A Look Back in History: Colonial weathervanes of Oley Valley

Among the historic barns of the Oley Valley is this steeple topped barn with Colonial Weathervane of an American Indian, which was thought to give the farmer good luck while he engaged in tilling.

When the early Pennsylvania Germans purchased their farming tracts from William Penn, these proud immigrants built agrarian farmsteads that rivaled their European counterparts, which naturally caused these Americans to place artistic weathervanes atop fashionable farm homes and gigantic Swiss bank barns, once the prerogative of European nobility.

In the Oley Valley where native Leni Lenape Indians were usually at peace with the PA Dutch, they shared farming practices and enjoyed harvesting native fruits and grain crops.

However, it was generally believed that sharing the bountiful harvests with local natives who originally owned the American Continent would bring good luck to the new

American pioneers. Thus, some of the PA German settlers who celebrated God’s bountiful harvest built weathervanes on their farmsteads in the shape of Indians to celebrate the goodness of the earth to commemorate their new Christian fellowship. Indeed the fellowship which was eventually shared with local Indians and their Sacred Oak tree, just down Friedensburg Road, was another example of how both groups cherished Mother Nature living in a Garden of Eden in Colonial times.

On the barn roof of the Herbert Levan family just off Water Street, a short distance from the village of Oley, called “Friedensburg” by local villagers, is one of the finest Indian weathervanes in the Oley Valley standing. Atop a huge Oley Township barn for many years in all types of weather for as long as I can remember! An iconic folk symbol cherished by local folk people. But in the 1990’s, I by chance stopped at the local blacksmith shop at Boyer’s Junction to order some iron, and to my surprise, found that the blacksmith had made a similar Indian weathervane there in his shop. Excited about this Americana example, I asked this Dutchman if he could make another one for my collection on local folk art. Proud of his blacksmith skills, Mr. Fegley agreed to make one for me, which I have cherished all these years, being a native born descendant of the Oley Valley, and admirer of Indian folklore.

After the French and Indian War, when PA Dutch farmers became the “Bread Basket” of Philadelphia, and peaceful Indians made pilgrimages to the Sacred Oak of the Oley Valley in the 18th Century, it was a common practice for PA Dutch farmers to adorn their Swiss Bank Barns with weathervanes, designed with Native Indians as a remembrance of their original American folk culture as the United States became the world leader of agriculture. A synonymous symbol of our United States Republic, which was a good luck omen to the PA Dutch people of the Oley Valley, the Indian weathervane from Water Street in the Oley Valley was an amazing four feet high and like the sacred Oak of the Oley Valley is revered by all citizens who cherish our Americana Culture to this very day.

Although there are a number of domesticated Americana weathervanes, like horses and roosters, and wild life symbols, Pennsylvania Indian weathervanes are indeed the most appreciated by historians, a luxury item that was brought to America that in the Old Country was only used by nobility and on church edifices. But here in America, it became one of the expressions our multinational immigrants used to express their belief in an amazing new Western Civilization.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.