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.