Eric Claypoole doesn't put a lot of stock in the presence of hexes (witches) lurking in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, but he has encountered a ghost or two. It’s a bit of adventure to reach his studio in the thickly wooded hills of Greenwich Township, just south of Lenhartsville. Up a steep, bumpy gravel road, it felt like you were on some Tolkien quest to see the master of hex signs and barn stars and his work. But it was worth it.
Claypoole, a second-generation folk artist — and a litter of mewing kittens on the porch — greeted me and my wife with a broad smile and invited us into his studio. Hex signs and stars, adorn barns throughout Berks County. In Eric's studio, they surrounded us like a constellation of colors, symbols, and geometric patterns. It is here that we began to learn how he developed his interest and skills and his insights into this purely Pennsylvania German art form.
Claypoole restores hex signs on barns and sells them painted on circular wooden cutouts at local events such as the Kutztown Folk Festival. Over the course of his career, he’s worked on more than 80 barns, most of them in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region.
Aloft, working on the gable ends of historic barns is when he sees ghosts, sun-bleached, faded etchings of original stars and other folk designs. He showed us a crackled red wooden panel he salvaged from a local barn some years ago. Claypoole estimates it’s from an early 19th-century barn. At first, we struggled to see past the weather-beaten barn wood. But once our eyes adjusted and focused on it, star points suddenly appeared, etched into the wood as a pattern.
Claypoole, who collects the ghosts for his own designs, responds to them with unsurpassed joy. “They fool they eye,” he says with a grin. “I’m still finding them in circular recesses on the gable ends of old barns.” Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get varying stories about why the early Pennsylvania Dutch painted hex signs on their barns. Some say it was to ward off evil or witches or bring good luck for a bountiful harvest. So I asked Claypoole about his theory. “Family life and the overall prosperity of a farm revolved around the barn for the German settlers who left the Rhineland after the Reformation,” he says. “It was less about warding off witches and evil spirits and more about creating pleasing, decorative designs that celebrated farm life and represented good luck and helped keep the rooster — fires — off the barn roof."
Hex signs and barn stars have been in Claypoole’s blood since he learned the art form from his father, Johnny Claypoole. The senior Claypoole apprenticed with the legendary Johnny Ott, once known locally as the “Professor of Hexology.” Ott, who owned the Lenhartsville Hotel (now the Deitsch Eck Restaurant) at Old Route 22 and Route 143, popularized the distelfinks, tulips and hearts on hex signs, which were borrowed from traditional Fraktur designs, Claypoole says. Ott’s colorful resin-covered works are still on full display in the Johnny Ott Room at the Deitsch Eck.
“A lot of people come here and don’t know the Pennsylvania Dutch culture,” says Steve Stetzler, owner, and chef of the Deitsch Eck. “But it hits them right away when they enter the Johnny Ott Room when they see the hex signs and Fraktur work. They’re introduced to Pennsylvania Dutch customs even before we serve them their traditional Pennsylvania Dutch meal.”
For the regulars in and around Lenhartsville, the designs represent a way of life. I still remember the cheery single Distelfink on my grandmother’s barn and feel the spirit of my people every time my wife and I visit at the Deitsch Eck for some fine home cooking. In fact, we stopped there to refuel after our visit to Claypoole’s studio; I had the smoked sausage with horseradish, chow-chow and red beet eggs. “It means something to many of our regular customers,” Stetzler explains. “They always request the room and enjoy the feel of being in it.” Stetzler knew Eric Claypoole’s father and grew up not far from Lenhartsville. He says the hex signs and barn stars all around him had been such familiar sights that he didn’t fully appreciate them until later in life as he became more aware of the lore and symbolism behind them. Now he can identify all of Ott’s designs in his restaurant.
“There’s one hex sign on the ceiling that’s dated April 1951 with Johnny Ott’s signature,” he says. For Claypoole, every time he restores a hex sign, it means saving a piece of local history. “Whenever I repaint a barn, I still find ghosts,” he says. “They’re a link to our past and our heritage.” Old Route 22, known as “Hex Highway,” is a scenic rural route dotted with vintage barns and hex signs. Find a free, downloadable Hex Barn Art Tour on Pennsylvania's Americana Region's website. Print a copy and take the time to follow the trail and enjoy this authentic PA Dutch art form.