Tracing Monroe County’s Heritage Quilt Trail

quilt trail
If you want to capture the mystique of Monroe County, you can discover it with just a little time in the car. The story and pride of this rural community is stitched, quite literally, into the pastoral landscape.

The barns that dot the open countryside will lead you through the majesty, the history and the quaint charm of this boastfully small-time setting. Your roadmaps are the artworks of the Monroe County Rural Heritage Quilt Trail.

The trail traces the entirety of the county, with families adding their own squares to the project all the time. They reflect the distinct character of the area— connecting you to centuries of culture that has remained largely unchanged.

“People have maintained the land our forefathers worked to clear and develop and make prosperous. The historic value is rooted in agriculture.”

That’s because Monroe County hasn’t quite caught up with the times. And it has no intention to.

The rural community thrives off agriculture, just as it has for centuries. And as kind as everyone you encounter may be, they’re not as welcoming of modern ‘conveniences’ that mar the simple, peaceful beauty of their landscapes. No stoplights, no fast food joints. There’s a country charm that just doesn’t need those cheap frills and distractions.

“Some farms look the same as they have for years and years,” said Allison Tomlinson, Tourism Director for Monroe County. “People have maintained the land our forefathers worked to clear and develop and make prosperous. The historic value is rooted in agriculture.”

The quilts themselves add depth to that idyllic identity, and sculpt a more defined picture of life on the land.

“It’s a great way to see how authentic we are,” Allison said. “You can take a step back and slow down a bit from what our daily lives are these days. It’s so fast-paced.”


Origins on Display

The pastime of quilting in Monroe County is as time-honored as the agriculture, passed down through generations alongside the land. It was a means to share family histories and a reason to gather together.

Farmer's Fancy quilt in WVDoris McCurdy learned much of her skill from her husband’s grandmother. She gets more time to work on the hobby these days, now that she’s retired. She’s a regular member of the Mountain Heritage Quilters Guild of Southern WV, one of several quilting groups in the county where quilters from multiple generations get together and share the craft.

“When I was growing up, people made quilts of everything they could find— shirts, skirts,” Doris said. “Material was hard to find, and people couldn’t afford it.”

She and the quilting group helped design the trail’s original quilt squares, choosing patterns to represent both the craft and the county’s connection to it.

“I picked Farmer’s Daughter, because I am a farmer’s daughter,” she said. “I chose the colors carefully, because I wanted people to see it, but not knock them in the face.”

The Union pattern was chosen because of its name, since the original squares are hung in the town of Union, WV. Others were picked for their long history as popular squares through the pioneer days. Doris and her group actually stitched up 12 quilt prototypes to share with the townsfolk at the annual Farmer’s Day in 2010. The community voted on the final 8, which were painted and hung around the town.

Starting with just those 8 blocks, the trail has expanded across the county, with nearly 60 official blocks adorning barns, and some that have just popped up, and not made it to the list yet.

WV quilt trail map“They’re expressions through fabric. It makes me proud,” said Doris. ““I think it’s interesting to see how creative and artistic some of these people are in the county. It’s mind-boggling. The pool of talent here is unbelievable.” 

Many of the quilts still harken back to their traditional roots. Wedding Rings, for example, is a brightly contrasting version of the quilt of interlocking circles that women would traditionally stitch for weddings. It was like a ‘welcome’ to a young bride’s new life, and the starting quilt in her family home— the first of what would grow into her own small collection.

Beyond the quilting and community heritage you can uncover, there’s plenty of regional history along the trail, which is especially visible in the old-fashioned architecture. There’s the mill that was built on a foundation from 1796, a group of stunning stone buildings from the pre-Civil War era, the oldest continually used chapel in the state— every mile brings new surprises and relics from yesteryear. 


A Community’s Craft

The explosion of involvement wasn’t something anyone saw coming. But in a small town with deep ties to heritage, a simple idea grew into a story all its own.

“I think this is a county that appreciates art,” said Cathy Abernathy, and Americorps volunteer who helped organize the trail. “I think they loved the idea of something beautiful hanging on their barns that they could talk about. I don’t think they thought it would be a tourist attraction. Just that it’d be beautiful. It really struck a note with people.”

As an Americorps volunteer, Cathy’s goal was to foster community interactions, help stabilize families, and keep jobs in the area. The project was the vision of the volunteer in the position before her, Joan Menard, who also remained deeply involved in creating the trail. They were hoping to get 30 quilts, so when the project quickly rocketed to nearly double that, she said they were flabbergasted.

“It’s about back to how they perceived family living, and being raised on the land, growing up and being around the countryside here."

“One thing that helped us develop so much is that we were careful to involve as many people as we could,” Cathy said. “It was part of our Americorps goal, to get the community involved. When people get involved in something, they’re more likely to adopt it. It was perfect, because it fostered community connections, and it certainly added to the tourism trade.”

Cathy helped create the website to promote the trail, and reached out to local organizations to get them involved. Joan, an artist herself, helped lead workshops to paint the quilts. After the original 8 went up, they helped other artists design their own squares, to represent what they wanted to share about the county.

Nowadays, there are quilts that represent all aspects of agrarian life. There are quilts in memory. Quilts based off of family patterns. Quilts to raise awareness, like the Breast and Cervical Cancer Awareness square. There’s even a quilt adorned with little planes and clouds, sitting alongside a small, private landing strip.

It’s more of an acknowledgment and nod to the memories of people who live here, and their associations with the heritage, and pride in the area and what we’ve accomplished,” said Allison. “It’s about back to how they perceived family living, and being raised on the land, growing up and being around the countryside here. For visitors, it allows them to get back in touch with nature and craftsmanship.”

As she helped document the trail, Cathy got the chance to talk to people about their quilt selections.  

“It’s a wonderful way to get a sense of what people in the county feel is important,” she said. “I have loved hearing stories of why people did the designs they did. There’s one quilt called Turkey Tracks. It’s a very traditional pattern. There aren’t turkeys on it, but it looks like a 3-toed turkey foot. The family really wanted it. I asked why, and they said because they had wild turkey crossing their farm for a number of years.”


Tracing the Trail

iTreks quilt trail map and infoAs is nature of any rural expedition, exploring the trail is a very non-linear journey. If you stop in Union, you can get out and walk through town to see all the original squares. Otherwise, it’s a trek for the road. Most of the quilts are scattered throughout the countryside.

The easiest way to wind through them is with your phone, using the I-Treks app. Because so many of the quilts lie out in the pastoral hills of Monroe County, I-Treks exploring is ideal, because you don’t need cell or internet service to follow the trail. Once you’ve downloaded the route to your Android or iPhone, all the features are stored there.

The best part of the app, though, is that travelers can not only get directions to the quilts, they can also delve into their stories, and the history of the area. Each stop gives you information about the square, or the barn and farm it sits on, and sidebars that feature more historic information.

The personal family tales paint a strong picture of life in rural Monroe. Learn more about the family set the record for most male children— 17! Meet a founding settler whose son was held captive by Native Americans for nearly 10 years. Uncover the tale of West Virginia’s first 4-H Club. 

The app will even read aloud to you as you drive, or recommends parking spots if you want to get out and marvel at the landscapes or take photos. 

Allison hopes to create some specific itineraries for travelers to follow, so they can explore some of the hidden gems around the county.
For example, a great afternoon of travel would be swooping from Union to, Gap Mills where you can find several gorgeous quilts. While exploring, you can stop into the old-fashioned general store, the Cheese ’N More Store, for local products or a homemade sandwich. They also sell handcrafted furniture.

Then, you can continue into the historic Sweet Springs Valley, and explore the many historic structures as you snack on something sweet from Kitchen Creek Bakery. Positioned right on the line between Virginia and West Virginia, the area is rich with stories from the Civil Car, and the state’s eventual split. 

Potts Valley scenry“You really can go up the nooks and crannies and see a quilt on the side of a barn,” Doris said.

But while I-Treks can track you through most of the main stops, the app only shows the quilts that are easily accessible. There are plenty of squares tucked back on rocky 1-lane roads, or without parking spots, which you’ll have to uncover for yourself.

There’s not an easy way to find them, but the complete list of squares appear, with GPS coordinates for each, on the trail’s website. A few off-the-beaten-path suggestions:

  • Head out to Ballard where you can uncover squares like Dutch Girl and Ohio Star, Storm of Life. Schedule an appointment to roam the Glory B Farm, where you can browse local alpaca yarns and goods.
  • The largest quilt is The Dalhia at 16-by-16 feet, perched on a barn in Lindside.
  • 2 quilts near Union display a friendly in-state rivalry: The blue-and-gold Mountaineer square shows off West Virginia University pride, while a green Rising Star pattern just down the road is set up as a memorial to the 1970 Marshall University plane crash.

Explore the trail on I-Treks

iTreks on Google PlayiTreks on the App Store




Get more great Southern WV stories. Sign up to get the full magazine in your email each quarter.



Tags: , , , , ,