On even the shortest drive through Shawano County, it’s hard to miss the colorful quilt-squares that dot the landscape. Made of painted plywood and mounted to the walls of barns, the squares are called “barn quilts” and come in a variety of designs.
The “quilt” on Patricia and Eldor Erdmann’s barn is painted as a patchwork heart and is a tribute to the women who lived on their farm.
“It’s been an Erdmann farm for 126 years. Eldor was the last one and he farmed for 51 years,” Patricia Erdmann said. “His mother and grandmother lived in the farmhouse that was back there, and they made quilts for their 13 grandchildren.”
A few miles away, another shed is decorated with a Christmas-themed barn quilt.
“It’s a really pretty Christmas quilt pattern,” said Irene Leuenberger, a local woman who has helped create the barn quilts. “But the sad part was (the woman who lives at the home with the quilt) was quilting it the night she found out her daughter was killed in a car accident, and she wanted that quilt painted on her barn in memory of her daughter.
Irene Leuenberger and her husband Jim first brought the concept of barn quilts to Shawano County. The recently-retired couple had been travelling when they saw similar quilts that had been painted by a grass-roots group in Ohio.
“It’s actually been started about twelve years ago in Ohio by a lady who wanted to paint a barn quilt,” Irene Leuenberger said. “So they got about ten or twelve up in that particular county, and people thought, well, this is kind of a neat idea, so it kind of grew from there.”
“I made the decision to see if I could get a barn quilt project started in Shawano County,” said Jim Leuenberger. “So I contacted some 4H clubs … So the first three of our barn quilts that were done in Shawano County in the fall of 2010 were done by 4H clubs.”
“Then he thought, well this is kind of a neat idea,” Irene Leuenberger said. “Maybe I can have some sponsors, and we’ll find barns and we’ll paint them. And I said ‘We? Who’s we?”
Soon, Jim and Irene Leuenberger became the unofficial barn quilt committee. Working out of the basement of the local Chamber of Commerce the couple churned out enough quilts to blanket the county. By March 2015, the community had put up 292 barn quilts.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things I think my wife and I have ever done because of the impact it’s had on people’s lives and the way it’s brought the whole Shawano County area together,” Jim Leuenberger said.