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Destination: Pennsylvania

Hex Signs of the Times

On a self-guided tour to see folk art on barns

March 23, 1997|RANDY KRAFT | ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL; Kraft is travel writer for the Morning Call

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — "That was painted on many years ago, when I was young yet," said 84-year-old Lloyd T. Dreibelbis, of the magnificent hex sign on the side of his barn near Crystal Cave.

"I don't know exactly when, but my dad had it painted on. It was repainted a couple of years ago, the same design."

Asked if he ever heard of hex signs being hung on barns to keep away devils and witches, he said: "No, that is not true. They're just barn decorations just for nice. A lot of people stop to look at it."

In Berks County, about 55 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the drive-yourself hex tour is kind of like a treasure hunt. Much of the fun is following the directions and trying to find the next barn or landmark.

More than just a viewing of the circular folk art adorning 20 barns, the modest tour also features commercial attractions, if you want to include them: Crystal Cave, the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklife Museum, Blue Rocks and, my personal favorite, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

The tour even recommends where to go for lunch: Deutsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville. The restaurant has a large menu, from sandwiches to full meals, good food and reasonable prices. Walls and ceilings are covered with hex signs and other Pennsylvania German art, painted 45 years ago by the late Johnny Ott. Hex signs, some of which are crocheted, are on sale in its gift shop. (The restaurant is closed Mondays.)

The tour also includes the Dreibelbis covered bridge. Built in 1869, even it has a hex sign.

The 32-mile hex tour begins at Kutztown and Crystal Cave roads, just west of Kutztown Airport.

If you start about 9 a.m., you should be able to finish by 5 p.m. At least part of it could be done on bicycles.

Accompanying me was Dick Schilpp, office manager for the Reading and Berks Visitors Bureau. "The great thing is, it's unique," Schilpp said. "You can't do it anywhere else."

One of the points is to help people understand that this is one of the elements that makes Berks County unique from the neighboring Lancaster County Amish, who consider putting hex signs on a barn a sign of vanity, according to the visitors bureau.

The tour encourages you to focus on things you normally would zoom past without a second glance. One barn is along Pennsylvania Route 143, just south of Interstate 78, but almost impossible to see from the interstate.

Not all barns on the tour are decorated with hex signs. A few are adorned with large pictures of farm animals. A few are fading and need to be repainted.

Most hex signs we saw are variations of elaborate stars on red or white barns, although one barn was adorned with tulip signs.

I always heard hex signs were designed to keep away witches, which made me wonder why they didn't put them on the farmhouses.

But most experts seem to agree the signs were "just for nice" not to deter witches, the devil, disease or even lightning.

Although the round signs have no known connection to witchcraft, they came to be known as hex signs after Wallace Nutting, a New England photographer, published a book called "Pennsylvania Beautiful" early in this century.

According to information provided by the visitors bureau, his incomplete research created the term "hex" that stuck.

Today it is believed the signs, which first appeared in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s, originated as symbols of Pennsylvania German cultural pride. The geometric motifs had been used in earlier Pennsylvania German folk art.

Traditional hex signs have geometric designs, not the birds, hearts and flowers for sale in many gift shops.

Visitors go through Crystal Cave on 45-minute-long escorted tours.

The cave's large chambers have some stalactites, stalagmites and other interesting formations. Guides point out profile rocks such as an upside-down ice cream cone, Jack Frost and a prairie dog hill. The easily overlooked Pennsylvania Dutch Folklife Museum is a collection of small buildings--including a log house, along Route 143, right behind the Deutsch Eck restaurant in Lenhartsville.

It has thousands of artifacts relating to Pennsylvania German life, including tools, clothing, kitchen utensils, artwork, pipes, canes, even a couple of caskets and a glass case full of stuffed birds. The museum will be moving to a new location in Kutztown sometime this year, according to Anna Stein, its director.

Blue Rocks is primarily promoted as a campground, but day visitors can pay to see the impressive river of gray boulders that covers more than a mile.

Our last stop was the 2,400-acre Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

About 20,000 hawks, eagles and falcons--representing 14 species--soar over Hawk Mountain's ridge between August and December.



Berks Barnstorming

Berks County Hex Tour: Fliers are available by calling (800) HEX-TOUR. For other visitor information, call the Reading and Berks County Visitors Bureau; telephone (800) 443-6610 or (610) 375-4085.

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