Riding the roads that cut through the farm fields of Shawano County, Wisconsin, yields one colorful surprise after another. The county, located near the middle of the state, is home to nearly 50,000 people, an untold number of dairy cows and 305 8-by-8-foot barn quilts.
A barn quilt is a quilt block design painted on a large piece of wood and hung on a barn. Although barn quilts exist around the country, if you’ve traveled the backroads of the midwestern and southern United States, you’ve likely easily spotted them soaring over lush green fields of corn and alfalfa. The trend reportedly gained traction in Ohio in 2001, when Donna Sue Groves honored her mother by attaching one to her family barn — from there, the quilt blocks started popping up like milkweed in the spring. Today, the practice is a bona fide movement, and Suzi Parron (the author with Groves of a book about the practice) maintains a website that includes a guide to quilt trails around the country.
Photos by Jim Leuenberger
Shawano County reportedly has more 8-by-8 barn quilts than any other place in the United States, and it all started with an idea hatched on a long drive from Wisconsin to Kentucky. It’s a route Jim Leuenberger takes often, because the Shawano County resident likes to visit his sister who lives in the Bluegrass State. He had grown up on a dairy farm in Iowa, and so he was right at home when his work as a public relations professional at a cattle breeding corporation took him to Shawano, another dairy community.
But life was changing in the county; more and more families were getting out of the milk business. Many of the large dairy barns were empty, and some were falling into disrepair. Leuenberger, who had just retired, looked at the quilts rolling by as he drove on the interstate and thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to start a barn quilt trail in Shawano?” That flicker of a vision grew into something much, much larger — an idea that blanketed the community, giving new life to old barns and drawing the residents even more closely together.
Leuenberger approached Patti Peterson, tourism manager at the local chamber of commerce about the idea, and she was sold. The harder sell was his wife, Irene. Although she was in favor, one question gave her pause. “Who will paint all of these?” she asked Leuenberger. Hesitation turned to concern when he answered, “We will!” (She confesses, “I thought he was crazy.”)
Now, with hundreds of quilts under their belt, the couple are quilt-painting pros (quilts are also painted by 4-H groups and the Shawano Barn Quilt Committee). Leuenberger notes that each quilt has a history, and many are beautiful tributes. Here are a few of the stories behind the quilt blocks.