A handful of western Montana women kept themselves busy this past year painting barn quilts and blanketing the businesses and ranches of Meagher County with their work. This summer they introduced the public to their art by loading up White Sulphur Springs school buses with visitors and touring them on a loop from White Sulphur Springs through historic ranching communities and back again, pointing out the quilts and giving history along the way. Bus stops included visits with community members from pioneer families.
Unlike traditional quilts, barn quilts are painted on pieces of wood and hung outside rather than sewn from the material. They typically resemble a block from a quilt. Those dotting Meagher County often include historical or personal elements. Some ranchers’ barn quilts highlight their brand. Some are patriotic. One celebrates the high school mascot, the Hornets. One barn quilt harkens back to the railroad that once served the local communities. In Martinsdale, the Crazy Mountain Inn’s barn quilt represents Cheryl Marchi’s to-die-for sour cream lemon pie.
Barn quilts are common throughout Canada and in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, said Kelly Huffield, tour guide, barn quilt painter, and president of the Meagher County Chamber of Commerce. Beth Hunt, another painter, came up with the barn quilt idea after seeing examples on Pinterest. The problem was, many of Meagher County’s barns are gone now. The women, backed by grants from various organizations, including their farm bureau, recruited local businesses and ranching families. The barn quilts are placed along public roadways to keep visitors off private property. The Chamber of Commerce has created an online map to help the public find the barn quilts as well as other artwork. Cell service is non-existent in some parts of the tour, however, so it’s advisable to print out a copy before leaving home.
White Sulphur Springs is a 1 ½ to two-hour drive from Helena, Great Falls or Bozeman. The city, where cows outnumber people 8.2 to 1, is home to the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival . It’s the county seat of an area of Montana where, in some cases, six generations of ranchers have raised beef cattle and sheep. This is where novelist Ivan Doig grew up, and the bus tour included the spot where little Ivan used to wait for the school bus each morning. The tour continued to the near-ghost town of Ringling, originally named Leader and renamed in 1903 by John Ringling of circus fame. The Milwaukee-St. Paul Railroad once ran through here, powered by electricity, carrying livestock to Chicago. Singer Jimmy Buffet visited Ringling once and, in 1974, wrote a song about it: “Ringling, Ringling.”
Teacher note: While the tour is a great family outing on its own, quilts play a role in teaching Common Core standards. The California Department of Education lists quilts as one of the ways to teach art in a historical and cultural context to fourth graders. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has lessons for teaching middle school geometry basics through quilts. Teaching Tolerance, a Southern Poverty Law Center program, has ideas for using quilts to teach elementary school age students about bias and prejudice. Quilts are an integral part of American history.