Piecing together a growing barn quilt legacy in Shawano County
Jim Leuenberger is no quilter, yet he has been the driving force behind the creation of more than 300 barn quilts in Shawano County.
Leuenberger said he came home one day 18 years ago and told his wife, Irene, that he wanted to start up a barn quilt project in the county.
"I didn't have a specific plan on how I was going to do that," said Leuenberger, adding that the couple had enjoyed seeing the beautiful pieces of artwork gracing barns as they traveled around the country.
The large pieces of painted plywood were inspired by cloth quilts fashioned by hand and passed down as family heirlooms. Leuenberger says the concept of barn quilts began with an Ohio woman back in 2001 who wanted to honor her mother and her Appalachian heritage by having a painted quilt hung on her barn.
When Leuenberger started laying out his first barn quilt in 2011, quilt trails were just starting and hadn't quite caught on across the country.
"I had done some research and pin-pointed a couple of barns in the county where I thought a barn quilt would look nice. People I talked to about the project thought it was a really good idea," Leuenberger said.
When he started the project nine years ago, Leuenberger had no idea how fast the project would take off.
"I told people that I hoped I could get at least 25 of them put up. In the first year alone we put up 96 and the second year another 87," he said with a laugh. "I was just amazed. Now at 352 quilts, this project has gone way beyond what I expected.
"That's a real tribute to all the barn owners and sponsors who have supported and continue to support this project," he added.
Each is unique
While the Leuenbergers have painted the bulk of the barn quilts, several 4-H clubs throughout the county have created barn quilts as part of a club project.
Leuenberger says the blueprint for the colorful array of quilts have come from a book that contains over 5,000 quilting block patterns that he transfers onto the two sheets of plywood.
He says some families will ask to personalize their quilts with something that reflects their personality, family tradition, livelihood or farm history. Others will pick out a pattern from the book or simply give Leuenberger their favorite color scheme and let him create a quilt for them.
"Everyone's quilt is unique and different and that's what makes it fun for us to paint," he said. "If we painted the same pattern every day, I don't think we would have been at this for nine years!"
Depending on the complexity of the pattern, Leuenberger says a typical quilt takes up to a month to complete. Two coats of primer are applied to the front and back of each sheet of plywood, and then the pattern is laid down with tape. Three coats of color is applied to each section of the design.
"As you put more and more paint on them, they just seem to come to life," Leuenberger said.
He said a typical quilt costs around $200, with $100 going to Raddant Electric of Shawano that mounts the quilts on the side of the barns, $80 for the plywood and the rest for paint and tape.
Hand in hand partnership
When Leuenberger first started the project, other counties in Wisconsin — especially in the southern part of the state — were well ahead of Shawano. But as interest in the quilts exploded and the number of pieces surpassed 200, Leuenberger knew his home county would soon pass them up on its way to being Wisconsin's barn quilt capital.
"We have more 8x8-foot barn quilts in our county than any other county in the United States," Leuenberger said.
As the orders poured in, Leuenberger found himself painting seven days a week. Luckily for the Leuenberger's the Shawano Chamber of Commerce opened the basement in its new building as a workshop for the quilt project.
"The barn quilts across the county have been a major attraction for tourism in our county, so how could we not allow them to have that workshop space in the basement so they could grow that project," said Shawano County Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center Tourism Manager Patti Peterson. "He's been so instrumental in the growth of the project. There were a few years when he was here painting seven days a week."
Peterson says visitors stop in at the Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center every day to inquire about the barn quilts and to pick up a map.
"We especially have people stopping by this time of year with the fall colors, wanting to look at the quilts," Peterson said. "We also sponsor bus tours throughout the year that have also been popular."
Just last weekend nearly 150 cyclists from across Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest converged on Shawano for the annual "Bike the Barn Quilts" tour.
Source of pride
Mary Ann Mynsberge had always enjoyed the barn quilts dotting farm buildings across the county and decided to 'gift' a quilt to her brother David Gwidt and his family.
After looking through patterns on the internet, David and Dyan asked their six children what they thought of an image of four colorful cows. The vote was unanimous.
Mynsberge painted the quilt titled "Cows of Different Colors" and had the county's 350th quilt mounted on the family's century old barn on Highway 55 near Pulaski.
"We are very excited to be a part of the Shawano County barn quilt project," Gwidt said.
Leuenberger says that sponsors – including businesses or quilt aficionados – have also come forward, asking to fund a quilt.
"Even people outside of the county have sponsored a quilt just because they like them," Leuenberger said.
Leuenberger, a local photographer in Shawano, says the barn quilts add a splash of color on the historic barns.
"Shawano is a very scenic, farming county and I wanted to get a lot of quilts on the back roads, especially this time of year when the sun is finally shining and the fall colors are getting better," he said. "A lot of these historical barns no longer have dairy cows, but they've been kept up."
Peterson says its a nice way to showcase the historic barns.
"People have spent so much time, energy and money to restore and maintain those old structures," she said. "Being in an agricultural region, we're aware of the challenges in ag these days and it's a nice way to show support."
Leueberger says the countless hours that he has put into the project are worth it when he stands back to watch the faces of farm owners as they watch their barn quilt become a permanent part of the barn's facade.
"A lot of people are amazed when I tell them that we don't get paid to do this. I tell them that every time we see somebody smile, shake my hand or thank me with a hug, that's payment enough," he said. "That's what makes it fun."
To help cover expenses beyond materials, Leuenberger has penned a book on the county's barn quilts which includes a photo and description of each quilt along with the history of the farm, the artwork's sponsor and location. The book also includes a map that details the locations of the quilts across the county.
The book is available for $15 at the Shawano Country Chamber of Commerce or on eBay.