By Lisa Green
Quilts have told stories for hundreds of years. But in the past couple of decades, they've started presenting their stories in a new way — a new medium, in fact — and New Milford, Conn. is one of the first (if not the first) communities in the RI region to join the national barn quilt trail.
These are not your traditional stitch-by-stitch quilts, although the New Milford project took as much time and effort to achieve as any cotton quilt might. Quilt patches are actually quilt-like patterns painted on eight-foot-square plywood, and then mounted on barns. Beyond the artistic purpose, there's a mission to New Milford Barn Quilt Trail: to honor the town's farming history, and encourage people to explore that history, quilt by quilt.
The town-wide effort began in 2013, when New Milford's then-mayor, Patricia Murphy, an avid quilter, applied for a state economic development grant to bring the first barn quilt trail to Connecticut.
When the town received a $7,700 award by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development in 2014, Murphy started to get the ball rolling. The effort would involve getting barn owners interested, helping them develop the quilt designs, finding artists to paint them and, finally, getting them hung. Alas, Murphy was voted out of office and the project stalled. It took two grant extensions, plus private contributions, funds from other town commissions, the office of the current mayor, David Gronbach — and many in-kind volunteer hours — to make the project a reality.
Each of the quilt blocks is meaningful to the barn host family and ties into the local agricultural past. On Smyrski Farm, a design with maple leaves is symbolic of its sugar maples trees tapped for syrup in the past two centuries. The Harris Hill Farm family chose a whimsical cow design to honor the memory of their father, a longtime dairy farmer and international expert on Brown Swiss cows. Hunt Hill Farm Trust (founded by famed bandleader Skitch Henderson and his wife, Ruth), reflects a more modern approach, with squares featuring a heart, fresh produce, an artist's palette and musical notes, expressing the nonprofit's mission of "cultivating the love of the land, food and the arts."
Designs realized, the project moved on to New Milford's Village Center for the Arts, where volunteers painted the huge squares. Finally, the quilts were hung by more volunteers, this time from the town's facilities department (they're the ones with the cherry picker, after all).
Now that the eighth barn quilt has been completed, the organizers of the trail are ready to officially "open" the self-guided tour. On Sunday, the New Milford Barn Quilt Trail committee will honor the people who helped make the trail a reality at a reception at The Silo (located at Hunt Hill Farm Trust). For the rest of us, the trail is easy to access via the website, which offers a background of each of the quilt blocks, a history of the farm itself, plus a map to get you to them.
"This is just the first phase," says Julie Bailey, one of the core organizers, along with Sue Harris Bailey of Harris Hill Farm and Suzanne Von Holt, who happens to be the town sanitarian. "We hope to do another 8 barns in the next 3 years."
"It was a huge volunteer project," she adds. "We couldn't pay people, but we did supply a lot of brownies."