There’s a flutter of anticipation as we peel off Interstate 35 about 30 miles north of Minneapolis to start our quilt quest.
We slow to a cruise, roll down our windows and look out for the vibrant, larger-than-life quilt block patterns that will be the breadcrumbs on our road trip.
Like most Minnesotans, my fiancé and I have sped through Chisago County dozens of times on the way Up North. This time, it is our destination. We’ve taken the weekend to explore the Swedish Barn Quilt Trail along Hwy. 8. The driving tour will wind through farmland and the towns of Chisago City and Lindstrom, leading us to a cabin on the cliffs above the St. Croix River.
There’s some debate as to whether “barn quilts” are rooted in immigrant history or are a wholly new form of folk art, but the public art displays have spread across the Midwest since 2001. The trend inspired the Chisago Lakes Area Community Foundation to create its own quilt trail.
The trip promises a blissful blend of some of my favorite things: local history explored through chippy old barns and historic downtowns; natural beauty and locally owned shops full of vintage treasures. Along the way, we’ll sample the region’s homegrown wines, honey and pastries.
There are nearly 50 quilt patches painted on storefronts, municipal buildings and farms in Chisago County, painted by local artists. But we’re not aiming for perfection. Tracking down all the quilt blocks could turn into a tedious day of driving, so we select about a dozen, leaving time for impromptu stops.
We make our first stop at Winehaven Winery in Chisago City. Its sleek new tasting room is designed to resemble a lighthouse. With a wall of windows overlooking the vineyards and Green Lake, Winehaven rivals wineries I’ve seen in Napa Valley. We arrive as women gather upstairs for a Saturday yoga class. Outside, I notice little bird nests among the grapevines. Co-owner and family patriarch Kevin Peterson explains that they started as honey producers, so chemicals are kept to a minimum to allow birds and bees to flourish.
We sample several of their nearly two dozen wines, including the signature honey mead as well as wines made from two grapes the family has developed and patented.
Our next stop is the Merry Peddlers, a craft and antique store in the old Chisago Creamery Cooperative, which dates to 1903. Owner Karen Novak is manning the till. She’s happy to share some local history and give us a tour. “The building has a lot of quirks,” she says.
Next, we discover the bones of what may have once been a quaint downtown in Chisago City. One bright spot is the Wagon Wheel Cafe & Pizza. The cozy cafe features a wall of historic photos, a glowing pie case and fast-talking ponytailed waitresses. We take our time sipping coffee and order eggs, sausage and French toast.
Next up is historic downtown Lindstrom. The town’s motto is “America’s Little Sweden,” and many businesses revel in the town’s Scandinavian roots. Colorful quilt squares are hung on several stores and the fire station.
We poke around shops and the Lindstrom Antique Mall, finding old Swedish children’s readers, snowshoes and sheet music for St. Paul Winter Carnivals past. A little pride in my tenuous Swedish bloodline wells up in me.
We find the quilt block at Homespun Treasures II, a co-op craft and gift shop where artists reinvent vintage finds. I buy an old skeleton key turned into a necklace pendant. Then we satisfy our sweet tooths with a simple Scandinavian doughnut at Lindstrom Bakery.
East of Lindstrom, we wander off Hwy. 8 to find one of the quilt squares actually attached to a barn. While there are many picturesque farms along Hwy. 8, only a handful of barns are on the quilt trail, but they do deliver on charm and nostalgia. The barns at Pleasant Valley Apple Orchard and Herberg Century Farm are bright red with towering rooflines and silos. The vibrant barn quilts are easy to spot. We hop out of the car for a closer look.
Our drive takes on some drama as we enter the bluffs above the St. Croix. In Taylors Falls we explore a bit along the riverbanks at Interstate State Park. Some ambitious visitors scurry up the cliffs and along trails to see glacial potholes.
Taylors Falls has a bit of a ski-bum vibe with a bead shop, a belly dancing studio and the nearby Wild Mountain ski area. We kick around and discover a few more quilt patches scattered downtown.
In search of our final bona fide barn quilt, at Krawczewski Farm, we stop by the Wild Mountain Winery. We arrive at happy hour, and a gregarious group occupies a corner of the rustic tasting room. During warmer months, the room opens up to a patio with live music. We sample wines and chat with owner Alan Olson, who started growing grapes in the mid-1990s after he struggled to become a certified organic vegetable farmer.
That night, we dine at the Dalles House Restaurant & Lounge across the river in St. Croix Falls, Wis. The restaurant has a vintage supper club feel with red velvet chairs and drapes. We order chicken and prime rib, and popovers with homemade strawberry parfait butter. The portions are ample and the food is delicious after a day of exploring. Servers were very attentive, with co-owner Sonja Fry, dressed in sequins, stopping by our table to top off our water glasses.
While there are several bed-and-breakfasts in the area, we opt for the privacy of a cabin at Wannigan Point Cabin Resort just outside of Taylors Falls. The small resort has five log cabins surrounding a courtyard with picnic areas and fire pits. The cabin is clean and cozy with a modern kitchen, bathroom and wood-burning stove.
As we drive the short distance back home the next day, my fiancé remarks, “It feels like we’ve really been away.”
I couldn’t agree more.