By Juliana Moxley
Preserved barns help people remember rural history, save money and boost tourism revenue.
They represent our heritage and hold a special place in our collective rural memory, said Steve Stier, former president of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network.
Tearing down old barns or replacing them with new pole barns is not always wise, Stier said. Legally disposing of an old barn can cost several thousand dollars.
Taxes are another good reason why it’s sometimes better to not tear down a barn, Stier said. An old barn, in comparison to a new pole barn, is probably taxed at a low rate given its age.
“I tell folks that usually a barn can be repaired for about as much as it would be to dispose of it properly,” Stier said.
Traditional barns were used for storage and shelter, but they are adaptable, Stier said. Old barns have been used as churches, restaurants, furniture stores, wineries and event spaces.
Their use is only limited by the imagination and resources of their owners, Stier said.
And their preservation can boost a community’s economy depending on the use of the barn and the surrounding landscape.
Old barns are increasingly part of quilt trails, where painted wooden squares are displayed on a series of barns as a tourist attraction. Many barn quilt trails in Michigan attract tourists who buy gas, food and lodging, Stier said.
Residents in Alcona County in the state’s northeastern Lower Peninsula formed a committee in 2007 for the Alcona County Quilt Trail Project. It uses old barns to gain tourists and boost the economy, said Cindi Van Hurk, president of the Alcona County Quilt Trail Project.
Quilt trails are growing in popularity, Van Hurk said. The committee knows of 13 in Michigan and there may be more.
The Alcona County Quilt Trail is the first in Michigan to offer a trail through barns and other property showcasing hand-painted quilt blocks, Van Hurk said. The quilt squares either represent the properties’ history or their owners’ family heritage.
The quilt blocks along the Alcona County Quilt Trail are hand-painted designs on wood hung on 28 barns or other buildings.
A six-person local committee collaborated with a Michigan State University class that researched how other states had done quilt trails, what materials were needed for the project and how the committee would construct the quilt blocks.
The committee installed the first quilt block in the spring of 2008.
“One of our goals was to have equal representation throughout the county, so we set a goal of two quilt squares for each of our 11 townships, with plans for a five-year life of the project,” Van Hurk said.
The committee produced 28 squares by 2009, Van Hurk said. Then it shifted into promoting the trail.
“We have passed the five-year mark and we are still going,” Van Hurk said. “We know that other trails that don’t continue to publicize and actively promote result in dead trails with little impact on the area.”
The trail has been successful, although it is impossible to count the number of people who do the trail, Van Hurk said. More than 5,000 paper maps of the trail have been distributed, but that doesn’t count the ones that people have printed from the Alcona County Quilt Trail’s website.
The Michigan Department of Transportation has requested more brochures for its welcome centers because of the demand, Van Hurk said.
The quilt trail came at a critical time, Van Hurk said. A former county treasurer had embezzled funds, shocking and embarrassing residents. The committee wanted a project that would involve the community, and they saw this as a healing experience.
It’s important to use every resource they can to bring tourism dollars to Alcona County, Van Hurk said. Aside from the county itself, the sheriff department, the road commission, and a few small industrial shops, Van Hurk said people make their living from family-owned businesses.
“So anything that we can do that brings people into our county is a plus,” Van Hurk said. “Also, the trail is a source of pride for the people here.”
When Alcona County residents have visitors, they take them on the trail and show them the squares, Van Hurk said.
That’s also true in other Great Lakes states. LaGrange County in northern Indiana has a barn quilt trail that celebrates the history of agriculture, the time-honored tradition of quilting, and the community’s passion for art, community pride, and Hoosier hospitality, said Beth Thornburg, executive director of the LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A committee presented the idea to the LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau which approved the project to increase tourism and add to its annual Quilt Fesitval, Thornburg said.
The quilt trail, which opened in 2011, encompasses six communities and 29 stops at quilt patterns that tell stories about family, history and culture.
While the goal is to connect LaGrange County communities and encourage tourists to enjoy the scenic countryside, it is difficult to measure the economic impact because it is a free service, Thornburg said. Plans include adding more stops along the way, such as ice cream shops and local artisans.
Nearly every state in the Midwest has barn quilt trails, she said.
“I think this trend is here to stay, much like the art of quilting, being passed down from generation to generation,” Thornburg said.
Related story: “Indiana barns” captures history from a disappearing landscape