When I was at college in rural upstate New York, I developed an obsession with barns. Whenever I could borrow a car, I’d go for long drives down county roads, stopping to photograph old sheds and granaries surrounded by corn fields and grazing cows. A farmer once stopped his tractor and stared at me as I kneeled in a ditch, trying to find the perfect angle to capture his big red barn and the perfectly round hay bales that surrounded it. So when my mom and I were driving from Rhode Island to California and spotted a guide to the Kankakee County Barn Quilt Tour at a rest stop in Illinois, it was obvious what we’d be doing the next morning.
The self-guided tour led us from one barn to the next with the help of a map from the Kankakee County Visitors Bureau. With fifty stops in total spread out over 170 miles of quiet country roads, we were more likely to pass a flock of wild turkeys than another car. The Barn Quilt Tour is just an hour south of Chicago and Interstate 80, but when we turned off the car engine and heard nothing but the sound of crickets buzzing, it felt like another world entirely.
Barn quilt tours are common throughout the Midwest, as more and more small towns in Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin encourage travelers to get off the highway and explore their vernacular architecture. If you’re driving through endless fields of corn and soybeans on the interstate, chances are good that you’ll pass within thirty miles of one.
I love barns for their clean, simple lines and the way they fit in harmoniously with their environment. Though they’re practical, utilitarian structures, adding quilt blocks transforms each one into a unique work of folk art. Living in a touristy, coastal town, I get why that farmer in upstate New York stooped his tractor to watch me. Sometimes I gawk at tourists, too — say, when they’re photographing yet another lighthouse. We all take familiar sights for granted, I suppose. But an ordinary, functional part of the landscape can be beautiful and decorative, too.