Painting the town: Barn quilts lead to Mississippi

barn quilts

R.A. Parselles Log Cabin wooden quilt, cut and colored slats of wood assemblage mimicking the look of a quilt, 48 x 48 in. Slotin Folk Art image

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) – Drive down rural roads just over a year from now, and you may pass more than a hundred 4-by-4-foot wood pallets covered in hues of reds, blues, oranges, purples and greens mounted on churches, barns and fences across Lowndes County.

That’s the vision, at least, of Caledonia resident Rita Williams, the mastermind behind a colorful project she calls the Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail, named after the Tombigbee tributary running through northeast Mississippi and into Alabama.

She said the name Buttahatchee also nods to the area’s Native American roots.

Williams’ idea for the barn quilt trail began when she and seven other members of the Possum Town Quilters traveled to Paducah, Kentucky, four years ago for the annual American Quilter’s Society QuiltWeek, an event which attracts quilters from across the globe. During the five-hour drive to Paducah, Williams noticed quilt patterns hanging from tobacco barns in the Kentucky countryside.

“I love old barns, old churches and quilting, so this just fascinated me,” Williams said. “We pulled off the road and started taking pictures, and when I got to the quilt show I saw a book on the history of the American barn quilt movement.”

Williams brought the book home, determined to learn more.

“I painted one, and it turned in to another and another,” Williams said. “I started selling them to people around the Caledonia area, and as people started seeing them, the interest grew.”

A community affair

A barn quilt consists of a single geometric quilt block design painted onto a solid wood board. The painted wood board is glued to a frame, and the finished product is then mounted on the side of a building. The barn quilts Williams paints are typically 16 square feet, but she’s seen ones up to four times that size. Quilts with more simple designs, she said, take her several days to complete.

One of Williams’ first paintings, Rocky the Rooster, hangs on the barn of a friend, Jo Anne Burrage in Caledonia. Though Williams usually charges around $200 per quilt—the price depends on the complication of the design—Burrage paid for her first quilt in chickens and now has two additional wooden quilts mounted outside her home.

“When you ride around the community, when you see them, they’re just wonderful,” Burrage said.

The more Williams explored the world of brushes, exterior paints and wood frames, the more she felt called to share her new passion with her community.

The retired Columbus Air Force Base resource advisor decided to teach a barn quilt painting class at her church, Flint Hill United Methodist, in July for $75 a person. She taught four more day-long classes after that, allowing each participant to take home a 2-by-2-foot barn quilt of their own.

“I’m not a painter or an artist, but I love the community involvement,” Burrage said.

Several of Williams’ friends attended a class in October and were hooked. Those friends, including Burrage, joined Williams to form a group of about 10 men and women from Caledonia who serve as the backbone of the Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail enterprise.

“Everybody has their own strength,” Williams said of the team.

Burrage, Williams said, “can do any of it”—she’s upbeat and creative. Rissa Lawrence, a retired geometry teacher, ensures blueprints for the barn quilts are accurate, and her husband Bill Lawrence uses his carpentry skills to cut wood for the quilts and construct frames for mounting. Ronnie Smith, a retired Columbus fireman, has painted signs all his life and created a quilt for Lowndes County’s District One Volunteer Fire Station in Caledonia. The other volunteers bring different skills to the table, too, because as Williams notes, “there’s not one right way to do this.”

Growing, growing, gone

In addition to the “firefighter star” completed by Smith, the group has painted quilts for area churches, the Caledonia Water Department, a local bakery and more.

Thirty-eight quilts total will decorate Caledonia’s buildings once six quilts the group painted last month are hung. Four of those six will adorn Caledonia’s town hall. Two of the four quilts to be displayed there were paid for by the town’s board of aldermen and two by contributions from an anonymous donor and the Caledonia United Methodist Church.

But Williams’ team isn’t stopping at 38.

“When we thought about having to come up with a name, Rissa threw out Buttahatchee because the Buttahatchee flows through Caledonia, Monroe County and Lowndes County in Mississippi and crosses over into Alabama in Lamar, Winston and Marion Counties,” Williams said, “so it gives us the opportunity, as we grow, to expand across the state line and cover those counties. That’s what we hope is gonna happen.”

Though having 100 barn quilts in the area may seem like a long shot, Williams is confident that number sits well within reach. She plans to have 40 on display when the Columbus Spring Pilgrimage rolls around in early April and 75 up by the end of the year. Williams said her team has been in constant contact with the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, the organizer of Pilgrimage, to create a driving tour of the new attraction.

Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, named to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service in 2007, has a barn quilt of its own, and Williams said the now-inactive church will open its doors once more to Pilgrimage visitors April 10 from 4-6 p.m. as part of the tour.

Together, Caledonia residents and the CVB aim to put the Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail on the map.

Williams said her group hopes to receive a grant from the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance to cover the cost of creating a trail website.

Anyone in Lowndes County with a barn quilt on or viewable from public property can apply for a spot on the trail map, and lucky for those interested, space isn’t limited. The application is posted on the Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail Facebook page and includes a $10 fee.

For those hoping to paint their own barn quilt, Williams is happy to help through barn quilt painting classes at the Caledonia Community Center.

“There’s no age limit,” Williams said; she’s taught ages 12 to 80.

“And you don’t have to be an artist,” she added. “I’ve never had an art class, so if I can do it—it’s just painting by numbers on a board. If you can draw it off and tape, you can paint.”


By INDIA YARBOROUGH, The Commercial Dispatch of Columbus

Information from: The Commercial Dispatch,

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