” Rempp said. “We hope local residents and businesses join us in the effort and continue to add barn quilts throughout the region.”
Examples of some of the barn quilts featured on the trail and the locations at which they are available for viewing can be found at https://discovernwnebraska.com/barn-quilt-trail/.