Community Focus: A Celebration of Pennsylvania Dutch CultureAug 31, 2021 05:00PM ● By Stephanie Kalina-Metzger
The pandemic took a toll on all of us, and elevated the term “cabin fever” to a whole new level. As we enter autumn, when the leaves turn colors and meadows are still lush, let’s appreciate a visit to the scenic community of Berks County farm country, where a unique and interesting Barn Star Art Tour will allow us to experience a simpler time.
Barn stars, also known as “hex signs,” are a type of Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art. Author Ann Hark, in her book, Hex Marks the Spot, set out to find the meaning of those “baffling barn symbols wherever rich, ripe fields and neat square flower borders announced the presence of the Pennsylvania Dutch.” Hark claims that the conventional wisdom at the time—1938—was that the symbols were created to frighten away witches, stave off lightning and ensure good luck.
“That was the casual explanation everybody gave and who was I to doubt it?” she asked.
Yet, when the author hit the open road to confirm it, she was hard-pressed to find any Pennsylvania Dutchman who would attest to it. Instead, she would hear, time and time again, as she traversed many miles, “Ach, they’re just for fancy.”
The heavenly stars
According to Patrick Donmoyer, director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, the designs are first and foremost artistic, but they also tell of the culture’s interest in the heavens and the cosmos.
“The geometric images of barn stars are celestial and their symbolism reflects a reverence for the forces of nature and the heavens above,” said Donmoyer.
Inaccurately dubbed superstitious “hexafoos” by Wallace Nutting in his 1924 book, Pennsylvania Beautiful, the misnomer took root and eventually morphed into “hex sign.” As for the age of hex signs, historians have discovered 4-foot wooden stars set into stone walls on the gable ends of barns as far back as the late 1700s.
Artists behind the stars
What better way to get to know these barn stars than The Barn Star Art Tour? The tour traverses about 40 miles and takes day trippers on a delightful journey through Berks County communities. At approximately two dozen farms, visitors can see the work of artists like Milton Hill of Berks County (1887-1972) who, according to Donmoyer, began painting at the age of 14 under the tutelage of his father and grandfather.
“He was extremely elaborate and created designs that were more complex than those who preceded him,” said Donmoyer.
Another prolific artist who is making his mark on the barn art world is Eric Claypoole, of Claypoole Hex Signs. Claypoole learned the craft from his father, who learned from a man named Johnny Ott, who owned the Lenhartsville Hotel, now known as the Deitsch Eck.
“Johnny Ott was a self-proclaimed ‘Doctor of Hexology,’” said Claypoole, painting a picture of a colorful, quirky character who dressed like Charlie Chaplain to entertain his guests.”
According to Claypoole, Ott placed an ad in the newspaper for an apprentice. “When my dad showed up, he said, ‘Ach, you just want to make money like everybody else,’ and proceeded to inform him that he would charge him for the instruction.” The two hit it off and he never charged Claypoole a dime.
Claypoole, who joined his father in barn painting at the age of 12, has about 100 barns under his belt and works a full-time job as a restoration carpenter. He said he enjoys being a part of history.
Sometimes Donmoyer joins Claypoole on barn art jobs and, through his active participation, hopes to correct a misconception.
“Prior to 2008, articles were written indicating that it was an art of a bygone era. At the time, folks used to say there were 200, but I found 500 in Berks County alone,” said Donmoyer, who credits artists like Claypoole, who paints between three and six barns a year. “Female artists are also taking part in the practice, so far from being a dying art, it’s a tradition that is alive, well and vibrant, hopefully for many years to come,” Donmoyer said.
Stops along the way
Many who embark on The Barn Star Art Tour may enjoy meandering a little to enjoy off-the-beaten-path destinations. Three miles into the tour, guests will arrive at Crystal Cave, which attracts thousands of visitors every year. A 55-minute guided tour begins with an educational film, “Inside the Earth.” Afterwards, a guide leads guests through the cave, pointing out fascinating rock formations comprised of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and more. A bit of advice: take along comfy shoes to climb several dozen steps leading up to the cave.
About 19 miles into the tour is the Dreibelbis Station Covered Bridge, a 172-foot-long Burr arch truss covered bridge spanning Maiden Creek, south of Lenhartsville, Pa. The bridge was built in 1869 and added to the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 23, 1981.
Be sure to save your appetite for lunch or dinner at Deitsch Eck Restaurant, which travelers will discover about 20 miles into the tour. Those up for fressing—the act of eating without restraint—will be in their element with the hearty Pennsylvania Dutch meals served there.
Finally, there is Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, which features a visitor’s center, eight miles of trails and beautiful vistas. From August 15 through December 15, staff and volunteers are stationed at lookouts to help visitors spot falcons, eagles, hawks and vultures. Annual counts for this four-month period average 18,000 raptors.
All this and more add up to an adventure that is neither too long, nor too short and is a great way to spend the day. Visit Pennsylvania’s Americana Region website at https://visitpaamericana.com/partner/hex-barn-art-tour/ to download a brochure of the self-guided tour, and you’ll be on your way.
Stephanie Kalina-Metzger is an award-winning writer, whose work can be seen in dozens of publications across the United States.