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 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."
The Berks County 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 circular folk art adorning 20 barns, this 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.
I like that the tour even advises where to go for lunch: Deutsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville. It 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 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 in Kutztown.
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.
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 of the hex signs we saw are variations of elaborate stars on red or white barns, although one barn was adorned with tulip signs. Some also had hearts over doors.
I always heard hex signs were designed to keep away witches, which made me wonder why they didn't put them on the farmhouses rather than the barns. But most experts seem to agree the signs were "chust for nice" not to deter witches, the devil, disease or even lightning. Those who have studied hex signs note they only hang on the sides of a barn facing a road, not facing fields.
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 Reading & Berks Visitors Bureau: "His lackadaisical and incomplete research created this name that stuck in the national consciousness."
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.
Visitors may also want to go through Crystal Cave, which is observing the 125th anniversary of its discovery, 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, and other features: cave popcorn, tobacco leaves and bacon strips. The largest "body of water" is a puddle, named Lake Superior. And yes, there are crystals in Crystal Cave.
Year-round cave temperature is 54 degrees. The deepest point is 125 feet underground.
The 125-acre, privately-owned cave property also has gift shops, a snack bar, restaurant and ice cream parlor, an 18-hole miniature golf course and a nature trail. With plenty of steps inside, the cave is not handicapped accessible.
The easily overlooked Pennsylvania Dutch Folklife Museum is a collection of small buildings - including a log house along Pennsylvania 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, possibly sometime next year, according to Anna Stein, its director. Its schoolhouse was moved there several years ago.
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 of a mountain slope.
Visitors can climb the rocks and hike 5 miles up to overlooks at Pulpit Rock and Pinnacle Point on the Appalachian Trail.
underground."}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.
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