I wanted to see distelfinks. But they were hard to find.
In Pennsylvania Dutch country, the distelfink — a goldfinch that eats thistle seeds and builds thistledown nests — is a good-luck bird. It also symbolizes smooth sailing and tranquility and is often found on colorful hex signs, a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art commonly found painted on barns in Berks County, where I was born.
This part of southeastern Pennsylvania was settled by German immigrants, mostly farmers lured by fertile land, in the 1700s. They decorated their stone-and-wood barns with designs that survive today. Armed with a Hex Barn Art Tour brochure from the Greater Reading Convention & Visitors Bureau, my husband and I were driving a 28-mile route to spot 22 red and white barns, searching for distelfinks as we went.
The tour started in Kutztown, about midway between Reading and Allentown, and ended near Hamburg, taking us along two-lane roads that wound through villages dotted with stately old stone houses and modest newer ones. As we drove, our efforts to spot the signs on the barns (all on private property) became a competitive sport between artist (me) and mathematician (my husband). Mostly, he was winning, as we were finding largely geometric designs — stars with four to 32 points that ranged from three to eight feet high, many surrounded by scallops or petals within borders. We both appreciated the skill involved in crafting the symbols. We imagined standing on scaffolding, sketching with a ruler and compass. Our tour brochure noted that every point and color holds meaning: Green symbolizes life; red, strength; white, purity.
Nobody knows exactly why the Pennsylvania Dutch decorated their barns. It could have been that they believed the signs warded off evil; the Pennsylvania Dutch word “hexafoos” means witch’s foot. Some theorize that the name comes from the German word “sechs,” meaning six, which may have sounded like “hex” to English-speaking neighbors. But in fact, the designs weren’t even called hex signs until a travel writer coined the term in 1923. The name stuck, and a tourist industry was born.
My brochure stated that some thought hex signs originated in the mid-1880s, “when the affordability of paint gave a green light to farmers’ creative sides,” but new research suggests that they appeared earlier — perhaps around 1800.
One hex sign researcher is Patrick Donmoyer, a building conservator and exhibit specialist at the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, whose library contains hex-sign books. (For $5, members of the public can have a look.) Donmoyer got hooked on barn signs while pursuing an art degree at Kutztown. “I spent four months driving around for 10 or 12 hours a day,” he told me. He documented 425 Berks County barns with signs. Some were so weathered that he could see only the “ghost” of the sign, and only a fraction are on the art barn tour.
“Kutztown is the epicenter of it all,” Donmoyer said, with many of the earliest examples (one sign dates from 1819). He told us that the hex sign tradition was “reinvented” in the 1950s by artists such as Milton Hill, who is credited with creating the spinning-star effect; Johnny Ott; and Johnny Claypoole, whose son Eric continues the tradition. We saw their designs on our drive.
According to Donmoyer, the eight-point star, which symbolizes perseverance, is probably the most commonly used because it’s one of the easier designs to produce. A 12-point star might refer to 12 months. “Time is a really important concept here,” Donmoyer explained. “The sun, moon, stars — people drew what they saw.” His favorite design on the tour is No. 13, the Sunday Farm, whose almost seven-foot stars are inlaid with green, gold and black.
We attempted to count star points and interpret meanings, but after a while the signs became just pretty pictures that we enjoyed the way art should be enjoyed — with feeling. We decided that Virginville Road (the name the route takes in Virginville) was the most scenic stretch of the drive, partly because some barns are painted with murals in addition to hex signs. The Adam Farm mural depicts horses, but Holsteins were nudging one another at the feeding trough. The farmhands waved to us.
We stopped at Deitsch Eck restaurant in Lenhartsville to see some Ott designs, which decorate the walls. In the gift shop, we found distelfinks — at last! — painted on disks ($35 and $50) and one on a wall mural.
A German shepherd chased a cat across the mud driveway at No. 19, Albany Farm, whose sign says that it has been operating since 1844. Donald Rice was corralling cows into the barn, so I hopped out to ask about his hex signs. “This is the only one with a star and a yin-yang thing,” he said, pointing at one, although he said he didn’t know what it meant. The signs were there when he bought his grandfather’s farm five years ago. Eric Claypoole restored them for about $500, he said. Rice pointed out the barn’s false door lintels, “so the witches would hit their heads — that’s what I was taught in school.”
I called Claypoole later to ask about barn distelfinks. He told me that he did two but that they’re not as common as stars, which “represent people spinning through time”; the 12-point “pinwheel effect” is his favorite. But he said that he’ll have distelfinks at the annual Kutztown Folk Festival in June.
After looking at barns for three hours, we backtracked to the Virginville Hotel in Virginville, the last public house in a town that used to have three, for pretzel-crusted chicken and corn fritters. We ate them under a print of George Washington (who probably didn’t eat there).
Near the end of the day, we finally saw a distelfink sign attached to a small barn as we climbed to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a preserve for raptors. As we walked along a trail, I mused: I’ve been searching for an imaginary bird in bird-of-prey territory. But I found it. Surely, that’s enough to ensure good luck for a little while.
Shuman is a former editor at The Washington Post.