Since the early to mid-1800s, barns have provided a canvas for a special kind of folk art that originated with immigrants from the Rhine Valley of Europe collectively referred to as the “Pennsylvania Dutch”.
Brightly-colored symbols usually featured patterns like stars, triangles, compass roses and stylized birds similar to those seen in quilts and infused with special meaning. The familiar eight-pointed star, for example, was believed to evoke goodwill and abundance.
Colors also had their own significance. Black represented protection or the binding elements. White stood for purity, green for growth, fertility and success, blue for peace and spirituality.
Following a pattern
With the dawn of the 21st century has come a new twist on an old idea with the emergence of the barn quilts that are becoming a more common sight throughout the countryside of southeastern Wisconsin.
Painted on an 8’x8’ piece of plywood, quilt “blocks” can be seen hung from barns, sheds, granaries and other outbuildings. And like the hex symbols of yore, each celebrates the heritage, dreams and aspirations of its creators.
For the past year or so, two Dunn County women have been holding workshops to teach the craft of creating smaller 2’x2’ and 4’x4’ versions of the popular barn quilt.
During the day, Janine Thull is the director of UW-Stout’s Academic Advisement Center, while Mary Kolstad is a retired business teacher from Chipppewa Valley Technical College. About six months ago, they approached Katie Wantoch, agricultural agent specializing in economic development for the Dunn County UW-Extension, about boosting the area’s agri-tourism efforts.
As quickly as a needle flashes through the fabric of its cloth counterpart, the Dunn County Barn Quilt Project was born. A cooperative effort among the UW-Extension Dunn County, Menomonie Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, the goal is to hang barn quilts throughout the county and design a “trail” to attract visitors to the area and its businesses.
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Part of the plan is to create a brochure and map that provides a description of each quilt block and brief history of the farm or other location where it can be found.
“We hope that tourists will not only enjoy the beauty of the quilt block, but gain a greater appreciation for the rich history of each farm, agriculture and the surrounding area while traveling through Dunn County,” Wantoch explained.
Creating the quilt
During spring break last week, Kolstad and Thull got a start on the first four quilts. They enlisted the help of Katlynn Pickler, an Elk Mound High School graduate and UW-Stout junior majoring in human development and family studies. Their husbands — Mike Kolstad and Jeff Richter — prepared the sheets of plywood used to create each block.
“They also help with the math and measuring for the patterns and the hanging when the quilts are done,” Thull said.
A few “trailblazers” in the county already have their own barn quilts on display and are invited to have them included on the tour. For those who don’t, the women consult with the owners of farms and agri-businesses who have applied to have a barn quilt created.
“We guide them through the process,” Kolstad said. “We help them develop a pattern and how to lay it out.”
Wanstad said each barn quilt participant is being asked for a five-year commitment to what is being envisioned as an ongoing project. Local businesses are also welcome to join the project through a monetary sponsorship of a barn quilt or a donation of supplies. Wantoch can be reached at 715-232-1635 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
An application to request a barn quilt, patterns and more details about the project can be found on the Dunn County UW-Extension’s website at http://dunn.uwex.edu.