an ambitious statewide quilt trail were announced last fall. In all, an estimated 2100 vibrant quilt blocks now adorn barns, floodwalls, and other structures across the United States, many of which form interconnected driving trails that draw tourists to their respective areas.

“It reminds people of childhood memories,” Groves says. “It offers people a chance to go home, show off where they came from, and talk about the experience of growing up there, whether with friends or their children. It takes us back down memory lane and gives us a sense of pride and connection. Quilting and farming—these are pretty warm and fuzzy concepts for many people. And they kind of naturally go together.”

Seeing her vision of a national quilt trail begin to come to fruition has been an incredibly inspiring and, sometimes, humbling experience for both Groves and her mother, herself a fifth generation quilter. 

“It was marvelous to watch my mother, in her late 70s, be a full participant in the planning and implementation process. Her expertise as a quilter was significant, because the quilt squares, color, and design are such important elements—particularly when creating them for such a large public venue,” Groves says. “And yes, she’s proud of me as well. I make the joke that if she could put a magnet on my back, she’d hang me on the refrigerator!”

The growing success of the project has also helped Groves to endure a very difficult time in her life. In 2008, due to budget restraints, she lost her job with the state of Ohio—“The arts are often one of the first things to go,” she explains. That July, she made a terrible discovery—a lump in one of her breasts—and was forced to have a mastectomy that October. To this day, she is still undergoing treatment for her cancer and, without a constant source of income, struggles to pay her medical bills. But through it all, Groves says that the project, and those she’s met as a result, has sustained her.

“There are truly no words to express how much love and friendship has been afforded to me from people connected to this project,” she says. “The cards, letters, e-mails, phone calls, gifts, and the prayers continually hold and elevate me. I am the most blessed woman in the world. I have faith because everyone else believes in me, and how can I let them down?”

Despite her hardships, Groves takes comfort in knowing that she has created an enduring legacy—one that serves as a testament to her years of hard work in the community and the arts, and that elevates two things with which she feels incredibly connected: the quilting art form and rural America.

“I hope that some day, some little girl sitting in the back seat of a car notices one of these quilt squares and asks, ‘Mommy, what was that?’ And that it will spark a conversation about barns and quilting and community,” she adds. “I just look at it as we’re piecing a big quilt and bringing the fiber of all of the communities together. And we’re doing this to illustrate the commonality of each of us—because we’re really all not so different.”

Photo 1—Barn (featuring Snail’s Trail pattern) belonging to Donna Sue Groves’ mother, Nina Maxine Groves, in Adams County, Ohio. Photo courtesy of The Athens Photographic Project.

Photo 2—Donna Sue Groves holding a Friendship Quilt containing squares sent to her by friends from across the United States and quilted by artist Karen S. Musgrave. Photo courtesy of The People’s Defender, Adams County, Ohio.

Photo 3—Donna Sue Groves and Ohio’s First Lady, Frances Strickland, on April 21, 2010. Groves was awarded Ohio’s 2010 Governor’s Award for the Arts for Community Development and Participation. Photo by Julianne Donofrio.

Summer 2010 Newsletter



How it all started with one woman’s promise to her mother


By Rhianna White

Raised in West Virginia, Donna Sue Groves is no stranger to the rural landscape. During her childhood, she and her family would often play a game to pass the hours on long car rides, counting advertising signs painted upon the various barns that spotted the countryside, emblazoned with slogans like “Chew Mail Pouch,” “See Rock City,” and “Drink RC Cola.” Aside from keeping the question “Are we there yet?” to a minimum, the game also provided the family an opportunity for history lessons and family discussions.

Some years later—in 1989—Groves and her mother, Nina Maxine Groves, purchased a farm in Adams County, Ohio, upon which sat an old and rather nondescript tobacco barn. Deciding that it was one of the “ugliest” barns she’d ever seen, Groves was determined to find a way to give it some much needed color and interest. She decided that painting a large quilt square upon the barn’s wall might do the job—and give some new life to an old structure—so she made a promise to her mother that she would do just that. And while many years passed before she was able to fulfill her promise, it was something that was never far from her mind.

Groves worked as a consultant and advisor for artists, non-profit organizations, and communities throughout southern Ohio for more than two decades, helping to cultivate community development through the arts. She served as the Southern Ohio Representative for the Ohio Arts Council through 2008. Through it all, Groves says that she “experienced firsthand the power of public murals to foster community pride, to serve as catalysts for economic development and tourism destinations, and to illustrate the community history and culture.”

Still, she points out, not every community has a proper venue for showcasing something as large as a mural. And for every empty barn wall with which she was met while traveling through the Ohio River Valley, Groves was reminded of the promise she made to her mother.

In 2001, Pete Whan—Appalachian Forest Program Manager with the Nature Conservancy-Edge of Appalachia Preserve—offered to help paint that quilt square for her mother, which prompted a rather brilliant suggestion from Groves. “If we’re going to paint one square, why not consider painting more of them?” She believed that the squares would provide a great opportunity for developing a driving trail that would draw visitors to Adams County, help stimulate the local economy, and bring together community members and artists.

Furthermore, she proposed that this low-cost project had the potential to spotlight two very important elements of the region’s heritage—quilting and farming—while utilizing local resources. Whan was sold on the idea and, with that, the grassroots Adams County, Ohio Quilt Barn Committee was formed. It consisted entirely of volunteers and was funded by contributions from local residents, businesses, and organizations.

The first painted quilt block—appropriately, an Ohio Star—was unveiled on October 13, 2001 during the Lewis Mountain Olde Thyme Herb Farm festival, an annual event that draws thousands to Adams County each year. Groves estimates that between 25,000-30,000 people were in attendance that year, providing great exposure for the emerging Quilt Barn Trail project.

Virtually overnight, she began getting phone calls from members of neighboring communities and counties who were interested in learning more about the project, including a group from Brown County, Ohio, who would go on to launch the second of the quilt barn trails.

Through the efforts of Groves and her mother—along with the help of an article published in their regional rural electric association’s magazine—word of the project quickly spread to other states. And before long, barn quilt trail projects were launched in Iowa and Tennessee. Groves enthusiastically lent her support and guidance, asking only one thing in return—that each new community who took on the project remember its genesis, and that they, in turn, share that information with other groups and communities.

In the decade since the Adams County Quilt Barn project was initiated, the concept has spread to 26 states, including International Quilt Festival’s home state of Texas, where plans for

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