Embrace Freshness, Support Local: Thornapple CSA's New Journey Begins!

The Farmer’s Almanac: Decoding the Rhythms of the Land

June 26, 2024

Table of Contents

The Farmer’s Almanac: Decoding the Rhythms of the Land

Celestial Symbols in the Pennsylvania Dutch Countryside

Nestled in the rolling hills and valleys of southeastern Pennsylvania, a cultural treasure lies hidden in plain sight. Vibrant murals of stars, sunbursts, and moons painted in vivid colors punctuate the exteriors of the generously-proportioned barns of the Pennsylvania Dutch country in a manner that is unique among American artistic traditions.

These complex geometric yet deceptively simple abstract representations of heavenly bodies once saturated the rural landscape and now serve as cultural beacons of the robust and persistent presence of the Pennsylvania Dutch who once settled and still maintain a strong presence in the region. For the Pennsylvania Dutch, these barn stars are part of the fabric of life, but for those from outside the community, the stars are thought to be representative of that which is otherworldly, mysterious, or supernatural.

Between these two different views, the history of the folk art barn stars has been the subject of debate for nearly a century and is only now beginning to take shape yet again as Pennsylvanians in the present day not only rediscover the art form but also strive to preserve their open spaces and agricultural communities. It is abundantly clear, however, that no matter how the stars have been celebrated, interpreted, commercialized, or appropriated throughout the centuries, their history is inextricably linked to the Pennsylvania barns themselves and the Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture that built the barns, transformed the landscape, and continues to persevere in an ever-changing world.

A Survey of the Region

Although the decorated barns of the region have been photographed and documented in numerous waves over the years, beginning in the first half of the twentieth century, the landscape is in a state of constant change. Until recently, no comprehensive surveys of the region’s decorated barns had taken place since the 1950s, when the tradition was still very much in its heyday and farming communities were substantially more stable.

Due to rapid land development, suburbanization, changes in ownership, and economic circumstances, the range of visual expression in Pennsylvania barns of the region has diminished, leaving behind fragmented rural landscapes. It was with these dramatic changes in mind that I embarked on a journey to comprehensively document all decorated barns in Berks and Lehigh counties—the heartland of the tradition—and to continue beyond the counties’ borders into Northern Montgomery, Northampton, Upper Bucks, Southern Schuylkill, Eastern Lebanon, and Northern Lancaster counties.

As an artist myself, I felt compelled to document this cultural and artistic phenomenon before significant portions of the work were lost to memory. Southeastern Pennsylvania is home to two distinct concentrations of barn decorations defined by geographical features that separate the region. Star patterns are predominant along the Blue Mountain part of the Appalachian Mountain Range bordering Berks, Northern Lehigh, and Schuylkill counties, while floral motifs are found throughout the Lehigh Valley, which spans Northampton, Lehigh, Bucks, and Montgomery counties.

Barn stars are rarely found west of the Susquehanna, except for traditional wooden applique stars found in Bedford, Somerset, and Washington counties. I set to work advocating for the support of a present-day survey of the region and received research funding through the Peter Wentz Farmstead Society of Montgomery County, which awards the Albert T. and Elizabeth Gamon Scholarship to support studies in Pennsylvania Dutch culture.

The Pennsylvania Dutch

The Pennsylvania Dutch are the present-day descendants of several waves of German-speaking immigrants from central Europe, beginning at the tail end of the seventeenth century up until the time of the American Revolution and shortly thereafter. These immigrants came from German-speaking regions of what is today Germany, including the Rhineland-Pfalz, Rhine-Hesse, and Baden-Württemberg, as well as parts of Switzerland, Alsace (France), and as far east as Silesia in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Fleeing the economic, social, and religious disruptions of perpetual warfare throughout the continent, these agrarian people departed Europe through the corridor of the Rhine River Valley and arrived at ports in Philadelphia and New York before settling in southeastern Pennsylvania. Upon their arrival in the New World, they were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the British Crown, and their English neighbors referred to them as “Dutchmen”—a word that originally applied to the broader family of German-speaking people from European territories.

Starting with the founding of Germantown in 1683 and spreading throughout the region, the Pennsylvania Dutch settled much of what is today the counties of Berks, Lehigh, Schuylkill, Northampton, Northern Montgomery, Upper Bucks, Lancaster, Lebanon, and beyond. Their distinctive agriculture, religious expression, arts, architecture, industry, and trades have shaped and been shaped by the broader American experience as these immigrants and their descendants migrated throughout the United States and into Southern Appalachia, the Shenandoah Valley, the Midwest, the Ozarks, the West Coast, and Ontario, Canada.

The majority of the Pennsylvania Dutch established communities organized around Lutheran and Reformed congregations, with only roughly four percent being members of sectarian groups consisting of Anabaptist and Pietist communities, including the plain communities of the Amish, the Mennonites, as well as the German Baptist Brethren and the Moravians. Around one percent were Roman Catholics. What originally unified them in all their diverse creeds and places of origin was the German language spoken in a wide variety of distinctive dialects at the time of immigration, which coalesced into the spoken vernacular language of Deitsch or Pennsylvania Dutch.

Art of the Barn

No one knows who the first artists were and precisely when they began to paint stars on the wooden siding of Pennsylvania barns. They were likely farmers, carpenters, builders, and tradesmen who painted as a secondary occupation. Over time, their art inspired the classic arrangements of stars, painted arches, and decorative borders that characterize the rural landscape.

Large and bold enough to be seen from across fields and valleys, barn stars appear in series across the façades and gable ends of barns and outbuildings, serving as focal points in the farmscapes of the Pennsylvania Dutch. These elaborate geometric murals, when paired together with decorative painted trim, accent an otherwise quite ordinary agricultural structure, elevating it beyond mere utility to the level of folk art.

Many of these designs are celestial, depicting sunbursts and geometric stars of varying numbers of points. Other designs are floral, featuring radial bursts of petals in organic patterns. These two types of motifs form the basic visual vocabulary of Pennsylvania’s barn decorations. In the local vernacular, these motifs have been called “Schtanne” (stars) or “Blumme” (flowers), suggesting the very same geometry that is also commonly found in the delicate blossoms of the terrestrial sphere.

Sacred and Celestial Geometry

Paralleling the wide variety of barn star motifs and designs, there has been a diversity of associations and meanings for the various star patterns throughout the centuries. While artists and barn owners alike see the stars as alternately decorative, representative, or symbolic, very few resist the idea that the star patterns have represented many different things throughout the generations.

Just as humans throughout the ages have projected countless interpretations upon the orderly movements of the celestial sphere, so too have the artistic renderings of these celestial bodies on Pennsylvania barns been the subject of a wide variety of interpretations, theories, and organizing principles. Certain contemporary painters, such as Eric Claypoole of Lenhartsville, Berks County, draw upon oral history in the region to describe what the stars may represent numerically.

On the most basic level, many associated meanings are based upon the number of star points or other visual elements. However, since the numbers do not have a single fixed meaning but are associated with a wide variety of concepts, the numerology of the barn star is also thought to express a wide variety of cosmological or religious ideas.

For instance, some have considered four-pointed figures to be expressions of the four seasons or the cardinal points of the compass, while others have attributed the four-pointed star to the Christian concept of the cross. The twelve-pointed star, according to some, is illustrative of the twelve months and, according to others, is representative of the twelve apostles, with a solid red circle in the center to symbolize Jesus Christ.

Other examples of numerical significance that are religious in nature include the six-pointed star as a symbol of the six biblical days of creation in Judeo-Christian tradition, the five-pointed star corresponding to the five wounds of Christ, the seven-pointed star representing the six days of creation plus the Sabbath day of rest, the nine-pointed star as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the nine fruits of the spirit in the Book of Galatians, and the eight-pointed star as a reference to resurrection as Christ rose on the first day of the next week following his death or the eighth day signifying renewal and a new beginning.

These classic Christian interpretations of geometric figures are widespread in church liturgical symbols and architecture, but have never been uniformly accepted in their entirety as part of Pennsylvania’s folk culture. Protestant communities in early Pennsylvania deliberately avoided the continuation of Roman Catholic symbolic emblems and only later accepted these ideas when Protestant churches in America intentionally reintegrated such liturgical elements during the Victorian Gothic revival.

However, these ideas certainly held some appeal among the Pennsylvania Dutch of the late nineteenth century, who treasured their highly ornamented Victorian family Bibles and eventually replaced many of their small, austere meetinghouse churches with the rural and urban American equivalents of cathedrals. For barn star patterns, numerological religious meanings are complementary and are interwoven with cosmological significance, such as in the case of the number seven.

The seven days of the week are not only a measurement of time specific to biblical literature but are also connected with the seven visible planets of the ancients, who named the days of the week after these celestial bodies. Likewise, the number twelve is not only the number of the establishment of earthly spiritual authority and organization through the Apostles, but it is also the number of the signs of the zodiac, the twelve-fold division of the solar year.

In this same manner, the four-pointed star can symbolize the four elements and physical manifestation, and the eight-pointed star the cardinal and intermediate points of the compass defined by the annual progression of the sun. Although many of the celestial patterns found on Pennsylvania barns have held countless symbolic associations over the centuries, their use as traditional decorative motifs has remained constant, both in Europe and the New World.

The Decorated Pennsylvania Barn

It was once commonly believed that the barn stars first appeared on the landscape with the advent of commercially available ready-mixed paints and the widespread establishment of painting crews in the late nineteenth century. We know today that the earliest stars were painted generations prior, when paints were mixed by the artists from old recipes combining oils, pigments, and raw materials that were both locally available and imported for sale.

Thus, the availability of paint was never a limiting factor in the painting of barn stars, architectural elements, or decorated furniture. The Pennsylvania barn was the veritable canvas of agricultural expression. This distinctive architectural structure was unlike anything in the Old World and is distinctly American in its evolution and form.

Indigenous to Pennsylvania yet informed by centuries of agricultural production, this barn was developed as a practical solution to the needs of a variety of immigrant groups farming the Pennsylvania countryside. Drawing upon architectural traditions of Europe, eighteenth-century German and English-speaking immigrants from Central Europe and the British Isles had built a variety of barns in the fertile valleys of Pennsylvania before settling upon a New World form that revolutionized farming in early America.

Standing separate from the home, the Pennsylvania barn was a two-level hybrid engineered for diversified farming operations. Banked into the gently sloping landscape, the lower level consisted of stables for dairy cows and draft horses, and the upper level was divided into bays or work areas dedicated to grain processing and storage, copious space for hay and straw, and the housing and loading of wagons.

This new Pennsylvania barn combined the distinctive cantilevered overhang or “forebay” of Swiss dairy barns and the convenience of a banked, ramped access to the second story shared by both English and Swiss barns. These two identifying features—the forebay and the bank ramp—served to set the Pennsylvania barn apart from other types of barns in early America. The framing largely followed English patterns, but the form was distinctively Germanic and often referred to early on as a “Swiss barn” or a “Pennsylvania German bank barn.”

As integrating features, barn stars are not simply decorations applied to the barn but an important part of the overall architectural plan that visually connects and completes the appearance and function of the structure. Considering the point of origin for the ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Pfalz or Palatinate region provides surprisingly little or almost no direct correspondences either in barn types or barn decorations that compare to Pennsylvania.

These European barns differ dramatically from the Pennsylvania barn and are typically neither banked into the earth nor equipped with a cantilevered overhang of the second story. Such barns are often connected structurally to the farmhouse as part of a courted farm complex or “Hof” and clustered in small rural towns rather than scattered throughout the landscape as in Pennsylvania. As a by-product of the medieval era, rural and urban spaces are blended in the European countryside in a way that is unknown in Pennsylvania, and the barns bear no large murals of stars or anything else to set them apart from other buildings in the landscape.

Nevertheless, the same basic star patterns emerge as a common theme in the Rhineland countryside with a close inspection of the timber framing of homes, painted and carved furniture, the stonework of churches, cemeteries, and tombs, and the widespread use of architectural inscriptions. Although smaller and more subtle than the large barn stars of Pennsylvania, these carved, painted, or inscribed stars are often found in significant locations above doors and windows in centuries-old town houses, carved into the arches and fenestration of city gates and churches, inscribed into the eaves or upper gables of timber-frame buildings, or integrated into elaborate house blessings.

Architectural Blessings and the Earliest Barn Stars

Among the earliest expressions of Pennsylvania’s folk art stars still extant in today’s landscape are those which appear in the domestic and sacred architecture of the first communities established by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the southeastern part of the state. In a similar manner to European blessing inscriptions, early examples of painted architectural medallions emblazoned with stars appear on early architecture along corridors of early settlement stretching from Northern Montgomery County clear to the Blue Mountain ridge bordering Berks County to the north.

Featuring colorful geometric patterns in combination with early dates, initials, or even full names, these early structures run the gamut of architectural expression, everything from houses built in the late eighteenth century to early nineteenth-century houses, barns, and mills. With elaborate examples located in Berks, Lehigh, Montgomery, and Northampton counties, some of the most notable of these star medallions occur on English Georgian farmhouses on the upper gable apex.

One of the earliest of these Georgian houses, located in Upper Frederick Township, Montgomery County, features two sixteen-pointed stars with split points in contrasting green and white painted on plastered medallions on either of the upper gables. While no dates or names can be found on this particular dwelling, which dates to the 1780s, a central circle in the middle of the star is large enough to have featured a date.

This is comparable to another star found on a nearby barn in Douglass Township, which bears the remnants of a six-pointed rosette with a central circle of the same size inside of which is a date from the 1780s that is weathered beyond full legibility. This latter example occurs on an original wooden date-board set into the masonry of the gable end of an English bank barn, which was modified with the addition of a forebay to match the local Pennsylvania barns favored by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

In both of these early Montgomery County examples, it is clear that Pennsylvania Dutch people created a hybrid of English architectural styles and Germanic features, reinforcing the notion that the culture was formed from a culmination of Pennsylvania’s diverse communities. These early forerunners to the barn stars must be considered in this light—not as a transplant of European artistry but as something formed of new American identities.

Sacred Architecture

Even earlier than the oldest examples of house and barn blessings, images of stars and flowers emerge from the landscape as central symbols of sacred architecture. Especially among Protestant congregations, celestial images served as focal points of early churches constructed as meetinghouses in the Georgian and Federal styles, where crosses were not used to identify their Christian faith.

For these early American congregations, many of whom sought to distance themselves from the cathedrals of the Roman Catholic establishment in Old Europe, the cross was thought to represent one’s internal faith journey but was intentionally avoided as an emblem of the faith. Instead, a number of early Pennsylvania churches featured six-pointed rosette stars on the structures in strikingly prominent locations.

Among these early churches are the 1767 New Hanover Lutheran Church in Montgomery County, constructed for the earliest German Lutheran congregation in the United States organized in 1700, and the 1806 Swamp Union Church of Reinholds in Lancaster County, which features a series of stones along the upper eave of the façade listing the names of the church builders, masons, and carpenters, along with a series of rosettes.

Within this particular context, the rosette and the keystone suggest a thoughtful, intentional religious significance, although no records exist to verify the original builders’ reasoning. According to Christian tradition, the keystone itself represents Christ as the “chief cornerstone,” while the rosette evokes the star that signified the birth of Christ in Bethlehem to

About Us

Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

Follow On

Subscrive Our Newsletter
To Get More Updates

© 2023 Thornapplecsa.com. All Rights Reserved