If you love quilts, chances are that you also love a quilter—someone whose interest in quilts or proficiency at making them inspired your own fascination. For Donna Sue Groves, the creative spark behind the American Quilt Barn Trail, that someone was her mother, Nina Maxine Groves.
Donna Sue’s first memory of her mother making quilts came when she was five-years old, and Nina Maxine made her a doll quilt. Nina Maxine had learned to quilt from her own mother and grandmother (and they from theirs for generations back) in West Virginia.
Appalachian resilience and resourcefulness were a part of Nina Maxine’s heritage—stretching a dime and making the most of what she had were bred-in qualities. She learned to knit using coat hanger wire and she sewed and knitted all of Donna Sue’s clothing and sweaters, expertly duplicating expensive store-bought styles at a fraction of their cost.
When Donna Sue and her brother were growing up, Nina Maxine (a school teacher) made up a car game for them to play to pass the time while driving to visit their grandparents, as they frequently did. They called it the barn game, and it involved spotting barns along the road and scoring points based on such things as the barn’s type, shape, or color.
Donna Sue recalls her mother sitting in the front seat, always working on a quilt block or other type of handwork, and making the game into an impromptu history lesson, generating discussion on who might have built the barns and why. In this manner, barns and quilts and a mother’s love became inextricably bound together in Donna Sue’s mind.
Fast forward to 1989. Nina Maxine, now a widow, had retired from her teaching career. Donna Sue had divorced and her son had graduated high school. Both women agreed that it was time for a change, and together they purchased a 28-acre, non-working farm in Adams County, Ohio, located in the southern part of the state. On the farm was a type of barn that Donna Sue had never noticed in all her years of playing the barn game: a tobacco barn.
Furthermore, she recalls saying that it was “the ugliest barn I have ever seen!” She promised Nina Maxine that she would paint a quilt square on the barn to spruce it up and honor her mother’s quiltmaking talent.
It took twelve years to make good on her promise. At that time, Donna Sue was working for the Ohio Arts Council, and she had seen firsthand the power of murals and public art pieces. Donna Sue had told many of her friends and coworkers about her idea of painting a quilt pattern on her barn, and they encouraged her to get it done.
She then hit upon the happy idea of expanding the project to other barns in the county, creating a driving trail (the barn game with a twist!) as a means of supporting local artists, generating tourist traffic, and benefiting the economy. On a more personal level, she saw the project as a means of paying homage to both her mother and her Appalachian mountain heritage.
In 2001, Donna Sue set up a planning committee for the project. Along with representatives from the tourist bureau, chamber of commerce, festival promoters, artists, and barn owners, Nina Maxine served as the group’s quilt expert. It was she who suggested a trail of 20 quilt barns (based on a common number of blocks used in a bed-sized quilt); she who recommended that the murals depict geometric patterns in order to be most graphically “readable” from the road; she who came up with a selection of 30 blocks from which to make the final choices; she who drafted the patterns onto draft paper and colored them in by hand so that the committee could get a good idea of what the finished products might look like; and she who worked with the artists. The first quilt barn became a reality in October of that year.
The project was a runaway success. Neighboring counties (and eventually other states) asked to join in and create their own quilt barn trails. Donna Sue encouraged them all, asking only that they share any lessons learned with other interested parties and telling them, “If you plan a barn quilt project in your county, please remember my momma, Nina Maxine Groves.”
To date, the American Quilt Barn Trail stretches across 26 states, includes 98 dedicated driving trails, and features an estimated 2100-plus quilt squares. And Nina Maxine finally got a quilt square painted on her barn: a Snail’s Trail centered above the barn’s doors.
Throughout it all, 81-year-old Nina Maxine has continued to quilt. She teaches quilting, delivers lectures, and conducts workshops. She has donated over a dozen quilts for community fundraisers. Her work has been exhibited throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana and has been featured in magazines and newspapers. In 2008, the Bob Evans Homestead Museum featured over 50 of her quilts in a one-woman show for an eight-month period.
Perhaps the quilt-related effort for which Nina Maxine is most noted, however, was not rendered with needle and thread, but rather with paint and barn board. Without Nina Maxine’s influence and inspiration, Donna Sue would never have played the barn game, and the American Quilt Barn Trail might never have been started.
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Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
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Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
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Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
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Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
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Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
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Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
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