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Article updated: 11/13/2012 6:23 AM

Quilted barns draw attention to preservation, public art

By Larissa Chinwah

When Nancy Fike first heard about a project in several Midwestern states that combined public art with barn preservation and the beauty of quiltmaking, she knew the old dairy barns in McHenry County would fit right in.

In the early 2000s, Fike, who was then museum director at the McHenry County Historical Society, brought a tour of quilted barns to the county. What started with about 30 displays in 2009 has almost doubled into a popular driving tour through McHenry County showcasing more than 50 wooden quilt designs hung on local barns.

"It is a natural fit," Fike said. "Quilts are part of rural America and are as popular today as ever. We have barns but how do you use them? This is a way to remind people they are still there and to draw attention to them."

Dairy farms of McHenry and Kane counties are located closer together than the predominantly grain farms in the southern part of the state, which makes it for a unique drive along the quilt trail, Fike said. The first barn quilt trail started in Adams County, Ohio, in 2001. Since then, 45 other states from Washington to West Virginia have joined the campaign.

The quilts are painted on to large squares of plywood or other materials that are attached to the sides of barns and other rural structures like silos. Designs range from traditional quilting patterns like the "Oregon Trail" or original artworks like "Watermelon Basket," which is hung on Janet Hayes' barn in Marengo. Students from an eighth-grade class in Woodstock came up with the geometric design with a black and white border that can be seen along W. Coral Road.

"I thought it would be fun," Hayes said about participating in the project. "I like to see fancy barns."

Hayes said the design has been up on the barn for two summers and she has no plans to change it up.

"I chose the kids because I thought it would be more fun and the kids would enjoy it," Hayes said.

Others have designed and painted their own barn quilts. The Beestra Farm on Route 14 in Harvard features two quilted barns -- one is a wild zinnia on the east facing barn and a fan on the larger north-facing barn.

"When we moved on to the farm four years ago it was completely dead and the barns had been locked up for 50 years," Angela Beestra said. "It needed to come alive again and the quilts woke up the barns."

Beestra said hundred of visitors stop by each year to photograph the barns.

"When people are driving down the road, it puts a smile on everyone's face," Beestra said. "It's a wonderful thing. All of the barns in the county are going down so we need to preserve them and make them look good."

For more information on quilted barns in McHenry County, visit the county's website, www.mchsonline.org/quilted_barn_program. A map of quilted barn locations is also available on the county's website.

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