Stories Hidden in Plain Sight

Written By: Ginny Neil

Highland County, Virginia, barn quilt, Conley Colaw, Colaw, history, heritage, tradition, culture, local history, farm, farming, sustainable living, country, country life, best place to live, best place to retire to, best place to raise a family, blue ridge mountains

Conley showing off two of his eight squares.

Conley Colaw is over 80 years old and has lived in Blue Grass, Virginia, his whole life. He has stories to share, and some of them can be read in the quilt squares nailed to the old sugar shack along his driveway. 

It all started with one he bought from Margie Boesch of Highland Barn Quilts called “Pigs in a Blanket. 

“That square don’t have any special meaning,” Conley says. “I bought it because I liked it.” 

Other squares followed. A niece painted one, a friend painted two more. Conley and his nephew painted two, and Conley painted two by himself. 

Most look like traditional barn quilt squares. They are geometric and brightly colored, but there’s one, called “Colaw Farm,” that drops hints about the man who lives on this land. It’s made up of four smaller squares. 

The first shows a John Deere tractor pulling a round baler. Colaws have owned property in Blue Grass since 1800, and Conley’s ridden every dip and rise of the meadows on his tractors. He farms the same fields his grandfather worked with horses.

The next square shows a sugar shack. Conley made maple syrup for 30 years before he got too old to do it anymore. He tapped over 350 sugar trees, gathering the water each evening after work. Sometimes he boiled all night then went back to his job working for the state in the morning.

A third square depicts a flock of sheep. Like most farmers in Highland County, Conley kept a flock on his land. But, he sold it in 2018 because he lost 26 lambs to coyotes. Many Blue Grass farmers have been forced to make the same decision. A valley where almost every farm had at least fifty sheep is now almost completely devoid of the wooly wanderers.

But, there’s more to the sheep picture than that. Conley started shearing sheep when he was sixteen years old and ran a custom sheep shearing business until he couldn’t do the back-breaking job any longer. Conley estimates he has probably sheared over 60,000 ewes and rams in his lifetime. Shearing commenced when sugaring stopped, and again, it was accomplished after a full day of work off the farm.

Highland County, Virginia, barn quilt, Conley Colaw, Colaw, history, heritage, tradition, culture, local history, farm, farming, sustainable living, country, country life, best place to live, best place to retire to, best place to raise a family, blue ridge mountains

Grandfather Colaw’s house that he purchased in 1860 and where he lived until he passed.

The last square in the quilt block is a painting of a white, clapboard, two-story farmhouse. That’s the house Conley can see from his bedroom window. His grandfather bought it in 1860 and lived there until his death.

Some of the other squares on the side of the building tell a little more about Conley. A red, white, and black square represents his love for International Harvesters, and Conley has plans to design at least two more machinery squares: a blue and white one for Ford and a green and yellow one for John Deere. “I’ll put a green deer in the middle block of that one,” he says.

Another square, “Early Riser,” was painted by a friend. Conley doesn’t know why she chose that pattern for him, but one can guess that perhaps she knew about all those extra jobs he had throughout his life. 

That same friend also painted the square called “The Colaw Apple,” and it honors an achievement Conley is perhaps most proud of. An apple tree at Monticello, once favored by Thomas Jefferson for yielding fine cider, was considered lost to history. Then, Conley sent some red-fleshed apples to Monticello for identification. There was much excitement when the apples were identified genetically as most likely being those lost cider apples. Conley says the apples have been renamed the Colaw Apple as a result.

The story in the eighth square requires a little sleuthing on the visitor’s part to decipher. It’s small and contains a story about Conley that only those willing to work for it can understand. If you want to see it, you’ll have to grab a barn quilt brochure and mosey on over to Conley’s shed. You’ll find the story hidden in plain sight.


About the Author

Ginny Neil
Writer | Website | More Posts by This Author
Ginny Neil grew up in a middle-class American suburb, and she dreamed of landing a teaching job close to convenience stores and coffee shops. But, when she graduated, the job market for teachers was pretty slim. That's why, one beautiful May morning, she drove west, white-knuckling it around curves that led her to wonder what she had gotten herself into. At the top of the last mountain, she was relieved to spot a picturesque little valley town full of steeples and white clapboard houses. In that moment, all her childhood dreams were rewritten and she heard her heart singing, “This is home.” 
Ginny farms with her husband and children and has discovered life is far more beautiful and complex than her suburban life ever revealed. This led to a second career as a writer. You can find her work in various magazines, including a feature column and illustrations for Blue Ridge Country magazine. She is currently represented by Storm Literary Agency. For more info about Ginny, visit her blog, “The Singing Farmwife” or her website GinnyNeilWrites.


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