North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Barn Dance

Circle to the left

And back to the right

Right-hand star

And a left-hand star

 

Do-si-do your corner

Then do-si-do your partner

Circle left, then

Moving couples on you go to the next set!

A few folks who are new to old-time country dancing gently bump into each other, laughing, as the others pull them along.  It’s early evening, and 80-plus adventuresome people have journeyed down the long gravel road to Farmstead Creamery for a night of local fun and flavor in the Locally Grown Summer Music Series. 

The American folks dance band Duck for the Oyster plays beneath a canopy outside, with the historic yet contemporary blends of fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and upright bass.  Blue and red and green lawn chairs scattered in the yard hold everyone from boisterous children as well as white-haired grandparents, while the dancers circle round in the parking lot.  Dragonflies and hummingbirds flit overhead, there is a gentle breeze, and the air is just cool enough to make the dancing quite a pleasurable invigoration.

Lines go forward and lines go back

Right hands round your partner

Then left hands round your partner

Top couple chasses down the line

Then come on back

Reel the set—there we go

And cast off

Cathy (the dance caller) wears her classic red dress and black dance shoes, directing the participants through the different parts of the dance—like building a story in movement, piece by piece.  In the 18th Century, and even into the 19th, dances were often taught by dancing masters that would travel from village to hamlet.  Flamboyant characters, these masters often created quite a stir in the community, especially for the young ladies.

Community dancing was a way to spend time having fun with your neighbors, to meet the new folks in town, or to look for an eligible partner.  Holding a dance at a farmhouse or a barn was a way to celebrate the completion of harvest or other important seasonal transitions.  If you’ve ever been folk dancing, then you’ll know the unique feeling of coming in at the end of a long day, bone weary, only to feel the spizerinktum come back after a whirling session of dance to lively old tunes.

Heel and toe and heel and toe

And slide, slide, slide

Heel and toe and heel and toe

And slide, slide, slide

 

Right-hand clap

Left-hand clap

Both-hand clap

Clap your knees

Circle round, then change partners!

Sometimes we Midwestern folks can get a bit hesitant to dance together.  We don’t get many chances to dance together, we feel awkward, and what might other people think of us!  But at a barn dance, it doesn’t matter when you last danced.  It doesn’t matter if you know the steps because everyone’s happy to help you learn, and there’s no fancy footwork involved.  Feel the rhythm of the music and the pressure on your hand from your partner, and just enjoy moving together, laughing together, and being together.

The other magical part of barn dancing comes by working with your partner.  Whether it’s the same person throughout the dance or it changes after each round of the melody, you get to learn something about them through the strength or warmth in their hands, their boldness or fluidness of movement, their smile.  Swings, when executed with confidence, give you that moment of centripetal force that one person alone cannot achieve.  Harkening back before the days of roller-coaster rides, this moment of pull and twirl must have been a special thrill.

Forward, two, three, pivot

And back, two, three, four

Forward, two, three, pivot

And back, two, three, four

 

Step together, step apart

Put the ladies to the middle

Step together, step apart

Under the arch to your new partner

The music gradually begins to quicken.  Some of the listeners are clapping along, while two of the little girls hop from side to side next to Grandma, in rhythm with the dancers.  The sun is slowly sinking behind the farm, casting golden shafts of light over the tops of the trees.  Then the music stops, everyone claps, and it is time for the groups of twos and threes and fours to pack up their lawn chairs and saunter back to their cars.  Everyone is chatting, shaking hands, and calling, “See you next time!”  Perhaps this has been an evening they will remember for many years.

Have you made it to a barn dance yet?  Sweep off the floor, grab your dancing shoes, and come to the gathering.  You just might surprise yourself by discovering something you didn’t know you enjoyed.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Barn Quilts

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?”

Long pause.

“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

 
 
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