Saturday, August 06, 2016

Barn Art: Hexe Signs and Barn Quilts

Growing up in Pennsylvania we occasionally made trips down to the Lancaster County area which is well-known as Amish country. There is a difference between Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish which a lot of people apparently don't know. My mother's family are all Pennsylvania Dutch—German Catholics who came from Bavaria in the early twentieth century. Amish people are derived from the Anabaptist sects, mostly out of Switzerland, along with Mennonites and other “plain people.” Though people have long identified hexe signs with the Amish, most Anabaptists disapprove of them and neither create nor display them.

My dad, following a trip to Lancaster, decided our house needed a hexe sign, so he made one. He got a large piece of masonite and designed his own. There is a lot of lore around hexe signs claiming that certain colors and shapes have particular meanings and that farmers chose hexe signs for their barns based on their own needs but this is mostly folklore.

When my dad finished his sign, he mounted it in the gable of our “shanty,” an Alpine-style house a few yards down the hill from our house that was half gardening shed and half playhouse. It caused a lot of commotion in the neighborhood at first—everyone appeared to approve of it. The neighbor across the street said it was the hexe symbol for “fertility” because we were a family of ten.

But hexe signs painted on the sides of barns have been popular in Pennsylvania and across the country in rural areas since the 1830s. The word “hexe” derives from the German word for “witch” thus their association with magic. In my stories I have several barns with hexe signs on them and, in The Legend, when Kit gets his first hopeful lead for Sultan, the horse he's trying to find, it is from a man with hexe sign on his barn. As near as I can tell, the art in hexe signs grew out of the German decorative art called Fraktur which has a long history. It employs symbols, stars, flowers, and curious birds called distelfinks. Fraktur was a hand-made art form similar to illuminated manuscripts and is used for things like birth certificates, marriage licenses, book plates, and special certificates. The art of Fraktur was borrowed for decorations that hung on barns just for the beauty of them.

A more recent form of barn art is what has come to be known as Barn Quilts. The story is that barn quilts began in 2001 when a woman from Ohio wanted to honor her mother's skill as a quilter. She took some of the quilt pattern designs that her mother created and painted signs in brilliant colors to hang on her barn and those of neighbors. She and her neighbors created a Barn Quilt Trail of the signs winding through their county mostly as a tourist attraction.

The idea caught on and before long Barn Quilt Trails sprang up across the country. There are Barn Quilt Trails in Vermont, Maine, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. My sister, who lives in Potter County, PA, was the person who introduced me to barn quilts. She has purchased several of them from a local business there, Potter County Barn Quilts. One hangs beside her front door and another is in the gable of her house.

The patterns for Barn Quilts are taken from traditional quilting patterns and, as far as I know, do not have any “magical” properties attributed to them.

I want to write a story some day about people creating a Barn Quilt Trail—probably Gretchen from my Marienstadt stories. Until then I just plan to enjoy them when I see them.


Thanks for reading.

30 comments:

  1. That's great information. The barn quilts seem to continue the tradition of the hexe signs.

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    1. Yes, I think so, too. They are really pretty.

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  2. Hi, Kathleen!

    As you might have suspected, there is much in this post to which I can relate. I lived in York County 21 years and in Lancaster County another thirteen. Over the years I saw many barns with hexe signs and was exposed to fact and folklore about their origin and meaning. The theory I heard most often back then was that they were believed to have magical power and were displayed for good luck or to ward off evil. My parents were fond of Pennsylvania Dutch art and our home was decorated with rustic accent pieces that included a wagon wheel mounted atop our room divider and farm milk cans painted with hexe signs. I lived in Lancaster where the Distelfink Inn is still open for business. In my youth my family spent summer vacations in Potter County and the towns of Coudersport and Galeton are still etched in my memory. The only aspect of your post that is brand new to me is the trend toward Barn Quilt Trails. Hexe signs, barn quilts and Fraktur art all distinctive and beautiful.

    Thank you for the interesting and informative post, dear friend Kathleen!

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    1. I'm glad that it brings back good memories. My sister has lived and taught grade school in Coudersport for 32 years and she loves it there. I think the Barn Quilt Trails would be great fun to follow.

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    2. From the late 50s to mid 60s my family spent summer vacations at a log cabin next to the air strip. Across the dirt road from our cabin was a park where the annual Woodsman's Carnival was held. Men took part in wood chopping, sawing, tree climbing and log pulling contests. I can still smell the aroma emanating from mounds of freshly sawed wood chips. Deer came to the orchard next to our cabin to graze on fallen apples. I loved Potter County! Would you please ask your sister if they still hold the Woodsman's Carnival up there? Would you also ask her if the old movie theater is still there - the one that was built on the side of a mountain? The entrance was at street level and you needed to go down a flight of stairs to get to the balcony and another flight to get to the main seating area. In 1958 I saw the Vincent Price horror movie The Fly in that unique theater.

      Thanks, Kathleen!

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    3. I know that the Woodsman's Carnival is going strong. They hold it at Cherry Springs State Park and it is better than ever. I don't know about that theater but I'll ask her. There is a theater downtown but I don't think it is the one you are describing.

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    4. Yes - the log cabin we stayed at was in Cherry Springs Park, next to the air field runway. Thanks for reminding me of that long forgotten name. That theater might have been over in Galeton. I also remember us driving to neighboring Tioga County and visiting the general store in Nauvoo.

      Correction - the Vincent Price movie I watched at that theater was The Bat (1959), not The Fly (1958).

      Thanks, Kathleen!

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    5. Cherry Springs has become a very popular spot for amateur astronomers. The night sky there is remarkable with very little ambient light and they have special night-time programs about the sky. You might also have visited the Lumberman's Museum in that area.

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  3. Fascinating. Thank you so much. I would follow a Barn Quilts trail in a heart beat.
    I have never seen a barn decorated here. Strictly utilitarian - which is a shame.

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    1. They really are just huge canvases waiting to be used, aren't they?

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  4. I had never heard of hexe signs. So much we miss out in the west.

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    1. There are rural parts of some western states where barn quilts can be found--Idaho and Iowa. Almost any farming country.

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  5. How beautiful! Will have to watch for hexe signs when I next drive up east.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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  6. Hi Kathleen - how interesting about the Dutch Pennsylvanians and the Amish - I hadn't known that snippet of history. The art work is amazing - and how wonderful to have that memory of your father's creative decoration for your 'barn' ...

    Quilting has really taken off hasn't it ... and I'm sure the Barn Quilt Trails would be fascinating to follow ...

    I'm sure somewhere along the line - there'll be creative artists utilising those large building spaces ...

    Wonderful informative read - thank you .. cheers Hilary

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    1. I am just fascinated by the endless creativity of people. I didn't know anything about barn quilts until my sister told me about them. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post.

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  7. All that art does make barns fun to look at. They're prettier than the big adds I've seen painted on the roofs and sides of barns, that's for sure.

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    1. I agree, although I do have an affection for Mail Pouch barns.

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  8. I found this so interesting. It made me want to do more reading about these signs and their connection to magic. I'd love to see that Barn Quilt Trail. What colorful and lovely art.

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    1. Isn't it just remarkable how many different ways people find to be creative? I love it.

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  9. Those barns and quilts are so colorful and unique. I just listened to the classic Simak book, TIME IS THE SIMPLEST THING, where when telepaths and other psi are discovered to actually exist, the dark old times begin again and Hex Signs are raised again to ward off evil. Always a fun post with you, Roland

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    1. That sounds interesting. I have to do more psi research for my next book. I appreciate your interest!

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  10. Excellent post. Thanks for the entertaining information. I am a lifelong Ohian of German descent while my first love has Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. That said, I'm very familiar with Hexe signs yet did not know the word Fraktur and never knew about barn quilt trails (!) if you can believe it.

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    1. You are in an excellent area to enjoy both hexe signs and barn quilts. I'll bet they are all around you.

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    2. I may have to take a little road trip. ~grin~ Be well!

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  11. Those are beautiful, and a quilt trail sounds like an excellent idea to incorporate into a story.

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  12. We have a barn quilt trail here in Ky and our state.park system published a book about them a few years ago. They are beautiful to see.

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    1. That's good to hear. I'd like to see them all over the country.

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