Pennsylvania Man Spends Year Visiting Barns, Shooting Stars
KUTZTOWN, Pa. (AP) – Stars. Not hex signs, but stars.
Patrick Donmoyer, 23, has spent more than a year documenting and photographing 400 examples of such celestial iconography, a form of folk art painted on Pennsylvania barns over the last three centuries.
To Donmoyer, these stars matter as emblems of Pennsylvania German cultural identity.
He is a true fan, albeit an academic one, who also believes that what these artistic creations are actually called matters for reasons of historical accuracy and meaning.
Donmoyer is originally from Lebanon County, about 20 miles east of Harrisburg. He now lives about 10 miles northeast of Reading, near Fleetwood in Rockland Township, Berks County, just over 50 miles east of Harrisburg and just under 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Donmoyer works at the nearby Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, about five miles north of his new home.
A 2009 graduate of Kutztown University, majoring in studio art and fine craft and minoring in Pennsylvania German studies, he has received a $5,000 research scholarship from the Peter Wentz Farmstead Society, based in Worcester, less than 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
While his current focus is the Berks County area that surrounds Reading, he hopes to eventually expand his study of barn stars into neighboring counties and publish a book that could be easily enjoyed by the public.
Standing on the academic shoulders of earlier Pennsylvania German scholars, Alfred Shoemaker and Don Yoder, in particular, Donmoyer credits them as figures who inspired him on a mission to catalog barn stars.
“In Pennsylvania, we are experiencing enormous shifts in our local landscape, and many historical and culturally significant features are rapidly disappearing,’’ Donmoyer said. “As our landscape shifts, so does our cultural heritage and beliefs. The most threatened aspects of the landscape are the historic farms because of development.’’
Through his work, Donmoyer hopes to help preserve and share the artistic beauty of barn stars and educate others about a type of folk art that often has been clouded by controversy.
“The problem is we don’t have primary sources on the true meaning and content of these elaborate designs that were painted on barns,’’ Donmoyer said, sitting outside at a picnic table and in front of the Sharidan family barn (circa 1855), boasting a stone foundation and timberframed, red-painted walls adorned with stars. The barn is located near Kutztown University, in Maxatawny Township.
Popularized as hex signs in the early 20th century, the barn stars were associated with the idea of protecting barns from witchcraft and became a commercial commodity in promoting the geographic area for tourists, according to Donmoyer.
“Meanings were invented to attract customers, and this invented lore assigned a specific meaning to each design such as ‘protection,’ ‘fertility,’ ‘love and romance’ etc.,’’ Donmoyer said. “This perception has tainted the genuine lore of the designs and their true implications.’’
To counteract the invented history of the so-called hex signs, Pennsylvania German scholars promoted the idea that the folk art was done “just for nice’’ and served as purely decorative with no particular meaning, glossing over, in Donmoyer’s view, the celestial and religious iconography on barn stars that would often date back to the late 18th century.
“I attempt to answer the question of why an agricultural society, such as the Pennsylvania Germans, favored symbols and icons which feature celestial images such as suns, moons and stars that could also be embellished with flowers or crosses,’’ Donmoyer said.
For Donmoyer, the barn stars are actually an artistic reflection of early Pennsylvania German beliefs, a complex mixture of mystical Christianity accompanied by a practical folk-religious orientation that governed daily living.
“The stars were seen as beacons of celestial order, which allow us an understanding of the passage of time and the progression of human activities which are governed by the stars,’’ Donmoyer said. “It is well-documented that the Pennsylvania Germans orchestrated their planting, harvesting and tilling to the phase of the moon and the astrological signs.
“Almanacs informed farmers which times were best for all manner of agricultural activities such as planting, cutting wood, driving fence posts, building houses and storing food.’’
Donmoyer said use of the stars not only applied to outdoor agricultural activity, but also domestic and interpersonal affairs – everything from the best timing to bake bread and make vinegar to the opportune period to get married and have children.
One can imagine Pennsylvania Germans transfixed by a nighttime heaven of twinkling light as opposed to modern day families mesmerized by those socalled human stars on television and movie screens.
Countless times they may have looked upward seeing the geometry of stars reflected accurately in the shapes of flowers on Earth.
“These ideas were so prevalent that the almanac was the second most common book in the Pennsylvania German household; second only to the Bible,’’ Donmoyer said.
By painting stars, Pennsylvania Germans displayed beliefs that were reflected and transformed by artistry. Such folk art was found on the outsides and even insides of barns in a variety of Berks County locations.
What does all this say about hex signs and witchcraft?
What does it say about Pennsylvania German self-consciousness about beliefs, and even later intentional suppression of those views, especially in changing times of anti-German sentiment in the 20th-century?
It could say quite a lot. Donmoyer will continue to investigate. He will endeavor to interpret.
But he does believe barn stars speak for themselves, powerfully and symmetrically, in what he termed a “visual vibration and rotation of their beauty.’’
They have contributed mightily to Berks County’s agrarianaesthetic, he said.