I love my home state of Wisconsin. There are so many wonderful things that the state offers…including this great article from Wisconsin State Journal on barn quilting. A must read.
MONTICELLO – This might seem like an odd time of the year to be talking about quilts.
Temperatures should be in the 80s on Memorial Day and we finally might be able to put the ice scraper away. Although some in the state needed a quilt Friday morning when the temperature dipped into the mid-20s in the North Woods.
But in Green, Lafayette and Rock counties, quilts are turning into a year-round tourism draw. But instead of fabric, these quilts are made of plywood, patiently painted and hung on the sides of barns.
The rural art phenomenon originated in Ohio in 2001, but Wisconsin is playing a leading role nationally on the barn quilt tour circuit. Green County, for example, has 106 barn quilts, believed to be the highest in any county in the U.S.
“We’ll keep doing it until we stop getting applications,” said Lynn Lokken, who co-founded the barn quilt project in Green County in 2007. “We’re lucky we have a lot of barns. I thought if we had 30 barns and one bus trip, it would be good.”
Last year, more than 20 bus tours rambled the highways and town roads of Green County while many others toured the area by car, bike and motorcycle. They not only snapped pictures of the quilts and their host barns but spent money at shops, restaurants, hotels and gas stations.
At the Amish Bakery near Albany, bus tour groups were served meatloaf, mashed potatoes and slices of raisin cream, coconut and strawberry-rhubarb pie.
At Quilter’s Compass, a quilt shop that opened last August in a former general store in downtown Monticello, 14 people (including Lokken) are learning how to make a cloth quilt incorporating 12 of the barn quilts into the design. Shop owner and teacher Barb Hartman has plans to put all the barn quilts onto real quilts, something that will likely keep her busy for the next five to 10 years.
“Some of them are very complicated,” Hartman said.
The fewer colors and the pieces in a quilt, the easier it is to make, Hartman told me when I visited her shop last week.
Some of the easier blocks in the quilt contain as few as 14 pieces. However, one of the blocks has 64, making it a real challenge for the beginners in her class.
The complex designs also made it a challenge for those making the barn quilts. Each is constructed of two 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood. It gets two coats of primer and each color on the barn quilt gets four coats of paint.
Lokken and co-founder Kris Winkler work with barn owners to come up with a unique pattern and color scheme, but Lokken and Winkler have painted the majority of the barn quilts in the county. Barn owners pay for materials and to have the quilt hung.
“We really don’t want duplicates. We want them to be as different as possible,” Winkler said. “We really did it to honor agriculture.”
In Lafayette County, more than 60 barn quilts decorate the rolling countryside.
Kewaunee County has 18; Racine County, 21; and Door County, 17.
Rock County has more than 70 barn quilts and just released a tour map. In Walworth County, there are 53 barn quilts, another 12 are being painted and 15 more are waiting to be constructed, said Peg Reedy of the county’s UW-Extension office.
“We have several bus tours being planned for the summer,” Reedy wrote in an email. “As with most barn quilt projects, there are some great stories involved. We have had two mishaps: one barn burnt down, but the barn quilt was re-painted and put on another building. One barn didn’t survive a tornado, although the barn quilt did.”
The designs of the barn quilts are personal.
At the Silver Lewis Cheese factory, founded in 1897 east of Monticello, the barn quilt reflects Josh and Carla Erickson’s love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The couple, who bought the cheese factory in 2004, have a Heritage Softail, a Softail Fat Boy and an Electra Glide Classic.
Their barn quilt is patterned after one they saw in Lafayette County but is painted orange and black.
“We liked that design but thought it would look nice in Harley-Davidson colors,” Josh Erickson said. “It added a little something to it.”
Peg Schmidt’s and Roberta Kurtz’s barn quilt is based on the windmill that was once used to pump water at their 39-acre Two Chatelaines Farm west of New Glarus. Neither of the two friends live on the property but rent the farmhouse to vacationers and for retreats. The former dairy barn is now home to five shetland ewes and now a colorful plywood quilt put up in 2009.
“It became kind of a search of what we both liked and what would add character,” Schmidt said. “Barns are just part of the history of our area and the preservation of them is important. It was a real fun project.”
Green County is known for its cheesemaking, breweries, Swiss history, biking and Monroe’s downtown square. Barn quilts have now joined that list of popular tourist attractions.
“It fits in so well in our area because of our rural heritage,” said Noreen Rueckert, Green County’s tourism director. “There’s just this niche of people who are just crazy about them.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.