You may have seen them in Iowa. You may have seen them out on the prairie. And if you make it down to the farm, you’ll see them right here in Sawyer County! These precision-painted pieces adorning agricultural structures are known as “barn quilts,” and they are growing in popularity—both for the farmers who own the structures and for the public who travels to see them.
Often when we think of quilts, what comes to mind are intricately patterned fabrics lovingly stitched in geometric designs on Grandmother’s bed. Every piece tells a story and ever stitch is filled with time, care, and love. Barn quilts also require a fine sense of detail and historicity, but the mediums are different—plywood and paint instead of fabric and thread. But just as comforting quilts have a rich past, so too does the barn quilt.
The first use of barn quilts dates approximately 300 years ago in Pennsylvania amidst Dutch settlements. At this time, paint was expensive, so barns typically went unpainted—weathering to a natural gray. Artistic inclinations have a way of sprouting forth despite all obstacles, and color found a way to distinguish barns by the addition of painted quilt squares in prominent locations on the barn’s exterior. One of the definitions of art is “to make special,” and barn quilts served exactly that purpose during these colonial years. Their popularity made it customary to give directions by using the names of the quilt squares on individual barns.
“Once you reach snail’s trail, keep to the right until you see the drunkard’s path. Then you’ll have reached the Mason farm.”
Like Old Time fiddle tunes, each quilt block has a unique name that refers to its history, creation, or the imaginative nature of its initial maker. And, not unlike fiddle tunes, while many blocks may appear similar to the casual eye, careful study will show interesting variations and new twists on basic shapes like triangles, rectangles, and squares. The patterns used in quilting are inseparable from the physics of piecing bits of fabric together to form a coherent whole that still lays flat when finished, and barn quilt patterns keep to these traditional boundaries, including using established block names.
My Aunt Jana (who grew up on the prairie in Nebraska) has a particular fondness for barn quilts—emailing me pictures of her latest finds. And when, as an inter-generational family project, we decided to create our own barn quilt, it was the name that inspired the final pattern choice. Since 1968, when my grandparents purchased the homestead from the Fullington family, this place has always been called “North Star,” which influenced the farm’s official name as North Star Homestead. When Jana discovered that there was a North Star quilt block, it seemed like a perfect fit.
The North Star block has a significant history shrouded in a lingering sense of mystery. Before the Civil War decided America’s official opinion on the issue of slavery, tens if not hundreds of thousands of African Americans were ushered to freedom in the northern states and Canada by way of the Underground Railroad. This was not a real railroad with steam engines or tracks, but a path taken by night with “Safe Houses” along the way to hide the fugitives on their treacherous journey north. A complex and extremely secret code system for helping slaves escape included the use of quilts. A widely recognized theory tells that women would hang a quilt bearing the North Star block on the front porch to help the runaways know that they had reached a Safe House.
The age of the Underground Railroad came at about the same time that paint became cheap, and barns were seldom left to weather into silvery gray anymore. A particular shade of red, as well as a crisp white, happened to be the most economical, and they subsequently coated many a barn across the country. With the coming of cheap paints and the rise of the advertising industry, it became popular among some farmers to sport advertisements (in exchange for monetary compensation) on the sides of their painted barns, rather than the antiquated barn quilts.
But just as fashions have their cycles, so too did the beautiful barn quilts. But this time, instead of originating in New England, the resurgence of barn quilts came from the American Heartland—the Great Planes states, Iowa, and other parts of the Midwest. Many counties in Wisconsin now have maps for taking barn quilt tours, and new barn quilts can be seen on our rolling country lanes every year. While the early pieces distinguished families making a new start in a New World, today’s quilts honor the efforts of women in agriculture throughout history as well as today. Grandmother’s quilts may have worn to tatters, but the memory of her loving hands endures.
Painting a barn quilt is a unique challenge. These pieces are quite large—typically eight feet square. Lines must be very straight and precise, the pattern well proportioned and bold, and completion requires many coats of paint to achieve a rich and solid saturation of color. The next major challenge is getting this large piece up onto the face of the barn. Often, this is done with the assistance of a cherry picker, but when our North Star block was ready for hanging, we were not so lucky as to have such a machine handy. Instead, our friend and contractor Jon Sorensen erected scaffolding in front of the barn, fastened a pulley just below the roof, and screwed metal straps to the top of the barn quilt. A sturdy rope was tied to the quilt, threaded up through the pulley, and then affixed to the back of our trusty farm ATV. It was precarious and nerve-wracking, especially with all those tedious coats of paint at risk of being scuffed, but we were ready.
Jon, his son Kyle, and my sister Kara supported the quilt between the barn and the scaffolding and gave my mother and me the “all clear.” We inched the ATV forward a little…then a little more…then a little bit more…as we watched the quilt ease its way up and up and up. Kyle and Kara crawled like squirrels amidst the scaffolding, and Jon was ready with his power drill to secure the barn quilt in place once we reached the top. Everyone breathed deeply and shook their hands free of tension after all was safe.
The quilt changed our historic 1919 barn completely. For several weeks after the barn quilt’s installation, it would catch my eye during chores, like when a lady dramatically changes her hair color. I love to watch the morning sun glisten off the dew on the barn quilt’s face or the mid-day shadows shift like a sun dial over its points, cast from the peak in the barn roof. Our many farm visitors love seeing the barn quilt and learning about its story, meaning, and creation.
When we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, styled after the silhouette and flavor of our barn, we knew that there would have to be another barn quilt—this time a three-quarter sized version. It was mid-winter when we painted the piece, so it was much too cold to paint outside or in the barn. I was holding a brush for some final touchups in the farmhouse dining room when Grandpa called.
“What’s going on up there at the farm?”
“Well, right now I’m painting the barn quilt.”
“That’s great, where are you painting?”
“Well, do you really want to know…” I finally asked.
Another long pause.
“Maybe some things are better just left unsaid,” he replied
We both laughed.
“Just tell Grandma that there are lots of sheets and blankets everywhere.”
Did I mention something about art springing forth despite adversity? This week, as you drive some meandering country lanes, watch for barn quilts, learn their stories, and enjoy this bit of farming heritage. See you down at the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com