Barn Quilts of Carver County Bring Public Art to the Countryside

Public art celebrates agricultural tradition, history and quilting legacy.
Photographer Jerry P. O’Dair has documented many of the barn quilts in Carver County, and his work is used in much of the Barn Quilt Treasures merchandise.

The barn quilts of Carver County do not lie on the foot of your bed. Nor do they hang on art gallery walls. Instead, you will find these community art pieces as you drive through Carver County’s scenic countryside, where the art lives outdoors, hanging on the sides of historic barns. This unique folk art scene has grown into a tourist destination, luring people of all ages to the county to view the art, barns and scenery.

The barn quilts might look like real quilts, but don’t let their realistic artistry fool you. These 8-by-8-foot quilts are made of painted plywood, not fabric. There are 24 barn quilts that make up Carver County’s collection. The first 13 were installed in 2011 with another 10 completed the following year. Most recently, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the Waconia Public Schools Edible Classroom sites have installed quilts.

The idea for the barn quilts originated in Ohio. Donna Sue Groves created the first barn quilt to honor her mother. Her idea quickly grew after she suggested that other local barn owners follow suit, creating a driving trail of barn quilts that greeted visitors. Resonating with people outside of Ohio, her idea spread like wildfire in other parts of the country. Today, barn quilt trails are an artistic movement that sweeps across 48 states and into Canada.

The idea to plant barn quilts in Carver County was introduced by the project founder Naomi Russell, who fell in love with the quilt trails she saw in Iowa. The project is sponsored by the Arts Consortium of Carver County and is under the artistic direction of Suzanne Thiesfeld, who has helped participants with drawing and scaling of the quilt squares. The barn quilt patterns were selected and painted by the barn owners. For many of them, the quilt squares are inspired by family heritage or heirloom quilts that tell stories of rich family history.

Tours & Treasures

Two private companies have grown out
of the public art project: Barn Quilt Tours, an interactive group tour
company, and Barn Quilt Treasures, a souvenir gift shop. Avid supporters
of the project, Janet Fahey of Barn Quilt Tours and Barb Hone of Barn
Quilt Treasures joined forces in 2014 to conduct tours and sales
together.

While there are barn quilts installed in other regions
of Minnesota, the Barn Quilts of Carver County are the only ones that
have art tours. Running primarily May through October, Fahey says that
more than 500 people annually come to Carver County to view the quilts
through her Barn Quilt Tours (barnquiltsofcarvercounty.com). She offers
half-day or full-day bus tours, featuring eight to 12 different barn
quilt sites, lunch stops and often breaks at orchards or vineyards.
Providing local insights on the tours, Fahey grew up in Carver County
and is a proud owner of a barn quilt installed at her family farm in
Cologne.

The tours provide viewers with an experience while
Hone’s Barn Quilt Treasures (barn-quilt-treasures.com) offers them
something to remember it by. Hone sells an array of Barn Quilt gifts
online and out of Fahey’s barn. Her colorful merchandise includes barn
quilt greeting cards, calendars, mugs, cutting boards, decorated mints
and much more. Perhaps the item that captures the project’s spirit the
most is the book Hone wrote filled with in-depth and heartfelt stories
about the barn quilt owners.

The Kelzer Farm: Tumbling Block

Steve Kelzer of the Kelzer farm in Chaska painted his barn quilt with his wife and grandson. The family’s barn quilt—Tumbling Block—honors Kelzer’s mother’s love of quilting. Growing up, Kelzer remembers his mother quilting in the dining room with six to eight neighbor women.

The barn quilt was inspired by another art form, too. The design reflects Steve Kelzer’s mastery of parquetry, the art of wood inlay. The repeating geometric pattern is traditionally done in three colors, but the family expanded the color palette.

Like most farms in Carver County, the Kelzer farm is a family farm. They have established solid roots on the land dating back to the 1870s. Kelzer likes that the barn quilts draw people into the countryside. “People will stop by. Usually if we are out there, we will chat,” Kelzer says.

He believes the project is special because of the tradition: “It’s holding up the tradition of farming in the county and adding beauty to the barns.”

The Kramer Barn: The Lone Star

When Lori Kramer of Norwood Young America sees folks stop their cars to admire her family’s barn quilt, she is happy that people are enjoying it as much as she does.

After hearing about the project, there was only one quilt Kramer could picture elevated on her barn wall: her grandmother’s Lone Star quilt. The Lone Star barn quilt is a replica of a family heirloom quilt dating back more than 100 years. The star reflected in the design is taken from the center portion of the quilt and the colors are true to the original.

Learning the Lone Star pattern from relatives, Kramer’s grandmother made six identical quilts, one for each of her six children. Kramer inherited her treasured heirloom through a late uncle and keeps that quilt close to her heart. “We never got to meet her but this was our way of enjoying some of the things she did,” Kramer says of her grandmother and the choice to participate in the barn quilt project.

The Degler Farm: The Daisy

The Degler family of Chanhassen was inspired by the 72-year-old Daisy quilt that Lois Degler made in 1944, when she was an 18-year-old 4-H member. Growing up in Carver County, quilting was part of her life. She remembers the quilting parties and the quilts that were made for weddings.

It was Gayle Degler who convinced his mother, Lois, to participate in the barn quilt project to showcase the quilt and also the family farm. The Deglers have been on the farm since 1946 and it is an important part of their lives. “Anything we can do to preserve the agricultural heritage of the county,” Gayle Degler says. “It’s fast disappearing, but it’s important to our heritage.”

The original quilt’s colors have faded with sunlight over the years but remain vibrant with nostalgia and pride. “It’s fun to talk about your heritage and what you are proud of,” Degler says.