By Cassandra M. Vanhooser
Sapphire and emerald. Ruby and gold. The pieces of the patchwork quilt glow like gemstones in the soft afternoon light. I smile as I recognize a favorite pattern from my childhood – the Star of Bethlehem.
But there’s something different about this star. Instead of being pieced with love and stitched with thread, this quilt is painted on wood and hangs beneath the eave of a faded red-and-white barn. I stop, as many have, to snap a photograph and relish my find.
“It’s a gut reaction,” says Lindy Turner, coordinator of the Clinch-Powell Resource Conservation and Development Council, the organization that oversees the Appalachian Quilt Trail project. “Quilts speak so much of home and family. Many of us had mothers and grandmothers who quilted, and they passed that piece of warmth down to us. Quilts are part of who we are. They speak to everyone.”
Hanging historic quilt patterns on old barns – some humbled by time, others lovingly tended – simply marries two of the best known symbols of rural life.
“It takes the handiwork of farm women and the handiwork of farm men and showcases them together,” Turner says. “People can’t wait for us to add the next barn.”
The Appalachian Quilt Trail boasts more than 130 quilt barns. Headquartered in Rutledge, it stretches some 300 miles across 19 counties, piecing together farm stands, art galleries, and small businesses from Englewood in McMinn County to Kyles Ford in Hancock County.
“In order to bring economic development to the backroads you have to ring cash registers,” Turner says. “On our trail, we take you past all kinds of beautiful scenery, but we also direct you to the cash registers at local farms and small businesses.”
Roy Settle, coordinator of the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council in Jonesborough, helped start a quilt trail in the far northeast counties of the state. More than 80 quilts now dress barns in Carter, Greene, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties.
“We thought this was something that locals would like to see,” Settle says, marveling at the trail’s success, “but it’s outpaced all of our expectations.”
Not only does the trail support local businesses, Settle notes a number of unexpected benefits. School kids have gotten involved, barns are being repainted and restored, families have started to record their histories, and community pride has soared. “I see it as a win, win, win situation,” he muses. “At the end of the day, this protects farmland, keeps farmers in business and supports our communities. That’s what is important.”
Ron Dawson agrees. He and wife Elizabeth own St. John’s Milling Co. in Watauga, a community near Johnson City. At 231 years and counting, it’s Tennessee’s oldest continuously operating business. A true country store, the shop stocks “a little bit of everything,” including wooden toys, sourwood honey, apple butter, cast-iron skillets and handmade quilts, as well as custom-ground feed and vet supplies. The Little Dutch Girl and Boy quilt hanging from their barn across the street reflects the family’s Pennsylvania Dutch roots. But the best part, Ron says, is that visitors get to meet people who live and work in East Tennessee. “This trail gives a person a chance to get off the main drag and see how real people live.”
The idea continues to spread throughout the state. The Upper Cumberland Quilt Trail, a loop of six painted barns in Putnam County, is the state’s newest addition. Organizers Barbara Tollison and Ruth Dyal admit they borrowed the idea from East Tennessee, but their trail also enhances the annual quilt festival, held in Algood each September.
“Ruth and I got in my car and took a drive around the countryside,” Barbara explains. “We made a note of the prettiest barns and asked the owners to participate. We used local quilters and honored them by using their patterns. Our local artists and school kids did the painting.”
“It’s hard to resist when Barbara asks you to do something,” says Ruth, who confesses a special fondness for quilts. A native of Germany, she married a military man from Crab Orchard, Tennessee, and made her first trip to the state some 40 years ago.
“When I first came here to meet my husband’s family, I was a foreigner,” Ruth says. “When we got ready to leave, my husband’s aunt gave me a quilt. It was a family quilt, nothing fancy. But it was a sign of acceptance. To me, quilts will always be a part of Tennessee.”
Barbara agrees, but says that quilts transcend state lines. “It’s a part of country life,” she notes. “I grew up in Alabama, and I played under the quilt frames when I was a child. It’s really a part of our heritage.”
Ruth, who was recently named executive director of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association, hopes surrounding counties will soon start quilt trails of their own. “It’s important that we show off our area,” she says. “It’s just so beautiful here.”
Follow the Trails
You can find maps, brochures and trail information at local visitors centers, but the best way to plan your trip is to surf the net before you go. These sites offer details about barns, quilt patterns and local attractions.
Appalachian Quilt Trail, (888) 775-4278
Celtic Quilt Trail in Houston County
A Stitch in Time: National Civil War Quilt Trail in Stewart County, (931) 202-5706
Northeast Tennessee Quilt Trail, (423) 753-4441
Quilts in the Smokies Trail, (877) 237-3847
Southern Middle Tennessee Quilt Trail, (931) 762-6913 ext. 3
Upper Cumberland Quilt Trail, (931) 284-1773