A Look Back in History: Vanity versus hex signs among our Pa Dutch folk religions

Submitted Still the most authoritative folklorist about our Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture, Dr. Don Yoder stands alongside a selection of hex signs exhibited at the 2013 Kutztown Folk Festival by Patrick Donmoyer, author of this yearís newest publication: Hex Signs Myth and Meaning in Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Stars.

Among the highlights of this year’s 64th Annual PA Dutch Folk festival was an academic study done by Patrick Donmoyer, a young yet long established historian of our PA Dutch/German folk culture, who has spent more time photographing our rural hex sign painted folk art symbols than probably anyone still familiar with this age old farm practice in the PA Dutch Country that involves seven or more counties in Pennsylvania.

When the Old Order Wenger Mennonites purchased PA Dutch farms in the Kutztown area, they being Plain Dutch followers, knew that it was against their religious order to adorn their barns with such lavish designs. Fellow followers may have cringed at the site of such elaborate sun or star designs, thus, these worldly designs on their previous owner’s barn broadsides were painted over with white paint, much like almost all the Plain Dutch barns in Lancaster County are painted among the Plain PA Dutch farmsteads. But some, a rare few, Plain Dutch farmers thought it more proper for these historic hex sign barns to survive as a historic gesture, thereby, some of the more architectural examples (pictured) were not painted over, but saved for posterity.

Among the historic examples were the gable end hex sign medallions on the Bieber farm once owned by John Dreibelbis. These masoned (Bieber) hex signs were painted on wood and masoned into the early fieldstone ends of Swiss bank barns with a fieldstone masoned Georgian farmhouse of the early American period, such as the fine example along Bowers Road, just east of Kutztown. But the Zimmerman Mennonite family that acquired this Bieber farm knew that it was historic, so instead of painting over, he meticulously repainted the hex sign medallions as to last for another 100 years, the Bieber farm dating to 1803. By chance, the folk art creator could be that of the Jacob and John Bieber family from the Oley Valley who were folk artists and their Americana folk decorated period art furniture i.e. dower chests and wardrobes are featured in several American museums designed with beautiful bulbous flat hearts and hex signs.

But since they were strict French Huguenot followers, they never believed in vanity, thereby signing their work. Their folk art symbols are the result of the “Glory of God,” not their humble mortal labor that shows their belief in this kingdom. Consequently, in many ways is the reason why humble dirt farmers do decorate their barnsides, as an expression to please God, not to prove their farm is better than anyone else’s. However, to a Mennonite or Amishman (Plain Dutch) hex signs could be construed as vain and might antagonize our merciful God, thereby vanity has been the downfall of many a farmer. Thus, most if not all Plain Dutch farmers do not do any decorating without searching their souls for a reason.

Patrick Donmoyer’s illustrated survey of hex signs in our PA Dutch Country includes interior folk art examples of colorful hex signs painted on the granary walls deep within these Swiss bank barns. Any local old timer who has ever walked in a PA Dutch barn in their youth or more youthful guys like myself and Patrick know that farmers often used two prong forks to inscribe rosette designs on interior wall boards. But in the early Oley Valley, there are two barns with lovely interior hex sign folk art symbols painted in a variety of hex sign motifs that are rarely seen by the public except when these farmers were in the process of storing their hay and straw mows (mauws).

Ironically, these two barns were once owned by the Sittler Family, and their two sons, David and John, were rural folk artists who willed away their leisure time by drawing colorful types of hex sign folk art. This may have been because they intended to paint hex signs on neighbors’ barns who may have selected one from their different designs.

A major decision in a multi-religious community, as the Oley Valley, which had a large number of Quakers and Plain German Baptist Brethren historically, and until recently has Mennonite farm families re-establishing themselves having bought substantial acreage to farm. The choice of maintaining hex signs for historic prosperity is not an easy choice, complicated by the fact that there were few hex sign decorated barns in the Oley Valley to begin with since these designs were thought of as being “vain” by its early pioneer Mennonites, Quakers, and French Huguenots.

Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.