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Welcome to Barn-Quilt Country

Welcome to Barn-Quilt Country

Jim Leuenberger grew up on a dairy farm in northeast Iowa, worked in dairy for his whole career and then retired to Shawano County, Wis., a major dairy producing area. In 2011, after noticing quilt-like art adorning the barns near where his sister lives in Kentucky, he thought it would be nice to bring the same project to his community.

“There were a lot of dairy barns in the county that could have a barn quilt,” he said.

Barn quilts are a homegrown art form that combines a few aspects of traditional Americana: barns, quilts and road trips. Over the past 20 years, creators from Ohio to Canada have painted wood squares that are reminiscent of quilt designs and put them on the sides of barns and other buildings. Some communities, including Fairbanks, Alaska, and Bowling Green, Ky., have created “quilt trails” of multiple pieces to entice travelers to drive through (and spend money in) their country towns to see the art.

The squares typically hew closely to traditional quilt patterns, like Compass Star, Carpenter’s Wheel, and Corn and Beans. Others are inspired by nature or local industry. Many of the quilt trails have been organized by civic groups, local arts councils, quilt guilds, 4-H clubs, school groups and other organizations as community-driven beautification and celebration of local establishments.

Mr. Leuenberger and his wife, Irene, had a goal to create and paint 25 barn quilts as a retirement activity — one that would give back to the community. They made the 8-by-8 foot barn quilts, out of two pieces of plywood laid side-by-side, for any barn owner who was interested. Demand was so great that the couple created 96 in 2011 and then 86 in 2012. Since then the numbers have grown: Shawano County now has 366 barn quilts, perhaps the most of any county in the United States, with all but about two dozen completed by the Leuenbergers.

Before the pandemic, the local tourism board organized two-day bus tours to see local sights, including the barn quilts, for under $200. Other groups, including nearby retirement communities, regularly arranged private group excursions.

Besides some grumbling about additional traffic — which Patti Peterson, Shawano County’s tourism manager, said she tells new barn quilt owners to expect — the community has embraced the project, with the local lumber and paint stores giving Mr. Leuenberger discounts. While the bus tours were canceled during the pandemic, Ms. Peterson said people still came in their own cars, buying a guidebook at the local Chamber of Commerce.

“People could do it on their own, and they loved it,” she said. “It’s possible 365 days a year, no matter the weather.”

Making friends along the way is part of the trail’s charm for Dusty Rogers and her daughter, Kate, who go on mother-daughter trips to Shawano County. They often pull into driveways to take photos and meet the owners of the barn quilts.

“It leads to these amazing conversations,” Dusty Rogers said. “One woman gave us a whole tour of her farm, we met her animals and heard about the history of the farm.”

For Ms. Rogers, who said she grew up on a small family farm, discovering barn quilts has given her hope and something to look forward to seeing again this summer.

“The first time I ever saw a barn quilt, I was blown away,” she said. “Someone cared enough to keep up and beautify their barn.”

The art form was created in 2001 when Donna Sue Groves, who lived in a rural community in Ohio’s Adams County, had an idea to do an art project inspired by her mother, Maxine, a quilter, and beautify their barn at the same time. Pushed by neighbors who wanted to take part, Ms. Groves worked with the Ohio Arts Council to expand the project, employing local artists to do 20 pieces, the usual number of squares in a quilt.

Suzi Parron saw a barn quilt for the first time in 2008 in Cadiz, Ky. Since then, she has published two books on barn quilts, helped dozens of barn-quilt trails get established and documented the trend’s art and culture.

“For a lot of people, it’s a pride of place for these multigenerational farms,” Ms. Parron said. “But it’s also community development. People are going to come and drive through your area and see everything else your community has to offer.”

Ms. Parron said that there are at least 16,000 barn quilts in more than 300 organized trails, with possibly hundreds more scattered quietly through the countryside, waiting for serendipitous discovery.

The oldest barn quilts are now two decades old; paint fades, especially outdoors, while wood can warp or be covered in vines. Some owners have repainted or replaced barn quilts, but aging is part of the process. The size and placement of the pieces can make it hard to manage any upkeep.

While most barn quilts are meant to be viewed from a car, smaller pieces, good for walking tours, also exist.

In Ohio, the town of Fostoria touches Hancock, Seneca and Wood counties. With two nearby barn-quilt trails, Michele Cochran, Fostoria’s tourism director, thought her town could serve as a connector. With Ms. Parron’s help in 2018, volunteers have since put up about 50, mostly 2-by-2 foot, barn-quilt pieces in the downtown area. It’s so popular that a large mural made of another 50 smaller barn quilts is planned for a brewery that has offered up the wall space.

“It’s a bunch of community members coming together in what we call a new-fashion quilting bee,” Ms. Cochran said.

Some projects are more celebrations of the past. In 2011, several residents of Wardsville, Ontario, who were planning a quilt trail in commemoration of the War of 1812 approached Leslee White-Eye, a Chippewas of the Thames First Nation member and community organizer, about having an Indigenous sister trail on the nearby Chippewas of the Thames reserve.

Ms. White-Eye brought the idea to a group of Indigenous quilters. Thirteen quilters representing the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Lenape Nations painted 31 barn-quilt pieces that started to go up in 2012, with designs ranging between classic quilt patterns and others more representative of the Indigenous experience in the 1800s.

By “celebrating our untold history as Indigenous women by gathering in a circle of retelling,” Ms. White-Eye said, she “couldn’t think of a better community project.”

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