Pennsylvania's Elusive Sunbursts

Richard Orth

© Copyright 2018 by Richard Orth

Photo of a sunburst on a barn.

Most Pennsylvania Dutchmen of Berks and Lehigh County realize that their local hex-sign painted barn stars are not amulets of protection for man or beast on their farmsteads. However, these fabled and colorful geometric designs, identifying our beautiful
countryside as home to quaint, Germanic Pennsylvania Dutch farmers.
1 In examining the writings of authorities on our Pennsylvania Dutch (German) Culture, I favor the research of Frances Lichten, about these historic, folk art designs on our barnsides, as being traditional sunbursts. Having made a major study on Pennsylvania German material folk art furnishings and artifacts in the early 20th Century, Lichten compared hex-sign (barn star) motifs to the use of sun symbol designs on objects in our native Rhineland Culture.

Restoration architect, John K. Heyl, likewise had an excellent description of a forebay sunburst barn star motif in his 1956, Pennsylvania German barn publication. An architectural study originally done by Charles Dornbusch in 1940, Heyl describes an 1840 Center Valley barn in Lehigh County with classical Pennsylvania German folk art motifs (“a forebay barn with four large painted sunbursts having saw tooth perimeters with four-pointed compass stars and odd sort of tulip shapes within each circle”). This early barn also had a Georgian type Palladian window right above its two threshing floor doorways. Could it possibly be that later folk art painters looking for a simpler way to copy these early Bieber sunburst symbols, following geometric measurements, forgot to include the silhouette of the sun within their hex-sign motif? Like the bold, black, saw tooth border encompassing the original pinwheel center of the Oscar Bieber hex-sign medallion with its eight-point star rays emanating from the center.

Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker, authority on Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs or barn stars, discovered this folk-art symbolism on locally made Christian fraktur birth and baptismal certificates (Taufscheins). Itinerant traveling folk artists who stopped at rural farmsteads in Lehigh and Berks Counties, hand lettered and embellished birth certificates for illiterate farm families who wished to please their children and keep family records up to date. Sometimes these early 18th and 19th Century folk art decorated frakturs were made several years after the child was born, as a memento of love and compassion paid for by their parents; a keepsake item which was often pasted under the lid of the child’s dower chest. In the 1950’s, Dr. Shoemaker discovered that some of the itinerant artists who laid out their designs geometrically used six-pointed stars or more in the corners of the certificate. But most often the artist, like Fredrich Krebs (d 1790), drew elaborate designs of the sun and moon with the profile of a man’s face.

These folk art symbolisms of a “man in the moon,” or the sun as a god provided prestige to the individual’s certificate. The geometric design of a star that may have led the Three Wisemen to Christ’s manger also had Christian meaning for early Pennsylvanians in this folk art scheme. Nevertheless, these itinerant fraktur artists who bought color into the lives of hard-working tillers of the soil; inspired the creation of colorful sunburst-barn stars on their drab forebay barns, which were the hybrid design that captured the importance and brilliance of the sun, overlooking their barnyards as they did their daily chores, having nothing to do with witchcraft at all! Fredrich Krebs, as other fraktur artists, was a Pennsylvania German schoolmaster from Dauphin County. He came to Reading in the early 1800’s to have his German Taufscheins printed by the Reading Adler print shop. These heart-shaped imprints with baptismal text provided within were often illuminated with a folk art border in the margins. Peddled not only by the Krebs, the Adler account books list him buying as many as 6,974 Taufscheins ready to be filled out by the artist.

The religiously devout farmers of Berks and Lehigh Counties celebrating their freedom in the New World shared this form of Christian symbolism by painting their barns and some houses with this Rhenish folk art. The Plain Dutch of Lancaster County who did not believe in infant baptism and decorated Taufscheins did not paint sunbursts or “hex signs” on their barns because they were not part of this native folk art concept. The heyday of frakturism, circa 1775 to 1830, paralleled the period of time in which Dutchmen built grandioso architectural barns with hex signs and Palladian forebay windows. In 2007, when folk art expert Dr. Donald Shelley’s rare 1780 Bieber decorated Pennsylvania German dower chest was sold at auction, folk art experts realized its unique folk art relationship to gable end hex-signs recently discovered on the 1801 Oscar Bieber barn at Kutztown, Pennsylvania.2 \
  This 1780 Hanna Eister dower chest, done in the twin heart motif, of Jacob or John Bieber, had similar geometric stars; one with a pinwheel center just like the Oscar Bieber and Snyder hex-sign barns near Kutztown. But the most enchanting feature of this dower chest were the large, unusual “seven pointed” barn-like stars painted on each end with large, sunburst, circular centers painted in red. Most assuredly, this was the sunburst type design Frances Lichten had attributed to the original archeological n.sun cult idea of hex-sign motifs she had seen overseas in the Rhineland Valley. The stylized Bieber flat hearts (an Alsatian design from Europe) outlined in red paint, did not have star designs 
Photo of a dower chest.
in each lobe as later Bieber dower chests. Instead, they remind one of the demure twin flat hearts inscribed at the bottom of the 1783 David Hottenstein mansion date stones near Kutztown.

Located along the busy Kutztown to Bowers road, south of Kemp’s historic tavern at Kutztown, the 1801 dated Bieber farmstead (owned later by Oscar Bieber) was a familiar part of rural Kutztown.3 Among numerous Pennsylvania Dutch folk artists who have been known to scribe exceptional compass folk art designs in the Colonial days of Berks County were father and son, Jacob and John Bieber. Their folk art crafted dower chests prove that they or a sibling would have been capable of designing the Oscar Bieber sunburst style barn stars. The Bieber families in the Kutztown area were not descended directly from the same branch of family tree as Jacob and John Bieber, but of two other brothers who originally came from the Alsace Lorraine territory along the Rhine River in 1744.
   Dower chests attributed to the Jacob Bieber clan were always laid out with a compass technique, and often included large flat hearts with compass stars in each cheek. Built by master carpenters, the farmhouse on the Oscar Bieber farm is a high fashion English-Georgian type. Familiar with medallion circular boards incorporated in the stone gable ends of English homes and barns in the Oley Valley territory,4 the Biebers may have been the originators of the unique gable-end hex signs that are found in the greater Kutztown area. Photo of a dower chest.
 Jacob Bieber and his son, John operated a pioneer sawmill and supplied wood for building Berks County’s early honest barns. Of other theories about where barn stars had originated from among emigrating Pennsylvania Dutchmen, the mariner’s compass star image on 18th Century ships is also likely. These eight-pointed compass stars with a circumference of saw tooth triangles in black to navigate sailor’s exact directions, is very likely an everlasting image for immigrants who were inspired to paint barn stars on their homesteads when they finally arrived in good health to the shores of the New World.

The immigrant Bieber brothers and their relatives must have anxiously studied this compass instrument which was to guide them to the land of milk and honey three or more months traveling at sea where only sun and heavenly stars were their solace until they were able to reach Penn’s colony. Then, in exited contentment they pioneered some of the most attractive Pennsylvania farmsteads in the universe harvesting crops and grazing their cattle under the same sun and heavenly stars in the New World that were still their solace into eternity. The surviving gable end barn star on the Oscar Bieber farm, with its eight-point star and saw tooth perimeter does appear more like the 18th Century mariner’s compass design than most other surviving hex-sign motifs. For which we thank the Zimmermans (current owners) for their diligence in its restoration.

In the 18th Century period of worldwide Colonialism, in which the three Berks County Bieber brothers came to America, immigrants were certainly aware of the fact that the Sun never set on the British Empire, and that this celestial body was perhaps the most constant element in their life. The fact that most of these gable-end hex sign medallions have no bearing on the farmer’s occupation means that some skilled worker with aesthetic inclination and a flare for high fashion influenced the farmer’s choice. However, the folk art tradition of our fraktured birth certificates and puncheon to elaborate all things important to us in the Dutch Country made this choice an easy one for a proud Dutchman.
The hex-sign medallion on the gable end wall of the Snyder barn near Lenhartsville5 several miles to the north of the Bieber barn, on land not as fertile, leads one to conclusion that our proud agrarian people in Berks County were as proud of their barns as they were of their farmhouses. But in a culture as artistic as the native Pennsylvania Dutch, with few examples elsewhere in rural America, these barns and household decorated objects were just power for the course among the Dutch. A few gable-end medallion barns are also found east of Topton in Longswamp. The remarkable similarity of the Bieber-style sunburst hex sign to the Kistler hex-sign (Snyder barn) with a pinwheel center leads one to believe that the same person did both medallions. However, I’m in agreement with Frances Lichten in her 1954 book titled, “Folk Art Motifs of Pennsylvania,” that the earlier type Bieber barn design with a bold, black, saw-tooth circular border does look more like the symbol of the sun, without which no farmer’s crop can grow!

The three French Huguenot Biebers associated with the Kutztown area were brothers: George, Johannes, and Dewalt who emigrated from the Rhine Valley of Europe about 1744, and traveled up from Philadelphia to take up farmsteads in the Oley Hills, near Dryville and in the East Penn Valley around Kutztown. Maxatawny George Bieber (1698-1775) buried at Mertz Dryville Church was the progenitor of several Bieber families in the Kutztown area with his brother. Dewalt Bieber (1699-?) and his son, Dewalt Bieber Jr. (1729-1808) known as the “Barra” (bear) Bieber, because he fought off a bear on his early farmstead at Kutztown. While Johannes Bieber’s son, Jacob (1731-1798) was a progenitor of some Oley Valley Bieber families, where Johann and son Jacob’s pioneer sawmill was built on the Bieber Creek, in Oley Township. After Johann’s death, Jacob Bieber’s family timbered the forests of the Oley Hills at their frontier sawmill located on the main road leading from the Oley Valley to Kutztown where their lumber was used for building farmhouses and barns. Since the East Penn Valley branch of their family tree was familiar with their woodworking skills, it is likely that sawyer Jacob and his son, John (1763-1825), two joiners of furniture were commissioned by the extended family.

The Colonial dower chests crafted by the Oley Bieber sawmill craftsmen were usually decorated with their traditional Alsatian folk art designs of large twin flat hearts with hex-sign stars painted in each lobe with larger geometric stars on the ends of the chest. Undoubtedly, the Bieber sawmill family were active artists in the Kutztown area, and surviving on the Oscar Bieber family farm dating back to 1801 may possibly be one of their eight-pointed hex sign medallion recessed in the stone masonry of the barn’s gable end. This gable-end medallion sunburst matched the 1801 Georgian architecture of the Bieber homestead like other fashionable farms in the Oley Valley. Located just three miles south of Kemp’s Tavern on the road leading to Bowers, the barn medallion was recessed in fieldstone that was later stuccoed over. The farmer was very careful not to cover up the 200-year-old circular medallion, which is 3 ½ feet in diameter.

Judging from the age of the hex sign, it is authentic, and painted in original black and ocher yellow paint of the period. The authentic Bieber hex sign or “sunburst” had eight points with a large, circular bold saw tooth border imitating the sun. The Bieber homestead last occupied by Laura Bieber was acquired by an Old Order Mennonite who being historically minded preserved the sunburst design by dedicating 30 hours repainting it in 1970. The two Georgian, gable-end window medallions on the attic level on the west end of their Bieber Georgian mansion accented the architectural hex sign masoned on the gable-end of the barn immediately behind. These current owners of this farm, Mr. and Mrs. Moses Zimmerman, recall that the front of the barn originally had matching eight-point hex signs on the forebay before it was renovated.

Curious about the early Kutztown Bieber sunburst design, I interviewed John Dreibelbis, a resident of Kutztown whose mother, Ella Nora Bieber lived on this Bieber family farm where he was born and grew up. Descended from the Dewalt Bieber branch of the Bieber immigrant brothers, his family did not believe in the “hex-sign” myth. This sunburst medallion, old and weathered from the homestead was built in 1801; it was just another Georgian architectural feature on the barn’s fieldstone walls. The 1801 Bieber Georgian mansion built by an early ancestor (John Bieber), included four rooms with fashionable corner fireplaces besides the large walk-in fireplace in the kitchen. Many years ago, a windy rainstorm brought down the east gable end wall of their bank barn, but the west wall with the surviving sunburst design was not damaged. Later, it was stuccoed over with cement to reinforce it, and the east wall repaired. His grandfather was Isaac, and his father was John K. Bieber.

John, in our interview, stated in the dialect, when he was born my mother named me “John” so the family name would not die out! Mr. and Mrs. Bieber have a local Bieber Dutch cupboard that they acquired from Hettie Bieber, with traditional arcaded glass doors. John, a craftsman in his own right, is a retired silversmith who taught metal and fine arts to students at Kutztown University. Hex-sign decorated Swiss bank barns are only found in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of the Church Dutch, not the Plain Dutch: Amish, Mennonites, or Brethren in Lancaster County. The Church Dutch have always decorated their barns, homes, and furniture with the rural folk art that had evolved since their Colonial immigration.6 The fraktur designs penned by folk artists on rare birth certificates with geometric star and sun shapes may have inspired these rural people to extend their colorful geometric designs to the forebay of their drab barns as well. It is unusual for a Mennonite couple to spend so much time restoring a vestige of the local Kutztown barn heritage, possibly the oldest one in the Dutch Country.

Kutztown’s founder, George Kutz, had married into the historic Bieber family tree of woodworkers when he married Margaret Bieber (1730-1796). Bieber folk art decorated furniture pieces with hex sign motifs were found in the Kutztown area. Georgian architectural farm mansions built at Kutztown often have circular gable-end attic windows with four wooden keystones equally spaced, but none incorporate hex signs. However, the fact that a farmer would go to the expense of architecturally setting one of these Georgian-type medallion masoned circles in his barn gable-end wall and highlight it with a colorful hex sign, either tells you something about his wealth or the culture in which he lives. Historically, one must recall that about the time of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and thereafter, American agriculture was prospering, and farmers became flamboyant in their building habits. The practice of industrious farmers putting architectural hex signs on their barns might very well be a legacy left from the Republic’s antebellum days of agrarian wealth.

Of the fashionable hardwood dower chests found in the Kutztown area, the 1783 Maria Kutz chest, with inlays on black walnut wood is remarkable. It was made by the Colonial joiner who also crafted the incredible Hottenstein inlaid walnut wardrobe for David Hottenstein in 1781. This dower chest was discovered on the Sell farm outside of Bowers near Kutztown. In 1761, Maxatawny George Bieber divided his 302+ acres of land between his son, Dietrich and son-in-law, George Sell. This beautiful folk art chest with inlaid grasshoppers and tulips over three drawers was no doubt coveted by family members in the Kutztown area. Since there were few craftsmen in the early days of the Republic in the Maxatawny area, farmers eagerly sought woodworking craftsmen to meet their furniture needs. So, it is possible more than one craftsman is represented in the material wealth surviving in the Kutztown area. Likewise, I am sure young apprentices working with the compass folk art of the Jacob Bieber woodworking family, took their journeymen skills to other communities.

According to Maxatawny tax rolls of 1779, they listed only two joiners: Paul Hertzoge and Philip Heyman. But by 1784, George Esser was listed and Christian Derr had moved in from Greenwich Township. But all of these Pennsylvania Dutchmen were inspired by their native folk art designs. A second Kutztown architectural medallion barn is located north of town at the intersection of 737 and Sittler Valley Road. The barn, masoned from native stone is on the old Sylvester Dietrich farm and is dated 1821, with a stone farm house dated 1802. Although the barn is in disrepair, the wooden-board medallion about four feet in diameter, shows a “ghost” of the original six-pointed hex sign weathered into its surface on its side facing route 737. On the opposite gable end, the worn circular board appears to have a hex sign star with multiple points of at least twelve. However, since the broadside of the barn is badly weathered, there are no hex signs evident.

The third barn with a circular gable board is the old Schlegel farm outside of Topton, now owned by Ken Weidner, which has a masoned medallion with a diameter of 3 ½ feet on the west gable end of the barn. This circular board carries a large initial “S” and the dates of the original Schlegel owner in “1820” and of a later owner in “1916.” Eric Claypoole, hex sign painter, was contacted to repaint this medallion board and four hex signs on its forebay. Large stylish architectural Palladian windows incorporated in the broad barnside of John Mertz’s 1858 hex sign decorated barn outside of Kutztown is yet another classic detail which was borrowed from fashionable, early Pennsylvania Georgian mansions. Certainly, this barn as others like it is a sign of the Republic’s agricultural wealth from a bygone era as farmers sought to improve their lifestyle. This barn is ninety feet long and was built by Joshua Grim. The date board for the Mertz barn is centered between two artistic Palladian windows and reads “Joshua and Mary Grim 1858.” The Mertz family acquired the farmstead in 1908.

The large Mertz Palladian windows are artistically trimmed above with white painted arches. Just up the road from the Mertz’s is the early Grim barn, an equally large farm structure, which is elaborately paint decorated in an architectural style as well. The date board for the Grim barn is centered on top of the middle of three Palladian windows and reads “Gideon and Elisabeth Grim 1790.” One of the more elaborately painted hex sign decorated barns in Pennsylvania; the accompanying farm home is an elegant Georgian mansion with keystone medallion type attic windows similar to the Bieber mansion. The twin date stones in the front facade of the Grim mansion are dated 1801 and bare the names of Gideon and Elisabeth Grim. Built on the hex sign myth spread by metropolitan newspapers in the past, our commercial tourism in the PA Dutch Country continues this falsehood. But the real heroism of these Rhineland people is how they faced the war sand cruelty of the Old World, escaping to America to take advantage of William Penn’s freedom of religion.

Sailing across the storm swept Atlantic Ocean, with meager rations and belongings; they clung to the hope of a New World with a land of milk and honey. This voyage for many of them which lacked food and comfort, and some being sold into temporary indentured servitude when they reached Philadelphia to pay for their passage. The folk art expressed on their children’s fraktur birth certificates were the visions held in their minds as they spent many days at sea with only sun, moon, and stars to guide them. These barns stars or sunbursts painted on their rural barns were the climax of a universal odyssey. A humble expression of gratitude to their God, and pride in themselves, as the young Republic doubled its size acquiring the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The notion Pennsylvania German “folk art” hex signs are just for nice is too simple an explanation. They appear to be a vestige of an earlier architectural period when American rural wealth could be expressed visually and aesthetically for the entire world to see. The pride of many successful Pennsylvania German farmers in keeping up their farmsteads, naturally spilled over into paint-decorating arches on doorways and windows, whether he expected witches to bump their heads or not. Until recent, hex signs painted on Pennsylvania Dutch barn sides were thought to be done as a whim by most inhabitants to simply beautify otherwise drab, broadsides of barns which dot our countryside. Having embarked upon a photographic study of hex sign decorated barns of Berks and Lehigh Counties the last five years, I was especially interested in Eric Claypoole’s recent commission to restore a weathered, architectural gable-end hex sign, dated 1819 with the initials “S K and M K” at Lenhartsville, Berks County.

This rare architectural “date board” type hex sign, like the Oscar Bieber one, at Kutztown was masoned into the fieldstone gable-end of Peter and Eric Snyder’s historic barn in Lenhartsville (along Route143) was a major architectural fete by its original builders. Permanently recessed two inches in the masonry of the gable end wall high in the peak facing the house, it measures four feet in diameter. Fastened to the masonry wall with old hand hammered “rosehead” 18th Century nails, the placement of this huge medallion type six-point hex sign took considerable work and expense by its original builders (the Kistler family), and is definitely more than a spontaneous whim. The discovery of this additional architectural masoned hex sign opens up a new chapter in the annals of Pennsylvania architecture and folklore.

As our age-old countryside is very beautiful, Pennsylvania German farmers continue the living folklife practice of enhancing Pennsylvania’s piedmont landscape through the use of colorful decoration on their farm buildings. Hex signs are not always just for nice, but a sign of “wealth and prosperity” too, and have become a cornerstone of the Pennsylvania German culture. Today, paint-decorated barns have become as rare and valuable in our society as Pennsylvania German dower chests in Metropolitan Museums. They need to be entered in the Registry of Architectural Properties protected by our National Historic Trust in America. Our culture is losing a rapid number of folk art decorated barns each year due to weather elements and urban expansion.
According to barn architecture expert, Robert Ensminger, the Bieber and Snyder barns structurally date from the 18th Century style. It appears that architectural hex signs were probably done between 1800-1830. Although there are only a handful of Pennsylvania German barns surviving with rare architecturally masoned hex signs recessed in their gable end walls, there is evidence that this practice was far more common in the first quarter of the 19th Century in Berks County. There appears to be a relationship between circular window ornamentation of Georgian Mansion gable end walls and the desire of farm gentry to transfer this style to their rural structures, as well as Palladian windows, and wooden keystones to dress up barn windows often done in the Oley Valley. One common feature of all but the Schlegel barn is the architectural louver windows in the gable end walls to vent the hay maw. This also supports their dating to the first quarter of the 19th Century or before.

Perhaps there is no better example of the correlation between rural prosperity and circular barn medallions than the unique barn on the Dick plantation currently owned by Carter P. Reese at Seyfert, Berks County. Built about 1820, the large masoned gable end medallion boards, with a wide stuccoed apron circling them, mirror the decorative medallion ornamentation in the west gable end of the mansion built in 1811 by Jacob and Sara Dick. Here, the inset design trimmed by Federal keystones is a white, lacy, concentrically web motif instead of a star painted on the original wooden boards surviving in good condition. There is no mistake but that the wealth of this family spilled over from the architecture of this Georgian house to its plantation buildings.

However, one must not confuse missing date board impressions left in gable end walls for rare medallion hex signs four feet in diameter. The only known homes to me with a plastered barn star decoration in its gable end is one recorded in Volume XLI (1933) of the Pennsylvania German Society series titled “Colonial Architecture of the Pennsylvania Germans” by G. Edwin Brumbaugh, which he labeled a sunburst ornamentation not a hex sign. The other is in the Oley Valley along Blacksmith Road, owned by the McCaslins. Nevertheless, recent discoveries of these rare, architectural gable-end hex sign boards in our barns have prompted new insight for further research. Forebay hex signs were only one of a few major innovations that caught the eye of immigrants seeking farmable lands in all parts of the North American Continent. Traveling down the Great Valley of Pennsyl­vania into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia Swiss bank barns were widely chosen over any other ethnic variety that had its roots firmly embedded in the Old World.

An earthen bank to its rear, which allowed wagons to bridge the threshing floor with sheaves of grain and many loads of hay, was the Swiss bank barn’s most practical feature. However, not bedding cows and animals in a stable area on the same level as the first-floor threshing area of an English type barn, called a “deshutt shire” in Pennsylvania German was perhaps its greatest advantage over farming practices of the British Isles. Agricultural circumstance called for unique innovations, which brought about the evolution of the Pennsylvania barn on lands whose fertility and lime productivity demanded the very best solutions. The unsupported forebay built on the Swiss bank barns did more than shield the stable doors from rain and snow.
Adjacent to the barnyard, the protection of the forebay overhang where feed and harness was stored often had built in tack closets to hold the harness and bridles for hitching horses, besides being an excellent work area for impromptu farm chores. A classic ladder stair under this forebay overshoot allowed the farmer access to the hay and straw bays above, without going around using the second-floor earthen bank behind the barn. One gadget of an early Pennsylvania German bank barn was the “Schpriggel bar” masoned into the side jamb of the horse stable when the carpenter originally framed the stable doorway. This sliding three to four-foot bar was drawn across the stable door when open to allow the poor creature some air in the hot summer days. Since the early farmer never knew when he would be called upon to use his horse in his farm operation, the noble beast was not always let out of his stable to roam the pasture.

When looking for a Schpriggel bar, I usually look for it on the left end of theStable door entrances, which is historically dif­ferent from the numerous cow stables because it may have wooden pegs masoned into its walls to hold horse collars or
harness. Barns which did not have enough ground to make a rear bank to reach the  threshing floor and hayloft often used this unusable space by masoning a large vaulted stone ground root compartment in the earthen bank with heavy enough stones that the arch could be covered with ground and it could withstand the weight of farm wagons as they rolled over it into the threshing floor above. Not nearly as good for storage of root crops as those below the surface of the earth, these bank barns which contained stone vaulted compartments were mostly used for storing apples and root crops during the winter months to achieve the right temperature, with a wooden arched door on one side to permit entrance, and some kind of vent hole at the other end.

By the time the Swiss bank barn had evolved into an efficient farming structure of the 1820’s it featured a hooded cantilever entrance to the rear feed way at the gable-end of the barn. Feed-ways were still incorporated in the cow stable entrances under the forebay, but now the gable-end entrance served as a major feed way entrance sometimes allowing access to the straw and haylofts above on the main threshing floor. The vital cross-ventilation afforded by the gable-end entrance in summer may have been fashionable, but was definitely needed by successful farmers keeping a number of animals, and manuring the stables constantly. The layout of the Pennsylvania German barn and successful husbandry by Rhinelanders who immigrated to Pennsylvania by the thousands up to 1800 truly earned the state fame as the foremost “breadbasket” of America. Their farming practices together with the development of farm buildings unique to the purpose for which they were designed made them agricultural leaders to be followed regardless of the German language barrier.

Schweitzer (Swiss) bank barns built on the early Lancaster plain by the Mennonites and Amish had modest steep roofs familiar to the early 1700 immigration of Swiss Plain People. The long sloping front roofs were more a tell-tale sign of their previous Continental thatched straw roofs, then of the turbulent storms which ravaged structures on the plain which were built too high and were in the way of their wrath, thus the forebays were close to the ground to escape hurricane winds. Not nearly as high as barns built in the piedmont region of Berks, Montgomery, Lebanon, and Schuylkill counties, Swiss bank barns built here were quite large and tall. The Appalachian Mountains afforded ideal locations for Pennsylvania German barns to be built into the south side of a hill facing a road that had a trade connection with Philadelphia in the early days.

As the young Republic became the breadbasket of the world after the War of 1812 the expansion of farms in the east called for the building of large elevated bank barns built everywhere in the piedmont not prone to be ravaged by Mother Nature. These barns that were not protected in a natural glen or hollow did not survive in our severe temperate climate. And as the young American nation prospered from its exporting of huge quantities of grain abroad to the world market, the size of the Swiss bank barn threshing floor went from one to two, three, or more threshing floors under one roof. While English barns had only a ground level threshing floor, the utter uniqueness of the elevated Pennsylvania Dutch barn’s threshing floor above the stables allowed men threshing their grain to pitch the excess loose straw down to the spacious barnyard, where some of it was used to bed animals immediately in the compound.

Thus, the laborious second floor task of harvesting grain and straw was advantageously processed. The threshed grain into the second-floor granary, and the excess straw which could not fit in the straw mows or bays was pitched down in the barnyard for various animals including the large number of chickens and the pigs in their adjacent pens. During the Industrial Revolution when steam powered threshing machines replaced horse powered tread mills, farmers with large tracts of land built huge Pennsylvania German bank barns with double and triple threshing floors realizing that these structures provided them with the most efficiency. Threshing a quantity of grain took both light and air for breathing, thereby large Palladian architectural windows with multi pains of glass were installed in the forebay wall above the threshing floor doors out of which straw was blown or pitched constantly. After which the winnowing process occurred.

The mere fact that circular keystone trimmed gable-end windows were commonly found on local Georgian-style mansions, leads one to suspect that companion barns to Georgian farmhouses are more likely to have recessed gable-end hex sign medallions in their gable-end stone barns than with any other architectural form, possibly inspiring Pennsylvania Dutch farmers to paint decorate their barns with hex-signs in the Dutch Country. On occasion, a Georgian barn might feature a monogram medallion in its gable end wall with the initial of the family name and the date of the farm, as was found near Topton with a large “S” and date on the farmstead. The fact that high-style Palladian windows were also borrowed from Georgian architecture and incorporated in massive Swiss bank barns in Berks County provides a similar rationale in the 1820 period, when agriculture prospered in the antebellum period. The exceptional John Mertz barn on his farm, east of Kutztown, with several Palladian windows is a good example of how country gentlemen incorporated such high fashion in their rural lives.


Previous to the commercialism of tourist bureaus and so called “Hex Sign Highways of Berks County,” there were the authentic clandestine decorated barns of native Dutchmen. Found throughout the eastern section of the Dutch Country, these decorated barns were often found in Lehigh, Berks, Montgomery, Bucks, and Northampton Counties. Not until the news media and free lance writers spread the misnomer of a rural belief in “Hex Signs,” among the Pennsylvania Dutch did we have masonite tourist artists motivated to continue such commercialism. In the innocent years, when people traveled through the Dutch Country, they were cognizant of the ethnic ownership of farms by these proud native Dutchmen who allowed their love of folk art to spill over to the broadsides of their decorated barns.

These Germanic farmers bursting with love for America’s freedom and fertility expressed themselves with a longing and celebration of their innate European roots. Never any attempt to establish a German colony in the United States, these pioneer Dutchmen celebrated the American way of life and assimilated it with their own, only retaining their rural German Dialect as a matter of communication with one another. Certainly, every intelligent Dutchman in Berks County realizes that the tourism fable perpetuated by the news media about our historic hex-sign decorated bank barns is a colorful myth, itself. Frances Lichten in her research found many of the specimens she was able to examine were not simple, geometric stars, but invoked the outward design of the sun, itself.

The Swiss bank barn brought to America by Rhinelanders in the 17th and 18th Century, who developed a marvelous agrarian society in Pennsylvania’s piedmont landscape, had evolved into a world-class architectural structure by the turn of the 19th Century. Famed for its artistic decorated, when Johannes Bieber and his son, Jacob settled in the Oley Valley of Berks County, about 1744, this French Huguenot family enjoyed the freedom of America’s unrestricted craft guild, no longer obliged to follow the rules and techniques required by Europe’s craft guild. They and other PA Dutch rural immigrants were free to create their own mode of furniture painted with individual motifs, which were the beginnings of American Folk Art.

The Bieber family who migrated to the Kutztown area and eventually the Lehigh Valley and central Philadelphia, were farmer-craftsmen who decorated their furniture and barns with Pennsylvania Dutch motifs. Jacob and his son, John were Colonial joiners together with a number of the extended family. Their Colonial sawmill built on the Rockland/ Oley Township border along the road leading to Kutztown was the source of lumber used to build farmhouses and barns in Berks County.

Among the decorated barns in the Kutztown area associated with the Biebers is the early hex sign decorated gable end stone specimen of Oscar Bieber. It is doubtless that the former of this barn structure did not already have in mind the use of an unusual hex-sign medallion when the stonemason walled the gable end up, providing a recessed circular space for a board in the actual masonry. The design, which was inscribed and painted on this 3-½ foot board, was one that only a master of the compass could handle.

Although the huge contemporary hex-sign style barn signs appear to be part of the post-Georgian period, a quote from Richard Shaner states: “they are the natural emergence of native Germanic folk art.” Descended from the Johannes Bieber family in the Oley of Berks County, Shaner has collected Colonial Bieber hex-sign decorated dower chests. His grandmother, Shaner explained Mary “Bieber” Hilbert from Rockland Township always personified the humility of their Huguenot Christian faith. “It would go against her principles to advertise their pride and wealth with outlandish barn stars. They would sooner spend more attention on their farm animals.”

Although Johann and son Jacob ran a Colonial sawmill in the Oley Hills, Johann’s other two immigrant brother’s, George and Dewalt, raised their families on farms in the Kutztown area. Jacob had several sons who were assets in the timbering business, and was no doubt a master carpenter in the woodworking trade. Moving to Lehigh Valley in 1789 with son, John, they were listed as talented joiners on the tax list in Salisbury Township, Lehigh County. However, the known dower chests that have been attributed to them contain no signatures.

Bieber Brothers Post Script: A ninth generation Bieber Huguenot, Richard Shaner remembers his mother, Esther Hilbert Shaner, talking about cleaning out the family’s early Dewalt Bieber homestead in Rockland Township, Berks County. There was a huge keepsake trunk of family letters written in German, the final result of Bieber family members in the early 19th Century keeping in touch with relatives overseas in the Rhineland after they had successfully farmed and timbered land in the Oley Valley of America.

Foot Notes
  1. Celebrated Pennsylvania Dutch Folklorist, Alfred L. Shoemaker, disclaimed the hex-sign barn myth in his research study: Hex, No (1953). A noted authority on witchcraft and occult practices in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, he proclaimed that there was no basis in fact for this fictitious hex-sign myth.
  2. For an excellent study on Pennsylvania German folk art and early Germanic fraktur illuminating designs, read Dr. Donald A. Shelley’s Fraktur Writings of the Pennsylvania Germans.
  3. Occult folk practices used by the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers to break evil spells and bad luck on raising farm animals were always done in secret, without the public’s knowledge. Nowhere did these people broadcast their occult beliefs on the broadsides on their barns.
  4. It is possible that the builder of the 1801 Bieber homestead was a John Bieber (1748-1844), grandson of the immigrant George Bieber and was recorded as living two miles east of town, and was a prominent and generous citizen of Maxatawny Township.
  5. In the 1886, History of Berks County by Morten L. Montgomery, he lists gristmills in the vicinity of the Snyder barn at Lenhartsville and speaks of the old Kistler Mill with a substantial stone house. Since old route 143 cuts behind the Snyder barn across a waterway adjacent to the barn, it is possible of a subsequent farm-mill operation.
  6. In researching the mysterious gable end medallion barns, the only clue I was able to discover was the rare photograph recorded in Eleanor Raymond’s memorable works, Early Domestic Architecture of Pennsylvania, 1930. On page 96 she shows an Oley Valley barn at Manatawny, Berks County, with a large plastered circular indentation in the masonry of its gable end wall with a wide plastered apron much like the barn on the Dick plantation. This Manatawny barn has an 18th Century cantilever forebay overshoot with three additional stable doors at the base of the gable end wall.Such an arrangement of stabling is definitely “English” in origin and the masoned circle although not showing any identifiable detail is probably a vestige of Georgian architecture very popular in the Oley Valley. Most likely the masoned circle had lines in the plastered apron to imitate blocks of cut stone.

Book cited: Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans, A Winterthur Book.

(Caption) The chances that one or two of the talented Bieber family woodworkers may have painted hex-signs on furniture and barn structures is likely when one realizes that Jacob’s son, John had eight brothers in this sawmill family. John Bieber, being the folk artist, used his brothers and/or Bieber cousins in the Kutztown area as apprentices. The most outstanding piece of painted furniture associated with John or his father, Jacob is the 1794 Martin Eisenhauer paint-decorated wardrobe (schrank) found in Kutztown’s Greenwich Township, which includes flat hearts and circular designs. This piece is now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s PA German Collection.

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