Saving Lehigh County’s hex signs One barn at a time
Take a long drive around Lehigh and nearby Berks counties, and you’re sure to spot at least one brightly painted disk on the side of a barn. Known more correctly as barn stars, today they are commonly called hex signs. These colorful disks are a very visible and important reflection of the state’s distinctive Pennsylvania Dutch culture, but with the loss of farms and increases in housing and commercial development, they are at risk of becoming an endangered “species.”
To assure that hex signs aren’t lost to future generations, the Pennsylvania Music Preservation Society (PAMPS) is collaborating with the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University in a joint, multi-year initiative to preserve, promote and catalog all of Lehigh County’s hex signs. In keeping with its educational goals, the initiative also will include a student hex sign art competition, and hex sign seminars and painting demonstrations at PAMP’s 2018 Great Pennsylvania Music and Arts Celebration on Memorial Day Weekend.
Lehigh County Executive Phillip Armstrong praised the hex sign initiative, noting its potential educational, cultural and economic impact.
“Getting students involved in the initiative is a great idea,” he said. “It’s important that we maintain an appreciation for our heritage among the next generation, and the art contest is one important way to do that, along with cataloging and preserving the county’s hex signs. These efforts have the potential to increase tourism and provide a huge economic boost for the county.”
Armstrong added that he was happy to be part of the Great Pennsylvania Music & Arts Celebration “because it’s fun.”
Patrick Donmoyer, executive director of The Heritage Center, has studied hex signs in depth, and cataloged those in Berks County. He said he plans to do the same for Lehigh County,
adding that tourists “love” hex signs.
“The Lehigh Valley has something unique to promote,” he said, referring to the endangered “Blumme” or flower hex sign style that the initiative with PAMPS is being created to save.
“Like two legs of the same pair of pants, Lehigh and Berks counties share the role of being the heartland of the Pennsylvania Dutch history and culture,” Donmoyer explained. “Eastern Berks and Western Lehigh counties are the epicenter of the indigenous folk art of hex signs and barn stars.”
Donmoyer will give presentations on Pennsylvania German culture, including hex signs, during the Celebration at the historic Allentown Fairgrounds.
Author of “Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols and Their Meaning,” Donmoyer said, “Some of the [hex sign] symbols date to Norse, and even pagan, art. It is no coincidence that the hub of hex sign activity is in Pennsylvania rather than, say, New York or New Jersey. There was freedom of religion in Pennsylvania.”
As for the controversy over the purpose of the art, Donmoyer said in a 2012 interview after the publication of his book, “The designs on barns both historically and today have a diversity of meanings, and the idea of witch-craft protection seems to be a comparatively recent interpretation of the designs. Ideas like blessing, fertility and spiritual protection seem far older.”
Pennsylvania’s leading hex sign and barn star painter, Eric Claypoole, learned hex sign painting by watching his father. He will exhibit and give painting demonstrations at the Memorial Day event. He will also serve as one of the judges for the student hex sign contest. He said students will be encouraged to personalize their paintings to reflect their own unique backgrounds and experiences.
“This year’s competition is open to all Lehigh County students from kindergarten through high school, with plans to widen the competition next year, according to Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, CEO of PAMPS, which is organizing the inaugural three-day Celebration.
Students will work with their schools’ art instructors to design their own unique hex signs, and their drawings will be displayed at the Celebration. Each participating student will receive a “Fraktur” Certificate of Congratulations at the event’s grand opening on Saturday, May 26. The winning drawing will be featured on the Celebration’s 2018 logo, Bennett said.