Among the various people whose talents the Kutztown Folk Festival has counted on over the years is the late skilled hex sign painter, William Schuster (1921-2012) whose craftsmanship was known throughout the United States, setting up at regional craft shows.
I first met Bill and his wife, Charlotte, when I lived in Macungie. He demonstrated there at the PA Dutch folk art craft at the Macungie August Fest. A hex sign painter and craftsman whose shop was in nearby Emmaus, Bill was such a knowledgeable folk artist, his patrons had to stand in line to wait their turn trying to order one of his folk art creations.
A local Dutchman from the Lehigh Valley, I counted myself lucky to be one of his customers. An admirer of authentic local hex signs painted directly on historic Swiss bank barns, Schuster replicated copies of these hex signs surviving in Berks and Lehigh counties, such as the 1801 John Bieber sunburst decorated barn star, still intact on their barn, along the road leading to the village of Bowers, outside of Kutztown. His dedication to exact detail of these folk art medallions made me proud to own any replica with his signature authenticating it!
As a member of the board of the Historical Society of Lehigh County when I lived in Macungie in the 1960s, Schuster knew I was not interested in any Johnny Ott style romantic hex signs with distelfink birds or shamrocks, etc., but authentic geometric designs like those produced on colorful PA Dutch fraktur birth certificates of our PA Dietsch people. He was a scholar and wise enough to know the difference between academic folk art, and imagination.
Having owned several Jacob and John Bieber early American folk art dower chests with appropriate geometric hex sign designs incorporated in their motifs, I asked Schuster to replicate the 1801 John Bieber sunburst design for the wagon shed of the Kutztown Town Crier’s house. Since he was a local Dutchman, every time I visited the shop downtown off Constitution Boulevard, we enjoyed an academic conversation on our local Dietsch folk art, which he was busy duplicating in his studio for 52 years.
Having known him and his family for a number of years when I resided on my parents’ farm in Macungie, we appreciated his folk artistry of two gable end barn stars on my family’s barn. My mother was a gifted patch-work quilt designer and also participated at the Dutchy Macungie August Fest, in those early days. A well read craftsman on PA Dutch Folk Art, Bill Schuster was a reverent person, always seeking to fulfill the desires of his folk art patrons, epitomizing the humility of our PA Dietsch people and celebrating our traditional Fraktur Christian folk symbolisms.
A professional modern sign painter, besides being a talented folk artist who designed and decorated my folk festival stands for Dr. Shoemaker’s Kutztown Folk Festival, Bill never failed to create distinctive PA Dutch folk art festival signs, which captured the Dietsch spirit of our local PA Dutch people; thereby, being a major accomplishment to develop a theme of the non-profit Folk Festival, as opposed to other commercial public events. Bill Schuster’s dedication to the authentic theme of Dr. Shoemaker’s PA Folklife Festival was utmost in his priorities at his shop in downtown Kutztown, preparing for the annual event year after year, adding to our community’s pride.
Born in the Macungie area of Lehigh County in 1921, Bill Schuster died Jan. 15, 2012, recording the folk art barn stars of Lehigh and Berks Counties such as this typical balanced example near Macungie.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.