Across much of Wisconsin, a drive through the countryside is likely to yield a sighting of a splash of color mounted to a barn or elsewhere on a farm.
That’s thanks to numerous barn quilts, often of geometric designs reminiscent of their fabric counterparts, that have populated rural areas of the state. While smaller barn quilts of 2-by-2 feet or 4-by-4 feet are also common (and easier to complete), many of the works of art are an eye-popping 8-by-8 feet, bound to catch the eyes of those riding or driving by.
And as the weather continues to warm, those barn quilts are just waiting to share their beauty and history with summertime adventurers with a passion for road trips.
Barn quilts weren’t always as common across the state, but people seeking to bring additional character to the countryside and receptive farm owners excited to highlight their heritage have embraced the folk art form.
Inspired by barn quilts seen during travels with his wife, Jim Leuenberger thought it would be fun to bring the idea to Shawano County a little over a decade ago.
The decision to move forward with barn quilts was made in June 2010. The first few were hung that fall.
Since then, the growth of the project has blown past all expectations, with 366 8-by-8-foot barn quilts — and counting — to see on the county’s barn quilt trail.
Because of that high number, Shawano County has now claimed for itself the title of “Barn Quilt Capital of Wisconsin” and quite possibly the country.
At this point, Leuenberger said, it wouldn’t be surprising if there was a unique barn quilt somewhere on every road in the county.
“It’s been amazing how the project has been accepted,” Leuenberger said.
And just as Leuenberger was inspired by barn quilts he saw elsewhere, the Shawano County barn quilts, each carefully documented and photographed, have served as inspiration for others.
In fact, the Shawano County barn quilts were the impetus behind Mary and Mike Kolstad’s decision to undertake a similar effort across the state.
Mary loved the barn quilts she saw in Shawano County so much that Mike said he knew quickly that it was already decided that they would have to try bring barn quilts to the western part of the state. Six years after they first started painting barn quilts, they’ve done much to accomplish that mission.
Over two dozen barn quilts are officially listed in a Dunn County Barn Quilt Trail brochure, with at least another 10 to 15 waiting to be added, Mary said. And the Kolstads’ barn quilting efforts have spread well beyond the confines of the county, thanks to additional commissions and barn quilt workshops that have increased the spread of the art form in western Wisconsin and into Minnesota.
Creating barn quilts does take considerable time and dedication. Leuenberger said it roughly takes 2 weeks for each 8-by-8-foot quilt block.
And while other individuals and organizations, like 4-H clubs, have helped with some quilts, Leuenberger and his wife and the Kolstads have largely undertaken the work for the barn quilts in their respective regions.
“It’s just a nice feeling for Michael and I to be able to do this,” Mary Kolstad said.
And the Kolstads additionally have their barn quilt workshops, with day-long sessions dedicated to helping people create their own smaller (2-by-2 or 4-by-4) barn quilts. The Kolstads said they’ve lost track of the exact number of barn quilts created through workshops, but the figure is well over 700.
For both Leuenberger and the Kolstads, highlighting the agricultural history of each unique farm is at the forefront of the barn quilt projects.
Having these barn quilts is a way to encourage people to keep their barns restored, Leuenberger said.
Katie Wantoch, agriculture agent for UW-Extension Dunn County, which has partnered on the county’s barn quilt project, agreed that one of the highlights of having a barn quilt trail was the opportunity to “showcase the history of the barns.”
“I think people want to get back to their heritage a little bit,” Mary Kolstad said.
Each barn quilt has special meaning for the family that hangs it on their farm, she said.
In areas with established barn quilt trails, hopes are that the tours will also attract visitors to the region and boost tourism.
Essentially from the beginning of the Shawano County project, tourism was part of the equation, said Patti Peterson, tourism manager for the Shawano Country Chamber of Commerce, who works to promote the barn quilt project.
“It’s amazing how people travel here specifically for the quilts,” Peterson said.
The barn quilts spread throughout the countryside attract people with a variety of interests, from motorcycle riders to classic car enthusiasts to, well, quilters, Peterson said. Some dedicated tourists make return trips just to the newest quilts since their last visit.
Wantoch and Peterson both said that the barn quilt tours saw extra interest last year, thanks to it being a physically distant activity during a pandemic.
With pandemic-related restrictions easing, Peterson said she hoped that people would feel more comfortable making stops along the way to enjoy everything else the county has to offer.
Leuenberger said that there are “a lot of fun things to do in Shawano County,” including dining, swimming and boating.
In Dunn County, a trip to see barn quilts can also have people visiting local coffeehouses, enjoying the available parks and recreation opportunities, and taking part in nearby festivals, Mary Kolstad said.
“Wisconsin is so beautiful.” she said. And taking a road trip through the state to see barn quilts can be a great way to explore it in a way everyone can enjoy. “I see it as family time.”