SALEM, Ohio – About 70 years ago, Mary Harlan Henderson sat at a quilting frame in her Harrison County farmhouse, carefully piecing patches of fabric into patterns.
The quilt Henderson was making was a pretty piece, with soft shades of pink and yellow and purple. As she worked, dahlias began to take shape and the quilt took on a homey, comfortable look. Each stitch Henderson made seemed to secure the quilt’s place in family history.
After Henderson died, the quilt was passed on to her oldest granddaughter, Barb Besozzi.
For some quilts, the story ends there. But not this one.
On display. As part of the Harrison County Quilt Barn project, a replica of a square from this quilt is now displayed on a barn at the homestead where it was quilted. The barn is one of 20 quilt barns in the county and the project represents the area’s rural heritage.
The idea, which began in Adams County, has caught on in at least 14 other Ohio counties and five states throughout the Appalachian region.
In Harrison County, each of the 15 townships has at least one quilt barn and every quilt used as a model is owned by a Harrison County resident.
Like Besozzi’s quilt, many were sewn in the county and several were sewn on the farm where they are currently displayed.
“This also will hopefully become part of what is known as a ‘clothesline of quilts,’” said Chris Copeland, executive director of Harrison County’s Community Improvement Corporation.
The clothesline of quilts concept was created by Adams County resident Donna Sue Groves, a field representative from the Ohio Arts Council who decorated a barn on her farm with a quilt square from one of her mother’s quilts. From there, the idea expanded until 20 Adams County barns became quilt barns.
Grant funding. Harrison County’s quilt barn project kicked off in the summer of 2005 when the first quilt square was installed at the Harrison County Home. In October 2005, county commissioners received a $2,000 Make a Difference Day grant from the Governor’s Office of Appalachia and Ohio’s Appalachian Country. The grant covered half the cost of installing the next eight quilt squares.
Later, a $1,740 grant from the Ohio Arts Council allowed the county to install eight more squares and three more have gone up since then. With 20 quilt barns now on display, the county has met its goal.
Project coordinators aimed for 20 quilt barns because there are 20 squares in a traditional quilt, Copeland said.
When the quilt barn project began in July 2005, county officials asked residents to submit their quilts for consideration. About 15 people offered 28 quilts to be included in the project.
Around the same time, the county election board was testing some new electronic voting machines and it wasn’t long before the two groups figured out how to help each other.
Coordinators for the quilt barn project took digital pictures of each quilt and put them into the database on the voting machines. Then, during the county fair, local residents had a chance to vote for their favorite quilt.
Winner. In the end, Besozzi’s dahlia pattern earned the most votes.
But voting was the easy part, according to Copeland. Getting the chosen designs from the quilt to the side of a barn required quite a bit of work and a whole lot of volunteers.
Students in the Harrison Central High School industrial arts class started the project by making 8-by-8 foot frames from 2-by-4 boards.
Volunteers, including community members, local 4-H’ers, county junior fair board members and students at the school, painted each quilt square design on sheets of sign board, which were then screwed onto the frames.
The Harrison County engineer’s office coordinated the installation.
“There have been hundreds of people in this county involved in this project,” Copeland said.
The county applied for another Make a Difference Day grant this year and, if approved, the quilt barn project will continue. But the new round of quilt barns wouldn’t be quite the same as the first. The project would include 50 4-by-4 quilt squares with the Ohio Star pattern.
The new quilt squares will be painted Oct. 28 – Make a Difference Day – at Franklin Museum in New Athens. Each star will have a different color combination and the squares will be placed throughout the county.
A celebration. For Besozzi, participating in the quilt barn project seemed like the perfect way to celebrate her family’s background and the county’s history.
“I’m always interested in older things, things that happened years ago – history,” she said.
Like her grandmother, Besozzi is also a quilter and she even has the quilting frame her grandmother used to make the dahlia quilt.
But Besozzi’s interest doesn’t end at her own farm. The quilter and her sister often drive around the county, admiring the clothesline of quilts. And Besozzi is working to spread the idea to nearby counties as well.
Because for people like her, the quilts are more than outdoor art and tourist attractions – they’re symbols of the past and a clear tribute to rural heritage.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)