In the summer of 2018, I was tasked with cataloging the barn quilts in Graves County, Kentucky. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a barn quilt is large painting, usually on plywood, that looks like a quilt block. The paintings are installed on barns or other outbuildings, usually in rural areas. The designs are all as unique as the people who display them, and as the barns on which they’re displayed – I have never seen two that are alike.
The purpose of my mission was to produce a map for the Tourism Commission so that anyone who might want to see the local barn quilts would know where to look. Thinking space might be limited for photographs on the map, I asked how many I should find. The answer I got back was: “All of them.”
“All of them?” I asked. “Do you know where they’re all located?”
“No”, my boss replied. “That’s your ob. You have to go find them.”
At first, it sounded like a simple little thing – a couple of days out driving around taking pictures – but the more I thought about it, I realized it might take more than a couple of days.
“Graves County is a big place,” I said. “And there are a lot of barns.”
She handed me a sheet of paper which listed a handful of addresses. “Here are a few quilts we know about, but you’ll need to find all the rest. I want photos, addresses, and GPS coordinates for every quilt you find.”
I’m not going to lie, there was part of me that saw it as sort of an adventure, like a treasure hunt. It sounded like a fun job, so I gladly agreed.
For three weeks, I spent a few hours each day in my truck searching Graves County for barn quilts. I travelled on every road in the county at least once (with the exception of private roads or roads which happened to be closed due to construction). Many times, I had to double back to see a barn from a different angle if I was unable to catch its opposite side in my mirror, as there are some quilts which are only visible from one direction. I don’t recall the total number of hours or miles I logged, but it was even more than I initially thought it would be. As I said before, Graves County is a big place, and it has a lot of barns.
My method for searching was to divide the county map into quadrants. I then printed each quadrant on a separate sheet of paper and used a yellow highlighter to mark off the roads as I travelled them. I soon realized that not every road was on my map. I started in the northwest corner that first day near Melber and worked my way south, going counterclockwise finally ending three weeks later in the northeast near Symsonia. I didn’t go out every single day, and I only spent three to five hours out at a time.
My results for the first day out were dismal – only one new quilt documented. When I came home that evening, I sent a message to my employer stating there might not be as many quilts as she thought. I had driven around for four hours that day, and I didn’t have much to show for it.
“Keep looking; they’re out there,” was her reply.
On the second day, my search was the same as the first. Day three, however, was much more fruitful. I photographed seven quilts that day.
I noticed that one community would have an abundance of barn quilts, while another would have none at all. I had a couple of solid theories as to why this was, but I finally settled on neighborly influence – when you see how pretty your neighbor’s barn quilt is, it’ll make you want one too!
The quilts themselves are all different – different designs, different colors, different sizes. Some are simple, others intricate. Some of the blocks are even personalized with the owner’s initials. It’s a great way to make your barn stand out, a great form of artistic expression.
Not every quilt is on a barn. I found a few displayed on garages, but those count too.
One of the best things about this quest for me personally was touring the county. I have lived in Graves County for more than forty years and this was the first time I have visited some of the communities, and I certainly had never driven down every road in the county before. It’s humorous to me that despite all my travels, both in the US and overseas, I had not yet visited some places within thirty miles of my home. I suppose many of us are similar in that respect – we have certain places we go and certain routes to get there, and we usually don’t deviate from those routes without reason. Seeing our local barn quilts is a perfect excuse to take the road less traveled.
As I mentioned earlier, not every community in Graves County has barn quilts, so if you follow the barn quilt map exclusively, you will not experience the whole county as I did, but a barn quilt scavenger hunt is still a great day trip (or multiple day trips) to make with friends.
As thorough as I tried to be, I might have missed some. I hope that all the missed quilts will be reported so we can add them to the map in the future – we don’t want to leave any out!
The Barn Quilts of Graves County map is ready now so you can see them all for yourself, and see our beautiful county while you are at it!
To request a Barn Quilts of Graves County map, contact the Mayfield-Graves County Tourism Commission at 270-247-6106.