Travel
Guide

Block Party: Barn Quilts

1 of 10

Think about barns and color, and what do you get? You have your white ones, your red ones and ... no, that’s about it. A genuine movement is changing that, bringing splashes of color with artistic flair to farmyards across the state.

Commerce tried to do that before, early in the 20th century when advertisers, notably Mail Pouch Tobacco, saw barns as billboards. In days long before interstates and the Internet, travelers along country byways would see broad barn walls bearing vivid encouragement to “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco.”

But today, travelers through rural Iowa will see an entirely different kind of work on the sides of barns—distinctive quilt patterns painted on 8-foot panels.

The phenomenon of wooden “barn quilts” started in Ohio and spread westward faster than the emerald ash borer. Quilts have now been reported in some 45 states. The trend hit northwest Iowa’s Sac County in 2005, when a committee was formed to encourage the spread. 4-H groups jumped on the project, and the expanse of barn-side artwork races happily on.

Unadorned barns are getting harder to find, as more and more sport the quilt-inspired finery. Sac County has an online map to lead barn-bent tourists from one colorful image to another and there's even a virtual tour available at barnquilts.com.

The surge of quiltomania led community leaders in Sac County to bring the fun in from the farms. Many civic buildings in the county, from museums to churches, now have nearby 4-by-4-foot “community quilt” boards, most often displayed on posts like road signs rather than affixed to building walls. Then there are the dozens of in-town homes that have joined the effort. In total, Sac County has about 200 quilts adorning properties of every stripe… or other pattern.

“Seems like every week we see a new one spring up somewhere,” says Harold Payton, who has been active on Sac County’s barn quilt committee. Today, the committee is more focused on maintaining quilts than adding to the numbers, he says: “We had to slow down or we’d be putting up barn quilts the rest of our lives.”

Sac County isn’t alone in its pastoral passion for barn quilts. In fact, search the terms “barn quilts” and “Iowa” in your favorite Web browser, and you’ll find sites devoted to barn quilts in Black Hawk County, Humboldt County, Hamilton County, Sac County, Washington County and more.

In Dallas County, John Thomas became a barn-quilt convert in 2014. “I had my granddaughter come up with the idea and paint it,” he says. They’ve now created two quilts, flanking the door to the Thomas barn near Dallas Center. One is classic Americana, red white and blue. The other is brilliant green and yellow, a scheme reflecting Thomas’ fondness for John Deere farm equipment.

"A lot of people see these and want one,” Thomas says with a chuckle. Another barn quilt showed up down the road last year. And the cheery contagion continues to spread.

Written by Larry Erickson.
Reproduced with permission from Business Publications Corp.

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