As late-winter brown gives way to spring green, a drive through north-central Minnesota offers some surprising and unexpected flashes of color on barns, businesses and other buildings.
The oversized geometric patterns — painted to resemble classic quilt blocks — are visible on the backroads, byways and Main Streets of cabin country. Started six years ago, the four-county Central Minnesota Barn Quilt Trail now includes 123 bold wooden barn "quilts," with nine more in the works.
"It's really taken off. We're on a mission to bring eye candy, free public outdoor art, to our community and our visitors," said Mary Noska. "It's generating a lot of pride."
Noska, a retired occupational therapist from Browerville, and her friend Lisa Kajer, a retired teacher from Staples, were among the instigators who thought a barn quilt trail would be both a positive community project and a year-round tourist attraction to coax cabin-bound travelers off the highway.
"People can see them from their cars but it might give them a reason to stop, walk around, have lunch or fill up their cars. They might find other cool things going on in our small towns," said Kajer.
What started with seven quilt patterns painted on plywood has expanded. Now there's a map dotted with dozens of stops in and around the towns of Staples, Motley and Wadena, or viewable on the outskirts of smaller burgs like Verndale, Bertha and Clarissa. Visitors can find the map at barnquiltsmn.org, or on brochures posted in local businesses and at the historic Staples depot.
On a sunny day, it's perfectly pleasant to follow a sort of self-guided barn-quilt scavenger hunt on rural roads marked with deer and ATV tracks, with an ear tuned to farm market reports and funeral notices on the local radio station.
"This project started long before anyone knew COVID would hit us, but when people couldn't gather it's become a source of entertainment and wonder, an interesting outing," said Vicki Chepulis of the Five Wings Arts Council, which gave the project a $5,000 grant. "They say, 'Let's grab the map and go check out barn quilts.' "
A national movement
Using barns as canvases is nothing new. With the dawn of the automotive era, advertisers began paying farmers for the privilege of painting billboard-style slogans ("Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco") on roadside barns. Earlier, farmers in Pennsylvania Dutch country painted patterns or circular God's eyes onto their barns.
The first modern barn quilt trail was established in 2001 in rural Ohio. The grassroots concept took off like a prairie fire. Barn quilt trails now meander through 48 states and several Canadian provinces, a popular economic development tool.
"Everyone has quilts in their family, a grandma who quilted. It resonates and that's why the trails have exploded in popularity. The movement dovetails with the resurgence of interest in all things Americana," said Suzi Parron, who cruises the country in her motor home, offering talks on barn quilts and leading workshops on how to make them.
Since 2008 Parron has documented 14,000 barn quilts and co-authored a pair of travel memoirs filled with her photographs and stories she collects and curates.
"We don't have many chances to come together as a community, share with neighbors, with no electronics," she said. "Getting involved gives everyone the chance to be artists. I don't have an artistic bone in my body but I've taught 4,000 people how to make barn quilts."
Minnesota boasts at least eight trails, from Caledonia to the Chisago Lakes, featuring colorful wooden renditions of quilt squares. Carver County's barn quilt trail began in 2011 and has grown to four dozen sites. Bus tours have helped day-trippers view the quilts, with stops at wineries, breweries, orchards and cafes.
Wisconsin's barn-quilt capital, Shawano County near Green Bay, may have the nation's most extensive trail, boasting 366 quilt plaques, mostly on dairy barns. The annual "Bike the Barn Quilts" tour combines fall colors on country roads with the bright geometric designs.
Stories and patterns
The barn quilts in central Minnesota range from 2-by-2-foot boards mounted on homes, fenceposts and mailboxes to 6-by-6 signs on local shops to the 8-by-8 graphic images sometimes hoisted onto the sides of barns by a bucket truck borrowed from the local electrical co-op.
Artists brought into town have helped locals prepare, prime and paint their boards; art students at Staples-Motley High School have created more than 40 barn quilts.
"Students research the history of the patterns and use a ton of math skills to get the pattern on the boards. It's precise and demanding work," said art teacher Jill Schneider.
"In our small towns, it's a great thing for kids to have ownership in the community and see their artwork on display."
Fabric quilts have a long American heritage. Thrifty pioneers stitched leftover strips and scraps of material to create warm and beautiful blankets. Needle crafters wove stories into their patterns, incorporating geometric motifs of stars, flowers, baskets, wheels and patriotic or religious symbols.
Some of the patterns on the central Minnesota trail create visual puns: The Staples Dairy Queen chose the Milky Way quilt pattern, the Rays of Hope pattern is at a Lutheran church and Crossed Canoes hangs on the picnic pavilion at the Old Wadena Park and Campground.
"We love stories associated with the patterns. Storm at Sea was chosen by a Navy veteran for the family barn, but it's in shades of green because his wife said he was tired of navy blue. And there's a pattern called Burning Barn on the new barn on a farm where their century barn was destroyed by fire," Kajer said.
A barn quilt with an ice cream cone centered in the Churn Dash pattern hangs outside Don & Dave's, a country store on the banks of the Long Prairie River. The family-run operation has sold groceries, gasoline and fishing tackle and licenses for 65 years.
"We dip some ice cream so we put that on our quilt. People see it and ask for cones even in winter. I had snowmobilers stop in this week," said owner Dave Noska.
The pandemic slowed the expansion of the Barn Quilt Trail. Organizers are thinking big about resuming their project and inspiring residents to join in, imagining that the number of patterns could eventually double.
"There are lots of people who might not go to museums but like looking at our barn quilts," said Chepulis. "That's the real beauty of this."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis writer and broadcaster.
Pit stops on the Barn Quilt Trail
Oma's Bread (10 Aldrich Av. SW., Wadena): Immaculate German restaurant operated by an immigrant couple from the Black Forest. The Schmidlins serve authentic schnitzel or bratwurst accompanied by pillowy spaetzel and chewy rye bread. Save room for scratch-made eclairs, cream puffs and streusel. The aptly named heavenly torte features orange-flavored whipped cream sandwiched between layers of almond meringue cake (omasbread.com).
Little Round Still (114 S. Jefferson St., Wadena): The distillery's name is a playful twist on the name Wadena, or "little round hill" in Ojibwe. Located in a former JCPenney on the main drag, the tasting room has barrels for tables and windows to show off the copper stills where vodka, rum, bourbon and whiskey are tanked. The menu offers traditional cocktails or a flight of four half-ounce pours for $6. Habango Vodka, flavored with habanero and mango, offers a sweet kick in a Bloody Mary (littleroundstill.com).
Morey's Seafood Market (1218 Hwy. 10 S., Motley): Smoked fish aficionados cruise the cases at the original Morey's, satisfying cravings since the Great Depression. Visitors who load up on ready-to-eat peppered salmon nuggets or smoked lake trout spread have been spotted snacking in the parking lot. Other specialties include walleye, whole smoked whitefish and pickled herring in a neon pink lingonberry sour cream sauce (moreysmarkets.com).