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Home / Barn quilts offer brighten up the countryside
A few winters ago, a case of cabin fever set in.
We yearned for the warmth and color of spring, but it was still weeks away. With no better plans, we jumped in the car and went on a day trip on small roads that threaded through farms.
On this gray day, the world was cast in black and white. No color at all. Then, as we passed a frosty farm, the brilliant colors of a design painted on the side of a barn contrasted with white snow and a gray sky.
It was a barn quilt, and we've since viewed hundreds of them along Iowa's highways and back roads.
Barn quilts are large block patterns painted on signboard-quality wood and hung on the sides of barns, homes or garages. They often reflect a family's interest or heritage. Themes vary from traditional quilt patterns to whimsical.
Coronavirus has made 2020 a stressful year. Like many families we, canceled long planned trips. Winter's coming and social isolation seems likely.
During those short cold days, we'll seek color on the sides of Iowa's classic barns. Day trips are safe, get us out of the house and seeking new barn quilts is the bait that brings us down roads we've never traveled before.
One of our favorites is the bright barn quilt design painted on the side of the classic red barn off Highway 30, just west of Palisades Kepler State Park. It piqued our curiosity and we began noticing others as we rambled about. As our delight in this colorful art increased, our search for new ones became more organized.
Research helped. A Google search revealed more than 40 Iowa counties with barn quilt trails. Most are north of I-80 and Highway 30. The Iowa Barn Quilt website is complete with road maps, suggested routes, addresses and whether travel is on gravel or hard surface. We also found trails in other states. In fact, more than 40 states boast barn quilt trails. Some better organized than others.
Printed maps in hand, off we went on day trips that brought us home before dark, even on short winter days. Research and experience taught us not all maps are accurate. We found some quilts in sad repair. Others had vanished. But we were delighted to find new ones not listed in on the website.
Discovering vibrant colors in intriguing patterns is pure serendipity.
Two of our favorite barn quilt trails take us on loops around Delaware and Washington counties.
Creating our own tour one fall day, we traveled parts of four loops in three counties - Linn, Jones and Delaware. Along Highway 13 of the Robinson-Ryan Loop we stopped to photograph several barn quilts. Then, we veered off the blacktop and kicked up a rooster tail of dust as we poked down gravel roads. Once, when our car crested a ridge, we enjoyed a classic Iowa sight - red barns and silver silos gleaming in the distance. Then we spotted the barn quilt. Late afternoon sunlight filtering through a row of arbor vitae trees highlighted one of the most colorful quilts we've ever seen.
Small roads lure motorists to barn quilts and the gently rolling landscape of Iowa's beautiful farmland. Off toward the Delhi Loop, where the Maquoketa River twists and turns among hills and wetlands, nestle classic farms with barn quilts brightening up the countryside. For those who like to take pictures, low afternoon sunlight helps capture pleasing photos but early mornings also offer just right light.
While passing through Manchester this fall, we spotted a sign pointing to the farmers market. After admiring an array of crafts and treats, we headed out of town on County Road D13. It parallels Honey Creek and seemed inviting.
John Deeres lumbered across farm fields, harvesting beans and corn as herons flapped lazily down the creek. An eagle lifted off an unfortunate opossum that had been hit by a car. Our passing on this quiet road disturbed the huge bird's dinner.
At the Red School Historic Site on D13, we stopped for our snack and learned about education in days gone by. It is open by appointment in the warm months. Before modern schools were built, simple one-room schools opened the world for rural children. Now the pandemic is creating a resurgence of the 'one-room school” concept with parents teaching their children at home.
After leaving the Red School House, we took a lucky wrong turn on the Backbone Loop. Spotting a barn quilt off the gravel road, we drove into the farm and met Jody and Roger Helmrichs. He is president of the Delaware County Barn Quilt Association. As they showed us around their farm, they shared the stories of their 'Hole in the Barn Door” and 'Bear Paws” barn quilt designs. They also shared a beautiful color booklet of Barn Quilts of Delaware County folks can buy to guide them on their trail quests.
After talking with neighbors who also were eager to create block prints, the association decided to 'do it right.” They researched designs and best materials. Helmrichs pointed out that to have a barn quilt last many years you have to use quality grade 2, 4 or 8-foot wood squares and the best outdoor paint. Several layers. Finish off with clear coat protection.
Then, Jody and Roger explained how the whole barn quilt idea got started. It birthed along the Ohio-Kentucky border in Adams County, southeast of Cincinnati. The story goes that Donna Sue Groves wanted to honor her mother, a quilter herself, with something enduring. The barn quilt idea was born. It became so popular that friends wanted one. Many designs are fashioned after quilts from their grandmas. Soon many barn quilts graced the sides of Ohio barns.
The idea caught on and now, travelers can find them throughout the United States. Barn Quilt Trail websites are helpful to plot routes that pass barn quilts in many states. According to Pantheos, the most trails are in Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa and Ohio. Not surprisingly, the Driftless areas of southern Wisconsin and northwest Illinois boast barn quilt trails.
Quilt and state maps help travelers find the quilts and have other helpful information about the area, like the locations of campsites, historic sites and alluring scenery. While searching for quilts, we discovered a life-size statue of the famous Clydesdale horses of the Budweiser Hitch in Greeley, Iowa.
On this day trip the most interesting quilt we discovered was on the McCurdy's barn. The yard was peaceful and inspiring with tasteful decorations, a windmill peeking over the top of the porched farmhouse, and the Starry Compass quilt highlighting the stately barn.
A few counties with trails are sprinkled in the southern part of the state. The subdued, harvested farmland with looming red, white, silver and weathered barns is brightened with unique barn quilt designs. Washington County boasts more than 100 quilts. A dozen or so brighten the town's streets.
Washington County barn quilt project creators are so well organized they created four different loops, each featuring a different Iowa theme. A non-theme loop completes the options.
The website features a photo of the barns on each loop, the address and route suggestions. Be sure to swing by the Kalona Historic Village to view several on the sides of the school, store and buggy shop.
Even in winter, Barn Quilt trails are accessible and fun. Gravel roads are more firm and less dusty than during other seasons. Winter's light can be captivating.
If you're headed to St. Louis, watch along the Avenue of the Saints for barn quilts. One we like is in Ainsworth at US 218 and IA 92, a town that makes a good rest stop anyway.
Next on our list is a multiday trip along the Mississippi River into Minnesota's Chisago and Washington counties. So, this fall, pause and take a day trip into the country. Or at least take a gander at the lovely barn quilts that dot our rural countrysides.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encouraging people to 'Create Wondrous Yards.”