I do quite a bit of driving in Wisconsin. And so, I often find myself admiring those beautiful barn quilts strewn across our state in all of its Americana glory. I also often find myself wondering what the barn quilts are all about: Where did they originate and why? Is there a special story behind each unique design? Ah, all these burning questions led to a bit of research which resulted in this article. Alas, my friend, all (err, most?) of your barn quilt questions answered in a few hundred words:
What are barn quilts?
They’re color quilt designs painted on wooden boards – typically eight feet by eight feet – and displayed on barns. Barn quilts illustrate Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage by incorporating the beauty of a bucolic barn and the warmth of quilting art.
What’s the story behind them?
It was actually Adams County in southern Ohio that spawned the first barn quilt trail back in 2001 as a way to divert heavy traffic from a four-lane highway. The trend caught on in other Ohio counties and soon after, throughout the entire Midwest. While Midwestern states are perhaps most known for barn quilts, you can also find trails in 43 U.S. states as well as British Columbia and Ontario, Canada.
Who’s in charge of the displays? The owners of the barn or the barn quilt artist?
Well, both. In Shawano County, I was surprised to learn all 300+ barn quilts were the brain child of Jim Leuenberger and his wife, Irene. But Jim was quick to note that several people take part in making each and every barn quilt come to life. The family has to approve of a barn quilt going up of course (and sometimes, they’ll even repaint or reside their entire barn first, he says) and oftentimes, local schools and 4-H clubs pitch in to paint the barn quilts. In my research, I did notice several UW organizations, chambers of commerce and 4-H groups across the state play a part in maintaining and growing Wisconsin’s many wonderful barn quilt trails.
So, where are Wisconsin’s barn quilt trails exactly?
Everywhere, really! Wisconsin is a state known for its appreciation of both agriculture and the arts so it’s no wonder why we’ve embraced this rural phenomenon. Here is just a handful of counties to visit; if you have others that you feel should be on this list, let me know on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter!
Hugging the Great River Road, Buffalo County already makes for a splendid area to visit if unbelievable road-trips are your thing. Throw in more than 20 barn quilts to view along the way and you have yourself a perfect Sunday drive. The area 4-H clubs deserve a ton of credit for helping Buffalo County’s barn quilt trail prosper and boy, does it ever: Be on the lookout for “Pinwheel,” “Bowtie” and “Eight Pointed Star,” just to name a few!
Columbia County in Central Wisconsin is home to 35 barn quilts. Download a brochure online and then cruise the countryside for a self-guided tour of this beautiful area of Wisconsin. Columbia County’s barn quilt tour is all about celebrating the county’s history and heritage while encouraging artistic expression and bringing generations together. Those are objectives we can get behind!
Widely acclaimed for its creative and numerous barn quilts, Green County is a wonderful place to explore with a plethora of charming small towns situated in the area’s rolling hills: Monroe, New Glarus, Brodhead, Brooklyn, Albany and more. Bus groups are even welcome to tour Green County’s barn quilts. In fact, the folks at Green County Tourism will provide a step-on guide to explain the quilt patterns, the family farms, and the barns themselves while your group travels the back roads of south-central Wisconsin.
Enjoy the fall colors of Racine County brought to you by Mother Nature – and the artists behind the area barn quilts. There are over 20 barn quilts in this southeastern county for motorists, bicyclists and walkers to take in. While you’re in the area, make your way to some local fall favorites such as Apple Holler, Bear Den Wild Life Zoo’s Haunted Woods, Borzynski’s Farm and Floral or Swan’s Pumpkin Farm.
Shawano County is like the holy mecca of barn quilts…as in, it really is the barn quilt capital of Wisconsin (and possibly the nation). I took a barn quilt tour by bike during a recent Discover Wisconsin shoot and I have to say, the whole experience took me by surprise in the best way possible. My tour was quiet, gorgeous and fascinating. I had the luxury of riding alongside Jim, the artist of all 300, and he shared with me some of the stories behind the art of the quilts. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, consider the Bike the Barn Quilts event, held the last Saturday of every September.
Walworth County’s barn quilt project commenced back in 2009 and has since grown to a trail featuring more than 80 barn quilts. Like the counties I’ve featured so far, Walworth County’s Barn Quilt Project is also all about promoting the rural heritage of the area by spotlighting the architecture and history of barns. A few of the barn quilts worth checking out include “Acorn’s Promise,” “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Morning Star.”
What do you know about Wisconsin’s blossoming barn quilt scene? I’d love to hear your thoughts…comment below!
Mariah Haberman hosts the nation’s longest-running tourism TV show, Discover Wisconsin. She hails from Evansville, where she was brought up in a family of seven in a small farmhouse outside of town. Some of her favorite memories include Lake Michigan fishing trips with her Dad, showing sheep at the Rock County Fair and buzzing around the farm on an ATV with her little brother. Watch Discover Wisconsin Saturdays at 10 a.m. on FSN Wisconsin’s outdoor block. (Twitter: @DiscoverWI)