Thursday, August 25, 2016
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Barn quilts detail history of Lorain County

History is as rich in this area as the lush farmlands, the meandering rivers, the mighty Lake Erie.

A new attraction to highlight that history hopes to give travelers and locals alike a newfound appreciation of the beauty of Lorain County.

Patchwork Trails of Lorain County, a series of painted wooden quilt squares mounted on picturesque barns in the southern end of the county, is nearly finished, organizers said.

The quilts — measuring 8 feet by 8 feet, a whopping 64 square feet each — are being installed along the Back Roads and Beaches trail, a 60-mile cycling route. In all, 19 quilts will be installed; 13 are already in place and the last few will be up, weather permitting, by mid-summer, said Heather Fraelich, marketing coordinator for Visit Lorain County.

The trail winds through Kipton, Wellington, Vermilion and Oberlin and, like the Back Roads to Beaches Trail, is designed to highlight the geographical uniqueness of those areas — the forested areas near Findley State Park, then winding north through agricultural lands to the shore of a great lake. At points, it also runs along the Lorain County Metroparks Inland trail, a 13-mile paved path.

The project started with an idea to highlight the work of 4-H clubs in the county, said Linda Styer, senior program officer of Community Foundation of Lorain County. Funding of those groups had dwindled in recent years due to the economic downturn, and Styer said she noticed that many people had the misconception that 4-H clubs “only did the county fair.”

“Those groups do so much more. They teach kids about budgeting; they teach about science,” she said.

At the same time, 46 other states had started public art projects like the Patchwork Trail that presented old-style art — quilts, barns, bucolic countryside — in modern, tourist-friendly ways. It seemed a perfect match for the youth group, she said.

“I thought, ‘Our 4-H kids can do that. They’re creative, and Lorain County has beautiful barns. We’ll show people — even people who live here and might not know — what a beautiful place Lorain County is,’” Styer said.

The project combined the efforts of the Community Foundation, Visit Lorain County, community volunteers, utility companies and local businesses, including Lorain Medina Rural Electric, Star Builders, Oberlin Municipal Light and First Energy.

More than 400 4-H members helped paint the squares. Landowners with appropriate barns were asked if they could, in essence, be used as really big outdoor gallery.

At the kickoff to thank the volunteers last week, a roomful of 4-H youths got to see their work on the project applauded, Fraelich said.

“The true beauty of Patchwork Trails is that our kids have created their own legacy for Lorain County,” Styer said. “Twenty to 30 years from now, our kids will talk about the time they designed and painted these quilts.”

Some spots, like a quilt at the Common Grounds retreat facility in Oberlin, were painted by the individual participants. All tell a story, Styer said, and many of the barns that display them were built in the 1800s.

In the area’s distant past, humble quilts were used as beacons for fugitive slaves heading north to Lake Erie, then the promised land of freedom in Canada. Quilts sewn with secret clues pointing to spots on the Underground Railroad were hung on clotheslines and fences and helped guide slaves as much as the stars.

Styer said quilting is a $3.58 billion industry, and 14 percent of American households claim to have at least one member who quilts. Cycling tourism — and barn tourism — also can promote big business, she said.

The first quilt installed last fall was “Stepping Stones,” and it hangs at King Ridge Farm on Pitts Road in Wellington.

Quilting is very much a part of farm life in the past, said longtime owner Bob King. He has a kinship with travelers who will enjoy the Patchwork Trail.

“I’m Irish, and it seems like the Irish have to own land,” the former real estate agent said. “I always got a thrill out of walking through someone’s woods to see what’s around the next bend, what’s over the next knoll.”

Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or ctnews@chroniclet.com.

If You Go

Cyclists, or motorists, can see the sights on a self-guided tour. Maps are available at Visit Lorain County, 8025 Leavitt Road in Amherst, or by calling (800) 334-1673. The website also lists a map; hover over each location to get a view of each quilt and information on which quilts are installed.

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