ENID, Okla. — When you think of quilts, nostalgia usually sets in and you start down memory lane about your mother, grandmother, aunt or a loved one who used to make them and the memories stitched into each piece.
Quilts serve an important piece of our country’s heritage as they offer insight into the social, cultural and economic history of an area.
So where do barn quilts fit in to the American fabric?
For those not familiar, barn quilts are not actual fabric quilts hanging on the sides of barns — they usually are 4-foot or 8-foot wooden quilt blocks designed to mimic the quilts of yesteryear.
These modern folk art expressions each have a story as to why that pattern, color and placement were chosen. Many barn quilts are created in memory of a family quilt.
For the past two decades, several counties in the U.S. have developed barn quilt trails to encourage tourism and economic development.
According to Suzi Parron, a leading expert on barn quilts, the first quilt trail was created in Adams County, Ohio, in 2001. A woman named Donna Sue Groves wanted to honor her mother, Maxine, and her quilting art by painting a quilt block on their tobacco barn.
In talking with friends and neighbors, Groves realized the project had wide appeal and also could be beneficial to the area as a means to bring tourism and economic development. Thus she worked with her community to create a “clothesline of quilts” to include her personal tribute, hence the beginning of the quilt barn trails. The Adams County trail was completed in 2003 and features 20 quilt patterns found on a typical sampler.
“It’s relatively new to Oklahoma,” said Lynda Latta, an Oklahoma State University Extension educator in Ellis County and the person who introduced barn quilts to the state. She and her colleagues were traveling to West Virginia for a national family and consumer sciences meeting, and she saw a number of barn quilts on old tobacco barns along the way.
“I saw it as an opportunity for rural economic development and tourism,” an inspired Latta said. After doing a bit of research, she discovered Oklahoma was one of two states that didn’t have a barn quilt trail, “and we were not going to be beat by Rhode Island,” she kidded.
To Latta, introducing barn quilts to Oklahoma seemed like a natural partnership since quilting is so prominent in the Midwest. In fact, Hennessey, a rural town south of Enid, has the largest quilt store in the state.
As it happened, Parron was in Oklahoma City teaching a workshop that winter, so Latta rounded up a few people, including artist Recia Garcia of Vici, and they attended and met with Parron to discuss their idea.
Parron helped them with a focus group about a possible barn quilt trail in the Red Carpet Country (RCC) region, toured a sample barn quilt trail in Vici, and then taught a workshop in Woodward specifically to jumpstart barn-quilt making with a trail in mind. Red Carpet Country is one of six regions in the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation, and represents 16 counties in Northwest and North-central Oklahoma.
One of the very first buildings to hang a barn quilt for the RCC barn quilt trail was in downtown Vici, Garcia said. Marshall Bittner, who at the time ran a barbecue restaurant in one of the three buildings he owned on the main street (Broadway), agreed, and today there are 18 barn quilts displayed on his buildings alone.
Garcia proceeded to host two Barn Quilt Bonanzas in Vici prior to the pandemic and is actively spearheading the effort to add more barn quilts in the area. There is a map and/or website in the works with the community to help drive visitors to more than 100 quilt blocks throughout town and the countryside. She is passionate about this modern folk art and the economic impact it has on her hometown.
“I’m a product of 4-H, to be of service,” Garcia said. Both of her grandparents homesteaded near Vici, her mother graduated from Vici and so did she. Many of the barn quilts she has designed and hung around town reflect her own heritage.
“I want it to mean something,” she said.
With barn quilts popping up everywhere since 2017 in the RCC region, Carla Burdick, who serves as RCC’s executive director, produced a Barn Quilt Trail Guide in conjunction with OSU Extension under Latta’s guidance and published the first one in the spring of 2022. The second one is slated to appear in the summer of 2023.
Unfortunately, Burdick lamented, such a map is outdated once it prints. Latta agreed that it can be difficult keeping up with barn quilts as new ones go up without being registered with RCC or OSU Extension, and old ones come down due to property being sold or original owners dying.
Another hurdle in promoting barn quilts and related trails is how to keep it current. While each community or county may track local barn quilts with a map or website, Latta said there is not a cohesive and consistent way to update within the RCC region through a centralized, dedicated barn quilt map or website. Burdick agreed, adding it’s a full-time job, and at present time, there is not enough manpower to focus on what is just a small piece of the overall tourism efforts for the area.
Nevertheless, Burdick said Kay County (which includes Blackwell, Ponca City and Braman) leads with the most barn quilts on this side of the state. Following close behind Kay County are Ellis County (Shattuck, Arnett and Gage) and Dewey County (Vici, Leedey and Seiling).
“It’s a great way to bring visitors in,” said Sherry Buellesfeld, the tourism director for Blackwell’s Chamber of Commerce. In 2017, Top of Oklahoma Museum partnered with Blackwell’s tourism board to create Top of Oklahoma Barn Quilt Trail. As it stands, the town of Blackwell alone has over 100 barn quilts to attract travelers to Kay County, including the newest addition of a 40-foot barn quilt on Blackwell’s co-op grain bin.
Top of Oklahoma Barn Quilt Trail features 62 unique barn quilts representing all 50 states and more, along with 40 geocaches near many of the barn quilt locations. Those who complete Oklahoma’s first-ever geo-trail will receive a geo-coin, Buellesfeld said.
More and more communities in RCC such as Covington and Hennessey are approaching their local OSU Extension educators for workshops on how to create barn quilts and spawn tourism in their area.
“It’s no different than statues, museums or murals,” Burdick said. She added many rural towns are looking for ways to encourage visitors to spend more than a day or two in their area to experience local, shop local and eat local, and barn quilt trails are a perfect way to quickly become a must-see destination.
“It gets people into communities and experience small town Oklahoma,” Burdick said.
Joy Rhodes, Garfield County’s OSU Extension educator who teaches barn quilt workshops in the Enid area, said making barn quilts is a fairly easy thing to do, plus it is relatively inexpensive.
“It can tie back to your heritage by replicating the quilt grandma made, or it can tie to local history,” she said.
Barn quilts can be any pattern or color and any size, from a 2-foot for a residential fence or in a window to an 8-foot for a business building or side of a barn. Rhodes said some people choose to make several small ones for their home and change them out each season.
“It’s grown so much,” Latta said about the explosion of barn quilts and barn quilt trails around the Red Carpet Country region, and even throughout the state. Barn quilt trails in Southern Oklahoma along the Red River have taken on a life of their own, having been prompted by Latta’s initial efforts.
“There’s a lot of interest,” she said, adding the surge is a direct result of people seeing barn quilts and reminiscing about the quilts their grandmothers made, plus several teens are picking up quilting skills through 4-H.
Latta dreams that one day the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation and TravelOK will take on the barn quilt trails just like fishing and golf trails due to the massive movement. She believes barn quilt trails are the next destination experience in Oklahoma — like Route 66 — and could be an economic boost for the state.
“It’s our goal to continue to draw people to rural Oklahoma through barn quilts,” she said.
Trail guide, workshops
Red Carpet Country’s Barn Quilt Trail Guide is available at Visit Enid or any other Oklahoma visitors center, as well as online at redcarpet country.com.
Top of Oklahoma Barn Quilt Trail map and geocaching trail guide are available through the Blackwell museum or online at cityofblackwell.com.
Learn more about the barn quilts in Vici by stopping at City Hall, 106 Broadway.
To take an upcoming barn quilt workshop in the Enid area, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church will host a barn quilt workshop on Jan. 14 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $45; register online no later than Dec. 15 for this fundraising event at stpaulsenid.com.
Garfield County OSU Extension Office will host two separate barn quilt workshops on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4, each from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $40 each; register via phone by Jan. 27 at (580) 237-1228.