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.