Poco barn quilt

The Chronicles of the Pocahontas County Barn Quilts

When pioneers first settled in the Midwest in the late 19th century, they brought along quilts, packed in trunks, to provide warmth against the cold winds of the prairie. During the Depression, every scrap of cloth was used, often in patchwork quilts. Through the years, neighborhood and church women have enjoyed visiting around the quilting frame and sharing their creations with friends and family. Now, the 21st century is bringing back the memory of quilting in a new way.

The concept of a barn quilt began with Donna Sue Groves of the Ohio Arts Council. To honor her mother, Maxine, and her Appalachian heritage, she wanted to have a painted quilt hung on her barn in Adams County, Ohio. The Barn Quilt Project was created from that desire. Groves suggested that they begin with creating twenty quilt squares that would be placed along a highway to invite visitors to travel through the local countryside. A committee of volunteers worked together to plan the trail, barn owners signed on, and the work began. All that work paid off. The project soon began to attract tourists, and has since encouraged nearly one-half of the original barn owners to become entrepreneurs. This increase in tourism would lead to a large increase in commerce to local businesses. Who would have thought an old family tradition would be of so much interest to so many people?

The success of the barn quilts in Ohio caught the attention of quite a few counties in Iowa. Grundy County was the first in Iowa to join the trend. In the fall of 2003, Pat Gorman attended the National Rural Funders Collaborative conference in Nebraska where she heard Donna Sue Groves speak about the Barn Quilt Project. Gorman immediately knew this would be a good way to get visitors on Highway 20 into her county. Work would begin on the project soon after with barns being identified, funding being found, and proposals being made. In January of 2004, University of Northern Iowa intern, Janet Peterson, started to research the history of barns and quilts in the area in order to create a historical narrative that would be of great interest to county visitors. Now there are more than 69 barn quilts in the county.

Red barn with a barn quilt and American flag

Other counties would follow. Sac County, Greene County, and Pocahontas County would all follow suit between 2005-2006. Barn Quilts became so popular that Tom Vilsack, then-governor of Iowa, designated 2005 to be the “Year of the Barn and Family Farm.” 

The Barn Quilts of Pocahontas County committee formed in August 2005. Leaders in the county thought that barn quilts would increase economic development and tourism as well as boost local pride. Rae Jean Nuehring, a teacher in Pocahontas, was the first to champion the idea in Pocahontas County. Working with the county’s Extension and Outreach director, Nancy Jenson, as well as the owner of Quilting on Main, Bonnie Wood, Nuehring assembled a committee of over 20 people. The Pocahontas County Historical Society even got on board with the idea and funded some of the barn quilts. Now, there are 45 locations with barn quilts throughout the county in dozens of different styles and colors. It’s a beautiful way to highlight the county’s rich heritage, natural resources, and agricultural background.

You can view the entire map of barn quilts in Pocahontas County on the embedded map below. If you have any specific questions, ISU Extension & Outreach Pocahontas County can help. Give them a call at 712-335-3103. When visiting the various barn quilts in the county, why not check out some other History and Heritage locations?

Arts & Culture Posted April 14, 2021

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