Beech Mountain’s Avery Quilt Trail
The history and beauty of quilts lives on today in a new iteration, as painted quilt patterns that prominently dot the western North Carolina landscape, providing a kind of hide-and-seek-style scavenger hunt that is as enjoyable as it is honorific.
Life in Appalachia has long been dictated by what the land provides in that mountainous region—corn, apples, sorghum—and by a sense of thrift born out of necessity. Quilts are a natural iteration of that life in western North Carolina where scraps of garments that could no longer be handed down, found their way into a tapestry of functional art. In this region, quilting patterns and stories trace their roots back to their Scotch-Irish and German ancestors, coupled with the once-dominant Native American presence. Each quilt tells the story of the person who dutifully handcrafted it, and of the clothes their people wore.
Avery County has been the region’s torch bearer in promoting these quilt squares, which began as a sort of grassroots program. LouAnn Morehouse is the former director of the Avery Arts Council and was instrumental in getting the program off the ground. As she tells it, “The quilt trail, as it came to be in western North Carolina, got its start under the auspices of a program called HandMade in America, whose mission it was to promote indigenous handcrafts and traditions. HandMade in America offered a grant program to get the program started.” Morehouse the reins and ran with it, connecting with area residents and businesses, and soon quilt squares appeared across Avery County and beyond.
Morehouse soon found the quilt squares to be an invitation to conversation and a deeper connection with townspeople. She notes, “The neat thing for me was being with people who were picking out the designs. I liked that it brought a broad spectrum of the county residents to my office—people that never would come to a gallery opening or the like. We had adult children come to pick out a pattern that struck them, when wanting to honor a mother who had passed. On one occasion, someone brought in an actual quilt so that we could get the colors just right.”
Sponsors of the quilt squares paid for the cost of the materials, which included weatherproof boards in 2-, 4-, 6-, or 8-foot panels as well as the requisite paint. Morehouse found the project to attract all sorts of volunteers as well—members of the community who would offer to design and sketch the patterns, others who wanted to paint them, and still others who were skilled at hanging them in highly visible areas so all could enjoy.
Fred Pfohl was one such Arts Council volunteer who treasured his time on the project. As the owner of Fred’s General Mercantile, Pfohl is a noted fixture in the area, having arrived in town back in the 1970s when he left Greensboro to attend Appalachian State University in nearby Boone. Back then, he worked summers for the famed-but-now-defunct Land of Oz Theme Park and wintered on Beech Mountain. Tired of always driving to Banner Elk for anything needed at Beech Mountain, he saw an opportunity for a general store in the area. He and his wife Margie had wanted something they could do together and the Mercantile seemed to be just the thing. The shop opened February 9, 1979, and has been open every day since. Yes—365 days a year.
In addition to running the Mercantile, Fred dove headlong into the quilt project. He purchased a computer program with hundreds of patterns that quilt square sponsors could peruse, to find one that meant something specific to them. Pfohl notes, “A lot of people would come in knowing they wanted to pick a quilt but didn’t have a firm idea of exactly what they wanted their design to be. We’d sit down together and go through them until they saw something that meant something to them.” Like much of Appalachia, Avery County is rural, and that connection between residents often didn’t happen naturally. But Fred found that “it was a fantastic way to get out and meet our neighbors in the area. I got to learn so much about people. When we would get a quilt designed, the person buying it would come in and sit down and tell me why they chose the pattern they did. We’d get to talking about their mothers or grandmothers who were quilters. It opened my eyes about a lot of folks and about the various traditions of this mountain area.” Morehouse and Pfohl hope the Avery County Quilt Trail will evoke similar sentiments for area visitors. Fred still runs the Mercantile and LouAnn retired from the Arts Council to pursue a degree in library science. Today, Kate Gavenus, director of tourism and economic development for Beech Mountain, is just as passionate about sharing the Avery County Quilt Trail with visitors. She notes, “Life in this area has long meant making do with what you have on hand—using all the bits and pieces of things you could. This thrift was a way to not waste anything and an example of doing everything with love. As for the quilt patterns themselves, we discovered that so many families had developed patterns that represented their own family stories. We love being able to share this tradition.”
Gavenus sees the Avery County Quilt Trail as “a way to honor that tradition—making beauty out of what you have—now as public art—an expression of your values and your family.” The patterns themselves certainly represent the sponsors of the individual squares. There is the one with bluebonnet flowers, purchased by a husband whose wife was a Texas native and missed those state flowers of her youth in the Lone Star State. There is the one sponsored by the local hardware store that features a giant saw blade. The design the local libraries chose features the rosy pink flowers of area rhododendrons. The patterns are as varied as the people who brought them into existence. All in all, there are over sixty quilt squares in the area, which makes for a fun afternoon of trying to find them all.
To assist travelers in this scavenger hunt, visitors are encouraged to check out the town’s website, BeechMtn.com, where there are trail maps to download. This is also the perfect place to plan the rest of your trip to the area. Fred Pfohl encourages folks to check out the mountain bike area where there are three or four squares on the eighty miles of trails. The nearby walking trail that surrounds the lake has several too, including one with a trout. Whether you find them all or just a handful before getting sidetracked on another adventure in the area, these quilts are a beautiful way of honoring the Appalachian state of mind.