Call them an open-air art gallery.
The barn quilts that have graced farm structures around Carver County since 2011 have become an outdoor art attraction as well as a living history museum.
And if they are the museum, Janet Fahey is the curator and tour guide.
Fahey has been conducting Barn Quilts of Carver County Tours since 2013, a growing venture that has expanded to area attractions such as local wineries, breweries, orchards, a creamery, an organic farmer’s market, and more.
She conducted 20 tours her first year, a number that had doubled by 2017. And Fahey has 20 tours booked already this year as the touring season is just getting started.
Aboard Barn Quilt Tours, visitors travel the countryside in the comfort of a coach bus, observing the barn quilts and learning local history and vignettes about the farms, owners and barn quilt patterns. There are also featured stops at other local attractions depending on what tour is selected.
The barn quilt phenomenon started in Adams County, Ohio in 2001 by Donna Sue Groves, who chose to honor her mother, Maxine, and her Appalachian heritage by hanging a painted quilt on her barn. Through her work with the Ohio Arts Council and other community organizations, the number of quilts expanded to 20 combined with a driving trail, welcoming visitors into the countryside.
The idea has since spread widely as a tourist attraction to other locations. Graves worked with organizations in neighboring Ohio counties, Tennessee, and introduced the concept to Iowa. Today this simple idea – barn quilt trails, open-air art galleries – has reached 48 states and Canada.
Inspired by the Iowa trail, Naomi Russell, local project founder, introduced barn quilts to Carver County in 2011. Since then, 26 quilt blocks have been installed with more on the way.
Barn quilts aren’t fabric and they aren’t stitched together by women in the basements of local churches. Quilts are comprised of two pieces of 4 x 8-foot plywood painted and framed that can weigh upwards of 250 pounds. That can make installation is a challenge, and as a community service Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative has donated manpower and equipment to place the quilts.
Quilt patterns are chosen by the barn owners, and most often they reflect family heritage or a family heirloom quilt. Local artist and business owner Suzanne Thiesfeld was the artistic director for the project, assisting with color and design choices and drawing each pattern to scale so the barn owners, their families and friends could do the painting.
Fahey’s family farm, the E. Willems barn on Co. Rd. 153 near Cologne, was the 12th structure to get a barn quilt. It is adorned with a triple tulip pattern reflecting the family’s Dutch heritage. The county’s first barn quilt, located at the Andrew Peterson Farm on Parley Lake Road near Waconia, depicts a Swedish apple orchard. No. 26, the latest barn quilt, is located at Carlson’s Llovable Llamas on Co. Rd. 10 near Waconia, the newest tour stop, and you can guess what it features.
Fahey’s involvement with the barn quilt project prompted her to do more research about the stories behind the barn art and start the tours. She eventually left a corporate marketing job to devote full attention to her tour business.
“Our guests are fascinated by the stories behind these quilts and really enjoy meeting the land owners themselves,” Fahey said. “And some of our visitors – a lot of times from the city – just enjoy being out in the country and seeing the work that goes on out in the fields – something that those of us who grew up on farms take for granted.”
The barn quilts and tours also are a way to retain the local heritage, and in many cases preserve old barns that are disappearing from the rural landscape.
“Our hosts take great pride in showing off their quilts and talking about their heritage,” Fahey said. “And their places are usually immaculate.”
While the barn quilts still are the main event, the tours have branched out over the past five years to include other attractions.
Want to sample some libations? There’s a tour for you
Want to see how cheese is made? Take the tour with a stop at Bongards Creamery.
There are also tours that stop at a quilt shop – the fabric kind – an historic feed mill, an art studio, and more.
“These tours really are about art, history and community,” Fahey said.
And if you can’t hop on a tour, you can get a speaking engagement and barn quilt presentation for your club, classroom or organization, featuring Fahey and Barb Hone, Chaska arts enthusiast and author.