By Bill Plack
An unusual and beautiful type of barn decoration is the barn star, found in Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania. These are not to be confused with the painted-on "hex signs" of the Lancaster County area; the stars are geometrical designs that have been cut out of wood and attached to the barn. Some of these stars may have been simply for decoration but others were the identifying "trademark" of a specific barn builder.
There are two basic types: one is simply an elaborate version of the five-pointed star and the other is a circular, "wagon wheel" design. So far, I have been able to attribute one of each type to a specific barn builder.
Glenn Scott, a Shade Township, Somerset County dairy farmer and woodworker, is a descendant of an old time barn builder. He found the pattern for his ancestor's five-pointed star in a building on the family farm. The original stars, 5-6' in diameter, are cumbersome for the average woodworker to make so Glenn scaled the pattern down to a workable size and made an excellent scale replica. In addition to the replica and the two original stars on his barn, there are several other Scott stars on barns on or near Pennsylvania Route 160, which is near Glenn's home north of Roxbury.
Josiah Werner, of Brothers Valley Township, Somerset County, used a "wagon wheel" design star. Although Josiah built 47 barns in the area between 1890-1926, I have not yet been able to find one to photograph. Luckily, Josiah's grandson, Bill Rhoads, and his wife, Cay, came into possession of Josiah's farm, including his barn and workshop around 1971 and realized they had something worth preserving. Josiah was a versatile man who built everything from barns, churches and houses to grandfather clocks, violins and canary cages for coal mines.
In Josiah's workshop, Bill and Cay found the pattern for his star as well as examples of other things he made. Having inquiring minds, they researched Josiah's life and work, and eventually published a book about him entitled Country Carpenter, which has photos of several of the barns he built. Country Carpenter predictably has a barn-red cover with a white star on it. Incidentally, red barns with white stars are the most typical; I have seen only a few white barns with green stars.
Although most barn stars are found along the less traveled roads, for those of you "just passing through" there are two visible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the New Baltimore area; one is on the north side at Mile 133.2 and a second on the south side at Mile 129.4.
In the 15 or so years that my wife Kathie and I have been photographing barn stars we have found 18 different designs and, of course, we are always looking for more. I would be interested in anyone knows of similar barn stars outside of Bedford and Somerset counties.
Unfortunately, like so many of the barns themselves, the stars are vanishing from the landscape. We have seen a few old barns where part of the star has fallen off, and several that show only the "ghost" of where a star had once been.
Bill Plack is a retired chemist living in Westmoreland County, PA; he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photographs in the article were taken by Mr. Plack.
Posted March 28, 2002.