As a descendant of the early American Oley Valley, I always admired the Colonial orange clay tile roofs of its frontier farmstead, which were the hallmark of its PA German/Dutch ancestors whose clay tile roofed spring houses and bakeovens were dotted throughout its quaint countryside; but in particular, the upper Oley Valley where my Bieber maternal family owned farmland. It was so romantic; I am sure immigrants who settled there from the Palatinate area of Germany realized these orange clay tile rooflines were exactly as they appeared to these PA Deitsch immigrants as when they left for America from their beloved Rhine Valley of Central Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This Oley Valley farmland was transformed by Rhineland farmers into an exact copy of their fatherland without the war-torn strife, which caused many of these peace loving immigrants to seek a new home in the New World. Many of which also sought freedom of Religion promised by William Penn, our proprietor.
Although I grew up speaking English in modern America, visiting my ancestors in the Oley Valley who spoke PA Dutch was like returning to 17th century Germany, amidst crude farmsteads with clay tile roofs with dramatic rooflines to make sure the winner snows fall far away from the home when it slides off the roof. Indeed, there was a dramatic difference between the English Fisher Georgian mansion and the Germanic Levan farmhouse with a “kick” to force sliding snow away from its farmhouse walls.
It was Dr. John Joseph Stoudt who first wrote about the colorful clay tile made by Adam Weidner on the large spring house of John Hoch’s Colonial farm at Lobachsville, which first drew my attention to these German style clay roof tiles that were indicative of the German Palatinate in which so many Oley Valley immigrants had sailed to America to make a new life for themselves. But being a folklorist, I knew that there were other earthenware potters who also fired German styled roof tile for our frontier farmers in Berks and Montgomery counties.
In fact, when Dr. Alfred Shoemaker attempted to build a major Pennsylvania folklife farm museum in the 1960’s in Lancaster County on route 30, he planned to roof several buildings in these colorful antique clay tile, which would have appeared like a German countryside when tourists traveled on busy route 30. But his master plan was cut short due to a bankruptcy. However, working with Alfred Shoemaker in the 1960s, I was given the assignment to stockpile at least 5,000 antique PA Dutch American made tile to roof these museums specimens.
To undertake this task, I got a crew of farm kids to help me deliver this quantity by asking farmers if they wanted to sell their antique clay tile to replace them with a modern roofing material. But few antique ridge tile were not to be found, so local potters were to fire new ridge tile following the older models. Of the two to four thousand clay tile we found, they had similar dimensions with only a modest difference in size between original clay tile made by potters in Montgomery County and those tiles made by Adam Weidner.
But true to PA Deitsch form, a tulip was designed on each tile to gather the raindrops to the middle of the tile so the rain will drain from one tile to the next until it reaches the eve of the roof. In incorporating original tile, there were about three large wagon shed roofs in which we removed many of the tile that hung by a clay notch that held the tile on the lathe. Almost no original tile had nails but with spring houses they had too much moss growing under the shade trees.
Since it must have been monotonous for potters making a tulip design to catch raindrops, some creative designs were found on tile which broke up the raindrop pattern. However, I did see a clay tile owned by Stephen Kindig which was dated 1756, and a Mr. Hopkins found a lovely tree of life design among those owned at the Jacob Keim farmstead by the Preservation Trust of Berks County.
Being more than 200 years old, these bisque fired tile are in good shape except for chimney damage where they might have been sealed from rain leakage. But in the Oley Valley, the two clay tile roofs that are most photographed, are the restored 1767 DeTurk house and the restored 1753 Keim ancillary workshop near Lobachsville.
Years ago, when Mr. and Mrs. John Moxon bought the historic Reiff Homestead with a picturesque clay tile roofed (Reiff) forge, their dedication to restoring this Oley Township property, with a Georgian style farmhouse, set an example which promoted the Historic Preservation Trust to proclaim the entire township a National Historic District.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.