The Greene County "Barn Quilt" project is now on public display, with nine colorful and traditional quilt patterns – each painted on a wood frame at least 8-feet square - in place on ag buildings around the county.
Two new "barn quilts" were placed Saturday, Aug. 20, to go along with the seven that were hung earlier in August. And "Phase II" of the project begins soon, with plans for four more to go up before Christmas. After that, "who knows how many we might end up with?" said Carla Offenburger, a member of the organizing committee. "It just depends on how popular the project becomes. There’s really no limit on the number of quilt patterns we can come up with."
Curious motorists have already been slowing down to have a look, and often turning around for a second look, at the nine barn quilts now in place - on buildings located along Greene County’s main highways and paved secondary roads.
For those who were skeptical at first about whether this project could turn into a genuine attraction for the county are already seeing the benefits. After all, who doesn’t like quilts? And who doesn’t like barns?
But it's even more than that. The concept showcases barns, quilting, farm life, art and a drive through the beautiful countryside, too. In Iowa's Grundy County, which is just west of Waterloo, in Sac County, which is midway between Sioux City and Fort Dodge, and in a wide area of southern Ohio, these "barn quilt" tours have drawn nice but manageable crowds in cars and tour buses.
The thought of bringing the project to Greene County began with Judy and John Clark, of rural Scranton, who had been collecting news items about the barn quilts in Grundy County for months. Judy Clark is an avid quilter, and John serves on the board of directors of the Greene County Development Corp. (GCDC), and he recognized the potential for tourism.
They brought their idea to Offenburger, who has worked on special projects for GCDC. She says she remembered hearing a special report on public radio about the same program in the spring of 2004 and thinking, "What an odd project." Meanwhile, Angie Duncan, of the regional economic development agency Midwest Partnership, had received an invitation to attend a one-day seminar on the barn quilts of Grundy County.
So in early March, the Clarks, Duncan and Offenburger all headed to Grundy Center to hear and see how the projects work.
The Grundy County project began in 2003, modeled after the idea that originated in Adams County, Ohio, a few years earlier. Out there, Donna Sue Groves of the Ohio Arts Council thought the region’s many weathered tobacco barns looked almost like art by themselves. She decided to "encourage local artists to paint traditional quilt squares on the barns, similar to the way barns were once painted with logos, such as the familiar Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisements," according to a brochure.
Word began to spread by media and by word of mouth, and the barn quilts became "a way to capture traffic off a busy four-lane highway as it snaked through the economically depressed area of this southern Ohio county," the brochure explained. "The project began to attract tourists, and has since encouraged nearly one-half of the original barn owners to become entrepreneurs. Both rural and city dwellers are benefiting from this folk art display in numerous ways, especially in the area of increased commerce to existing retail merchants and service businesses."
In the fall of 2003, a similar project began in Grundy County in Iowa after Pat Gorman, a field specialist with Iowa State University Extension there, was driving home from a conference in Nebraska where she heard the Ohio Arts Council’s Groves tell the story.
Gorman realized that this type of project would be an excellent way to attract visitors off of newly four-laned U.S. Highway 20 going through Grundy County. Before the highway construction was completed, thousands of vehicles drove meandering routes through the county every day, and stopping in many of the communities. But when the new four-lane was completed, most of the traffic was streaming directly through the county without stopping.
The Greene County delegation learned that the concept can also work for communities and counties that aren't necessarily losing visitors to new highway development. It can be a tourist attraction on its own, one that can include all parts of a county, including both well-traveled highways and less traveled roads.
Duncan noted that after Adams County in Ohio had initial success with the idea, 10 other counties in that region also initiated barn quilt projects, and that served to bring only more tourists. "And Grundy County in Iowa has seen a significant increase in bus tour traffic, with many more scheduled this year than last," she said.
Meanwhile, Sac County in western Iowa started its project this year, too, and now has 14 barn quilts in place along a 108-mile route through the county.
It's likely visitors coming from a distance will wind up doing the barn quilts of both Sac and Greene Counties on the same trip, as only about 30 miles separates them.
As they developed the project in Greene County, the committee started scouting the local area and, as a starter, identified nine barns or other "authentic" ag buildings positioned on or near paved roads in scattered locations around the county. They tried to make sure the barns are easily viewable from both directions. They asked the farm owners to volunteer their buildings as backdrops for the barn quilts, focusing first on locations along paved roads, because that’s easier driving for cars and buses. However, as the tours become more popular, farms along gravel roads that have interesting outbuildings will eventually be added, too.
This first phase of the project - getting the nine barn quilts up on display and then organizing and promoting a driving tour - has been budgeted at $2,400. Corporate donors so far are Greene County Development Corporation, Tri-County Lumber, West Central Cooperative, Don's Ace Hardware, the Greene County Farm Bureau, the Jefferson Bee & Herald newspapers, and Midland Power Cooperative. There are many individual donors as well.
Donations are still needed. You can be a "purple ribbon quilt winner" for a donation of $250 or above, a “blue ribbon quilt winner” for a donation of $200-to-250 - and those gifts will make you barn quilt sponsors recognized in the brochure that visitors will use. Of course, smaller donations are welcomed, too.
Over two dozen different volunteers spent evenings for four weeks helping build the large quilt frames, paint the white backgrounds, then do the intricate measuring, taping and painting of the actual quilt patterns, on a scale large enough to fill the 8-foot by 8-foot space.
The work crew that hung the nine barn quilts has included John and Judy Clark, Jim Funcke, Dale Stephens and Midland Power employees Dennis Kinsey and Doug Delp. They used two of the electric cooperative’s boom trucks to raise the barn quilts into place on the face of the buildings, then used bolts, cables and big screws to secure them.
For more information about, or a map brochure for, the "Barn Quilts of Greene County," you can contact Judy Clark at 712-652-3674. To contribute to the barn quilts project, send your donation to "The Barn Quilts of Greene County" c/o Judy Clark, 772 – 240th Street, Scranton, Iowa 51462.