Following a Barn Quilt Trail Through Nebraska
In Following the Barn Quilt Trail(Swallow Press, 2016), Suzi Parron, in cooperation with Donna Sue Groves, documented the massive public art project known as the barn quilt trail. The first of these projects began in 2001, when Groves and community members created a series of twenty painted quilt squares in Adams County, Ohio. Since then, barn quilts have spread throughout forty-eight states and several Canadian provinces.
Renae Kamler and I had been corresponding for years, beginning in 2010 when her barn quilt was installed. Renae told me about life on the farm with her husband and children; I filled in with bits and pieces about my travels and my new life with Glen. As soon as I knew we would be traveling, Renae and Fillmore County, Nebraska, were added to the schedule. I was excited to see the barn quilts but also eager to finally meet a woman who had become a friend. Glen and I drove just a couple of hundred miles north to a tiny RV park in Geneva, Nebraska. I’d developed the habit of photographing the welcome signs at each state border, and as this one approached, Glen just had to say it. “Suzi, I’ve the feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.”
“Hmmm, tell that to the wind,” I answered. If anything, the dusty bursts were growing more and more fierce.
The next day, Renae and I set out to see the barn that she considers “the coolest barn in the county.” I was equally taken with the Tatro barn and its row of what I thought were round windows along the front. On closer inspection, they were actually dark blue circles rimmed with white. The two red and white square cupolas atop the roof were much fancier than any I had seen in the past. Alice Tatro said they had been replaced more than once, most recently in 2012 when one blew off. “It took a brave soul to get up there and put those in place,” Alice said. The number 19 is painted on the left cupola and 05 on the right, representing the date that the barn was built. On one end of the barn, an Evening Star is painted in matching colors to accent the ventilation louvers, with a Morning Star on the other. The barn’s condition belied its age, as the shingles have been replaced multiple times. After a couple of paintings, the sides of the barn had been covered with steel, but the original look remained in place.
Alice and her husband, Ronald, who passed away in 2008, had spent about fifty years on the farm, and the barn was their pride and joy. It was constructed using pegs without a single nail. I asked about those circles, and Alice thought they might have been open at one time but were in their current state when the Tatros bought the property.
When asked to add a quilt block to the already picturesque barn, Alice was pleased, and the choice of pattern was an easy one. The 4T is a quilt pattern that I had seen before, but it is also the registered brand of the Tatro farm. Each of the T’s was one of the four Tatro daughters, who used the barn for their 4-H lambs. The barn quilt served to grab the attention of travelers and created awareness of the burgeoning quilt trail. “That barn really put us on the map,” Renae said.
Renae and I left Alice and drove through the county; there were several miles between towns, so we had time to talk about Renae’s barn quilt and the quilt trail. “My husband, Pat, thought I was crazy,” Renae said. Pat reluctantly approved of the quilt block but was adamant that nothing pastel was going on his barn. In fact, he had definite ideas about the colors. Renae said, “It needed to be red to go with the barn, and blue to go with the silos, so something patriotic is what it had to be.”
Renae wanted a simple pattern for her first block, so Fourth of July was the perfect choice. Daughters Madeline and Malinda helped with the painting and went on to help their mom with another patriotic design — American Pride — in honor of the town of Shickley’s 125th celebration. Both barn quilts fit the town’s theme, “Home of the free in a big little town.”
Grandmother’s Quilt Block
Renae had initially wanted to create a barn quilt to honor her grandmother, Matilda Quandt. Renae remembers walking the block to her grandmother’s house from school each day for lunch. Unless Matilda had guests, she was always gardening and quilting. She was partial to Log Cabin quilts and pieced one each year, whether for her own pleasure or as a lap quilt for her church. The children also went to Grandmother Matilda’s after school. Everything was moved from the den once her grandmother had a quilt top pieced. “Out went the desk and chair, the little fold-flat couch, the treadle sewing machine to the dining room. We set up some chairs with the quilt frame on top, and she would work her way around the quilt sitting on the kitchen stool.” Renae’s mother was a farm wife, so the afternoon pickup at Grandma’s eased the crunch of driving several miles to school to retrieve the children at a particular time, something Renae didn’t truly appreciate until she became a farm wife and mother herself.
Some months after my visit, the seventh-grade class at the local middle school painted a Log Cabin barn quilt for the Kamlers, dedicated to Renae’s Grandmother Matilda. Under the guidance of teacher Rebecca Jorgenson, the children applied the solid colors and then added layers of patterns to make each log in the block look like fabric. Grandmother’s Quilt block was hung on a corn crib on one of the Kamler’s sections of land where Renae gets to see it daily.
The quilt block has become a tribute not only to Grandma Quandt but also to Renae’s mom, Lavilla, and Lavilla’s mother, Christie Olson. Renae said, “I learned many, many things from those women. Cooking, cleaning, canning, sewing, gardening, butchering, all aspects of farm life. This heritage of the women in my life is a lesson I need to keep sharing with my two girls, because they come from a long line of strong, capable, hardworking, faithful farm women, and it is a line that they need to continue. I see and feel all of that when I look at that block on the corn crib.”
I love a large barn quilt mounted on a smaller building so that the entire surface is plastered with brilliant color, so the South Dakota Star quilt block on the Ozenbaughs’ granary grabbed my attention right away. Katrina Ozenbaugh agreed that the large block has a great impact: “Whichever side I pull into the horseshoe driveway, it’s the first thing I see. Wham! I love it!”
South Dakota Star
Katrina was born and raised in South Dakota but came to Nebraska for college and remained once she married. Her quilt block honors her mother, Donna, who Katrina says, “was the one who taught me to be a lady and do my sewing and all of the things a good farm wife needs to do.” Donna went to college to be a home economics teacher and shared that passion with her children. Katrina grew up learning to cross-stitch and can jelly and pickles and raise a garden; she also learned how to embroider a tea towel for a quick gift. The family did not participate in 4-H but Mom always made sure they would complete a cross-stitch project or sewing project each summer to enter in the county fair. “She is a super-cool woman, such a strong person,” Katrina said.
The quilt block was actually the second one painted with Katrina’s mom in mind, as Donna had received a Blazing Star barn quilt from her husband as a surprise gift. That quilt block represented two strong women: Donna’s grandmother, who started the horse ranch where they lived; and her mother, who was born in that house and rode her horse to school each day.
In 2013, Katrina’s husband, Mitchell, followed in his father-in-law’s footsteps, with the barn quilt a surprise birthday gift for his wife. Katrina got a text message on the morning of her thirtieth birthday letting her know of the gift that awaited, and she and Mitchell drove up to South Dakota to get the square and haul it back.
The South Dakota Star is the perfect pattern to represent the connection between Katrina and her mother, who Katrina says taught her the importance of giving and volunteering and instilled a belief that family and faith are above all else. “It’s perfect because it is South Dakota, of course, and then because it is a star. Even though we are in separate places, we are still under the same sky.”
The next day Renae and I had just a few quilt blocks to see, but I was concerned that I had fallen behind on some errands during a hectic week of travel. Renae willingly added a couple of stops to our route, but we found the post office closed for lunch. I was already late getting the books into the mail but, of course, I understood that we needed to move on. Renae solved the problem with smalltown ingenuity. We crossed the street and enlisted the help of Renae’s friend Evelyn, who works nearby; she agreed to mail my packages and then delivered the change for my postage when she came to my talk in Geneva that night. Such an act of kindness to a stranger.
Alice Tatro attended the event that evening as well. I mentioned my frustration that the wind had kept me from being able to prime the boards that I desperately needed for an upcoming barn quilt painting workshop. Without hesitation, Alice informed me that the church social hall was at my disposal, that I could just stop by and get the key when I was ready to paint. Once again I was amazed and touched by the generosity we encountered in the small towns along the quilt trail.
At the edge of Wilber, Nebraska, I was greeted by a sign that read, “Vitame Vas, Welcome to Wilber,” and by another that proudly claimed Wilber’s status as the Czech capital of the United States. White-painted benches adorned with Czech phrases lined each row of red brick shops and businesses, and polka music played from speakers along the sidewalks, creating a festive, almost celebratory, mood. Of course, I was visiting Wilber because quilt blocks are part of the décor. White planter boxes were sprinkled throughout the tiny downtown on street corners and in front of local shops, with a colorful quilt block blossoming forth from each one.
The front of Nancy Linhart’s home is decorated with wooden cutouts of hearts, along with a heart with the house number on it. After hugs, Nancy explained, “I put a heart on everything I do because the Czech Republic is the heart of Europe.” Nancy’s home is also at the heart of her life, as it was where she was born and raised.
Nancy and her friend Shirley had visited the nearby fairgrounds in Gage County, where they saw an array of quilt blocks. She contacted Donna Sue Groves and was inspired to bring the project to her hometown. The flower boxes had been downtown for years, having been purchased by area residents. The tradition of decorating the planters with seasonal and holiday colors suggested that they might be a fitting home for small quilt blocks. Nancy drew the designs and the twenty-one blocks were painted in Nancy’s cabin over a month’s period. The Czech colors of red, blue, yellow, and green predominate and serve as another means of extending a welcome to the charming town.
Nancy sent me on my way with a dozen of her homemade kolaches, a traditional Czech pastry. She said that there was always some debate as to how to spell the word, but without a doubt they were delicious. Ten out of the twelve made it back to the bus, where Glen pronounced them, “mighty tasty.”
I spotted an article online whose headline read, “Barn Quilt comes to Friend Residence.” I thought that Friend was an interesting surname and went on to read through the article about a quilt with dozens of names embroidered onto it. A couple of months later, I heard from Carla Cross, who began to tell me about her quilt block. I realized that hers was the quilt about which I had read — and that Friend was a community in Nebraska rather than a family.
A quick look at the map revealed that Friend was not too much of a detour as I returned to the bus from Wilber. As I turned past the “Cross Farms” sign, I saw the large metal barn and the barn quilt. Carla was on the front steps before I got out of the car, ready to share the rich story. The tale was not only that of the quilt but of the incredible journey on which Carla has embarked to uncover its history Carla spoke excitedly as she recounted her purchase of an ugly blue flannel quilt at an estate auction. She had a business selling furniture and collectibles, and the quilt looked like something that might be used as cushioning for her goods as Carla drove to various markets. It was a few months before Carla would realize just what a bargain her five dollars had bought.
The quilt was purchased in October but was laid aside until the first of the year when Carla was getting ready to go to a show. She gave the comforter a much needed washing, and as she held it up to fold it, she could see a circular shape in the light that shone through. Her curiosity was piqued, so Carla used scissors to cut a few stitches on one edge. Peeking inside, she saw a signature embroidered on cloth. The next four hours were spent ripping those stitches until the Dresden Plate quilt was revealed.
Each block of the pattern had four signatures stitched onto it. Soon, Carla and her husband, Ken, were going square to square listing the names. “Now I know them all,” Carla said, and she explained how that came about.
Carla placed an article in the local newspaper to locate anyone who might have information about the quilt. She hoped to trace its origins, and she was especially puzzled by one thing: “I wanted to find out why it was covered.” Carla then began searching online for each of the names, but some were difficult to discern
She remembered, “We would be looking at names and wonder, ‘Is that an E or an A?’” One unusual name stood out, and when an article about the one hundredth birthday party of Velzoe Brown appeared in a California newspaper, Carla got in touch with the reporter who provided an email address for Velzoe’s neighbor; as soon as Carla heard from her, she knew she had found one of the original quilters.
“Velzoe has talked about that quilt for years,” the neighbor said. “She wondered what happened to it.” Soon a friend of Velzoe’s was located to help with phone contact, and an elated Velzoe had a request. “Can you come to California?” she asked. “I have to look at the names on that quilt before I die.”
“Who was I to say no?” Carla asked, and her husband said that if visiting Velzoe meant that much to her he would fly her out for Valentine’s Day. When he suggested that Carla check online for ticket prices, she admitted that she already knew exactly how much the flight would cost. In February 2011 , just four months after purchasing the quilt, Carla set out for California.
Velzoe turned out to be quite an interesting figure. She played piano, drums, and three other instruments and had traveled in an all-girl band at the age of sixteen. The baby grand piano in her music room was testament to her place as an early pioneer in women’s music.
On seeing the quilt, Velzoe got out her magnifying glass and carefully looked at each block, telling stories about each woman whose name she read. “This one was my mom’s friend. This one was a teacher. That one was married to a banker.” Velzoe told Carla that the quilt had been made in 1936 for Agnes Bena when she was sick. Each of her friends made one square and embroidered her name, and then Althea Rusk McIntosh put the quilt together.
Carla and I watched the video of one of their meetings. “This is a worldshaking thing, like finding Noah’s Ark or King Tut’s Tomb,” Velzoe declared. A photographer from the local paper was on hand to document the event, but Velzoe was having none of that. “There’s a story here,” she told him. “You get your boss on the phone.” Carla said that a call to the paper’s editor had a reporter on the way immediately to record the moment in history.
Carla’s meeting with Velzoe took place just a few weeks before Velzoe’s 101st birthday in March 2011. Velzoe passed away that May, and Carla was glad that she had insisted on making the trip when she did.
On returning to Nebraska, Carla began her quest to find out more, and she continued to work to trace the names on the quilt. Carla was able to locate only one other of the remaining ninety-seven quilters still living. The name May Thirtle on the quilt led to May Thirtle Alback, whom Carla visited in her home in Omaha.
Agnes Bena’s daughter, Helen Bena Weber, shared her knowledge of the quilt and its makers with Carla and helped fill in some of the blanks. Helen didn’t remember any discussion of the quilt after Agnes received it from her friends and unfortunately she cannot answer Carla’s pressing question. She simply has no idea how it came to be covered in the ugly blue flannel.
As she walked sections of the family farm each day, Carla’s mind kept returning to the quilt. “I need to honor it,” she thought. Carla believed that local art teacher and muralist Greg Holdren would be up to the job of painting the barn quilt, so Carla asked for another special gift. Husband Ken asked for a price quote and of course Carla had it at the ready. The quilt block was hung in February 2013, and Carla continues to add to her information about the Friendship Quilt of Ponca Hills.
About a month after my visit with Carla, national news reported devastating tornadoes had struck Beaver Crossing, Nebraska, and I recalled that was just a mile from Carla’s home. When I contacted her, Carla reported that the family was safe. I hated to ask, but to me one of the mangled buildings looked like the one that had been host to the barn quilt. I was correct, Carla said. The barn had been destroyed and the quilt block ripped away. A couple of days later I heard from Carla again. She had spotted a piece of her barn quilt in the burn pit on the farm; it had been blown almost two miles away and returned among the debris. Carla insisted that no one risk injury by trying to retrieve the piece of wood, but hoped that of the four the only piece that had returned to the farm would be the most special. Sure enough, Carla said, “It was Velzoe’s square. She wanted me to see it to know she is with me.”
When the family relocated to property nearby, Carla made sure that Velzoe and the quilt would not be forgotten. She again engaged Greg Holdren to create a replica of the earlier block so that she is reminded daily of Velzoe Brown and the Friendship quilt.
The women of Pender, Nebraska, had corresponded with Donna Sue since the beginning of their quilt trail project. I knew that theirs was a barn-less trail and that it had been created as part of the town’s 125th anniversary. I looked forward to a stop in Pender, especially when Glen discovered that the tiny town was home to the Blue Ox Company, whose equipment we use to tow our car behind the bus. It was a great opportunity to add a factory tour to our travels, something that Glen dearly loves.
Our travels centered around the quilt trail, but when possible I tried to incorporate Glen’s interests into our route. In Kansas, we had driven over to Wichita to hear George Strait in concert, and we already had tickets to see Vince Gill during our upcoming visit to Michigan. Though I scheduled those activities with Glen in mind, along the way, I had learned to appreciate the merits of both manufacturing and country music.
Pender quilt trail committee member Susan Strahm picked me up at the bus in the morning and we headed to Maureen Wenke’s home. Maureen had in her possession a family quilt that is at least 120 years old. The quilt was made in Pennsylvania by Maureen’s great-great-grandmother Anne Isenberger Lafferty. The pattern doesn’t have a name, but it is said to be typical of a wedding quilt that would have been made in that area in the 1860s and ’70s. The quilt was a wedding gift to the quilter’s daughter, Ida, on her marriage to Samuel Bressler in 1886.
Samuel had homesteaded near Pender the year before, so soon he and his bride moved to the Nebraska farm, with the wedding quilt among the few possessions the pioneer couple brought with them. They raised seven children, among them Winnie Mcquistan, who passed the quilt on to her granddaughter, Maureen. The quilt had been registered in the Nebraska Quilt Project and can be found on a rocker in Maureen’s home.
Susan and I took a driving tour of Pender, where I was overwhelmed by the dozens of quilt blocks on posts, porches, and fences. My head turned quickly from one side of the road to the other like a spectator at a tennis match. At many points, two, three, or more quilt squares were within sight all at once. I had seen hundreds of painted quilts over the past several years but never this many in such a small area. I could only imagine the pleasure of living in Pender and seeing all of those quilt squares every day, maybe taking a different route to work and back in order to see new ones.
A group of women had gathered to meet us at a local restaurant. One was Marceline Tonjes, whose barn quilt is Family Ties. Her husband Floyd never left home without a tie, so over the years he had quite a collection. Marceline had made five quilts from those ties, and the wide variety of colors and fabrics are represented in the painted quilt.
Cindy Janke tearfully told us about her patriotic quilt block, which was dedicated to the memory of her brother, David Lefler, who had served in Vietnam with the Iowa National Guard. “He didn’t return,” Cindy said. “We still miss him.”
Mary Ellen Olsson was on hand, and she had brought an heirloom quilted by her great-grandmother, Anna Vodica, who immigrated from Czechoslovakia at the age of eighteen. Mary Ellen has fond memories of Anna, who she and her sister called “Noni.” Mary Ellen recalled watching Noni crochet the many doilies, tablecloths, and furniture covers for her home. “She always amazed me how she was able to rapidly crochet,” Mary Ellen said, “Not even looking at what she was doing, but entertaining a conversation.” Anna also stitched simple red and white quilts, including the one that Mary Ellen had with her. No name is known for the pattern, so the quilt is simply called “Anna’s Quilt.”
The barn quilt idea came to Pender by way of Debbie Christiansen, who was asked to help with beautification for the 125th celebration. Debbie had seen barn quilts in Iowa when on a covered-bridge tour with friends, and the idea seemed to fit. What began as a group of eight expanded to dozens within town, and then on to include over two hundred. The painters are especially proud that they were asked to install quilt squares at each of the four entry roads into town, marking Pender as a town blanketed with quilt blocks.
Reprinted with permission from Following the Barn Quilt Trail by Suzi Parron and published by Swallow Press, 2016.