By Eva Apelqvist
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
A large colorful picture of a patchwork heart, a winking owl, a traditional shamrock framed in orange and blue – these are some of the lovely and surprising images you might stumble upon when driving through beautiful Shawano County.
Shawano “Country” – called such for its bucolic heritage – hails itself as Wisconsin’s barn quilt capital for a reason. Take a drive through this pastoral paradise, and you’ll see upwards of 300 of them mounted on the county’s well-preserved barns, and more are in the making!
Just what is a barn quilt?
According to Jim Leuenberger, the initiator and coordinator of the Shawano Country Barn Quilt Project, it’s a square, quilt-style design painted on an eight-by-eight-foot piece of plywood, though other counties may not use the same measurements.
Leuenberger and his wife, Irene, were inspired to fill the countryside with colorful quilts after seeing them in the South during a 2010 road trip. Since then, Leuenberger says, their mission has been to preserve their area’s dairy farm heritage and stimulate tourism.
Today, the initiative has grown beyond the Leuenbergers’ wildest imagination. Visitors can tour the quilts, by bus, car, motorcycle or bicycle on routes varying from five miles to 70. An annual fall bike ride creates the perfect opportunity to explore the quilts via “pedal power” against a backdrop of changing leaves.
“I lived in Vermont for five years,” Leuenberger said. “Yes, it is beautiful, but Shawano County is absolutely gorgeous in the fall, so many maples.”
Leuenberger makes himself available to assist with bus tours whenever possible, and his magazine-style booklet breaking down the quilts and history of the farms on which they are displayed is available at the Shawano tourism office.
Spend a Day Searching in Dane County
Taking a barn quilt tour in Dane County is a different matter altogether, more of a treasure hunt, perhaps with children or grandchildren packed into the back of the van for a fun family outing.
Nancy Schieldt has been painting barn quilts around the Stoughton area in Dane County since she was diagnosed with cancer some years ago. She had a difficult time sitting still when she was going through treatment, and the not-too-strenuous activity turned out to be the perfect thing to do. Her three granddaughters help her with the project, and Schieldt has an elaborate workshop set up in a large outbuilding.
In the past, she says, barn quilts were used to bring good fortune to the farm. Today, more than twenty of her squares have been mounted on farm buildings around Dane County, though Schieldt herself does not keep track of where they are.
While not as easy to find as in some counties, Schieldt’s barn quilts are lovely and satisfying – a goat here, a carpenter’s wheel there – perhaps because the serendipitous search. You don’t know what you’re looking for, and then suddenly, in the greenery of the hilly farmland, a glimpse of color marks the spot.
Rock County, Other Spots to Explore
Rock County – especially the area around Evansville – has an impressive collection of barn quilts. Community leaders say the southern Wisconsin county has amassed more of them than any other county in America since the beginning of the nationwide barn quilt movement in the early 2000s.
Looking for more scenic drives? Here are 11 to plan for this fall!