On a brisk autumn morning perfect for a leisurely drive, I set out from Baltimore en route to Maryland's westernmost county.
With its rolling hills dotted with farms, mountain vistas and cornfields, plus dense forests gleaming with brilliant fall hues, rural Garrett County makes a stunning canvas for Mother Nature's handiwork.
As the miles rolled by, making the city a distant memory, the ever-changing landscape unfolded like a good book.
Each stretch was a revelation filled with quaint finds and charming discoveries: tiny towns with names like Accident; an Amish farmer driving a horse and buggy; herds of sheep and cows grazing in open fields; roadside produce stands with pumpkins for sale.
It all proved the perfect backdrop for exploring the Garrett County Barn Quilt Tour. This self-guided driving trail features 14 rustic barns countywide, each adorned with likenesses of old-fashioned patchwork quilt blocks.
The colorful blocks, painted on glossy sign materials and typically 8-by-8-feet in size, boast patterns with catchy or traditional titles like "Delectable Mountains," "Turkey Tracks" and "Summer Star Flower."
The barn quilts lend an artistic touch to these pastoral environs, while also fostering a broader mission.
"We're trying to preserve the history, culture and Appalachian heritage of this area," says Karen Reckner, executive director of the Garrett County Arts Council and a key organizer of the barn quilt trail. "We also want to promote quilting and other folklife traditions."
Donna Sue Groves, an Appalachian native, is credited with the original barn quilt concept in Ohio. After buying a farm with an old tobacco barn, Groves reportedly had a quilt block painted on the structure to honor her mother, an avid quilter.
The Quilt Trail movement has since taken off in dozens of states, including Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Iowa, North Carolina — and Maryland.
Reckner, who's been quilting for a decade, first read about barn quilts in a magazine and was intrigued. "I said to myself, 'I'd like to see that,'" she recalls. "I thought it would be a fabulous idea to bring here."
In 2007, she joined forces with three other local women to spearhead the project. By early 2008, they'd formed the Barn Quilt Association of Garrett County Inc., enlisting community support from volunteers, local organizations and area officials.
The county's first barn quilt, "LeMoyne Star," made its debut that year. With its red, black, yellow and white palette, the same colors as the state flag, the block breathes fresh life into a barn that was built circa 1898.
I glimpsed an array of styles and designs while meandering along the trail, which offers a cellphone narration or a map with GPS coordinates.
There's the patriotic red, white and blue block off Garrett Highway called the "Ohio Star."
And just a stone's throw from Interstate 68, "The Garrett County Circle of Life" by artist Ginni Neff depicts the county's four seasons. The 12-foot-square block is set against a whitewashed barn.
It's eye-catching, but I didn't linger for very long. Because the barns are spaced at varying intervals, locating each one can take a little time.
But getting there is half the fun. In fact, the experience was a little like a scavenger hunt. Each time I spied a new barn around the bend or down some twisting back road, I felt like gleefully yelling, "Eureka!"
Such positive response to the trail is common, say organizers. And more farms want to participate.
"We have 14 installed so far, and two more will go up soon, weather permitting," says Reckner. "Another eight or 10 barn owners are going through the process."
The group is focused on raising money to hang more barn quilts, which cost about $300 — much of that for paint and other supplies.
For farmers who desire a barn quilt, a committee reviews applications, considering such factors as visibility from the road, the farm's appearance and traffic patterns.
If given the OK, the barn owner or sponsors work with the committee to create a drawing of a prototype, complete with sample colors.
The painted design is eventually installed by volunteers, during what's fondly referred to as a "barn quilt raising."
Ray and Rachel Miller are Amish farmers whose barn was selected for the trail. The family owns a 66-acre dairy farm known as Duntrussen in southern Garrett County.
The Millers, who have eight adult children, raise Holstein cows and various crops, and operate a horse-drawn carriage and sleigh ride business.
Between the farm chores and other daily tasks, there's not much time to think about art. Yet their barn's red-hued "Love Ring" block is near and dear to the family's heart and heritage.
"When they had the public meeting about this, I thought it was interesting," Ray Miller says, "but I wasn't sure if we'd put one on our barn or not."
Then he remembered that his mother-in-law once made special quilts for their six daughters. "She's passed away, but we thought the barn quilt would be a nice tribute to her."
Beyond the sentimental reasons for these quilts, there's an economic component at play. Agritourism is growing in these parts.
"We're not only trying to educate the public and showcase our traditions," says Reckner, "but help local farmers and area businesses."
After a delicious dinner at Savage River Lodge, I made the three-hour drive back to Baltimore.
Along the way, I thought about the barn quilt tour and the people who were so proud to serve as stewards of their collective history.
To paraphrase what one person told me: Each individual square forms a big quilt that links them to each other, the land, and America.
If you go Garrett County Barn Quilt Tour
The driving tour not only offers visitors an opportunity to view barns, but myriad stops and historical sites along the way. The county has eight small towns where visitors can shop for handmade crafts, go antiquing, tour a winery or enjoy home-style cooking.
Garrett County is about a three-hour drive from downtown Baltimore. To get to the county's visitors center in McHenry, follow Interstate 70 to I-68. Take Exit 14A onto Route 219 South. Follow Route 219 for about 13 miles. The visitors center will be on the right.
To follow the barn quilt trail, visitors can pick up a map at the visitors center or download it online at garrettbarnquilts.org or call 877-577-2276. Finally, if you want to hear a narrated barn tour by cellphone, call 301-501-5063.
There's ample lodging in case travelers want to turn a day of barn-hopping into a long weekend. Here are a couple of options:
Savage River Lodge, 1600 Mount Aetna Road, Frostburg, 301-689-3200, savageriverlodge.com. Nestled in the forests of Western Maryland, Savage River Lodge offers relaxation and outdoor activities like hiking, snowshoeing, and fly-fishing in a lush setting. There's a main lodge complete with a large fireplace, 18 private cabins with upscale rustic decor and a restaurant with excellent fare, plus a gift shop. The lodge also welcomes pets.
Wisp Resort Hotel & Conference Center, 290 Marsh Hill Road, McHenry, 301-387-4000, wispresort.com. The Wisp Resort Hotel & Conference Center is located steps away from the mountains and all types of fun, from skiing to a mountain roller coaster. The hotel features nearly 200 guest rooms and suites that overlook the slopes and golf course. There's also a fitness center, heated indoor pool and Jacuzzi. Various packages are available.
Pine Lodge Steakhouse, 1520 Deep Creek Drive, McHenry, 301-387-6500. Steaks, burgers, crab soup and salads in a relaxed casual mountain log lodge. Be sure to sample the house-made desserts, including the seasonal pumpkin crumble.
Spruce Forest Artisan Village, 177 Casselman Road, Grantsville, 301-895-3332. Watch artisans such as bird carver Gary Yoder and woodturner Gene Gillespie and others at work. The artisans create handcrafted pottery, glassware, metal works and more. The historic village, located near the Casselman River Bridge (built in 1813), also has a gift shop and a restaurant that serves down-home fare.
Nearby outdoor attractions such as Deep Creek Lake, the Wisp Resort and Adventure Sports Center International offer activities including fishing, skiing and whitewater rafting.
Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, 15 Visitors Center Drive, McHenry, 301-387-4386. Go to visitdeepcreek.com or visitmaryland.org.
More barn quilt tours
Want to see more barn quilts? Here are some places for viewing them in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Northeastern Pennsylvania. The Quilted Corners of Wyalusing is a self-guided driving tour that is part of a public art project. It offers visitors a peek at historic barns and local businesses adorned with the artistry of traditional quilts. There's also a cellphone audio tour to give visitors a little more information about the history of the towns as they go. Maps are available at the Wyalusing Chamber office at 20 Main St, Wyalusing, Pa. Go to wyalusing.net/barn-quilt-tour.htm
Western Pennsylvania. In the Laurel Highlands region, the barn quilt trail travels through the countryside. It's a self-guided driving trail with 21 barns. Go to pabarnquilts.com for descriptions of each quilt as well as recipes from the farms, etc., and a map with addresses and GPS coordinates.
Frederick County. Sisto's Sewing & Quilting Studio has a large quilt patch painted onto the side of its building at 1911 N. Market St. The studio is also hosting an event this fall in which they are replicating Civil War quilt patterns and donating the quilts to wounded American troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. For more information, call 301-695-0643 or go to sistosquilting.com
—Donna M. Owens