What is the earliest roof covering for dwelling houses and barns in Adams County and contiguous counties?

Before and following the America Civil War many barns throughout rural Adams County were thatched with rye straw.

In the earliest of times pioneers had to seek shelter from the elements and they would reflect on what materials were used in their native country. Barn preservation devotees must not forget that many barns, dwellings, and out-buildings were covered with thatching.

Thatching and its application as roofing material is lost knowledge. The practice of thatching is almost timeless and employed in all early primitive societies, so why should it be ignored.

The skill to gather together thatching and use it as roofing material was known by native-American populations. One need look no further than the Michael Schievert farm in Union Township of Adams County for a barn that reveals roof thatching. Schievert was a German speaker and obviously was thinking back to his native Germany and roof thatching when he settled in Adams County in the early 18th century.

The methodology for thatching existed in our ancestors collective memories when they arrived from the British Isles and Germany. In the northern Britain, sea weed was used as roof covering and had a life of 40 years. The inland communities employed rye straw.

Several experts and artisans from Williamsburg, Va., have the ancient knowledge of roof thatching. Farm historians tell us there were three methods of thatching a roof. The barn had a straw too, while the chicken house and pig pen had bundles of straw that were knotted at the head end and clamped by nailing.

This lost art must be incorporated in any credible education and presentation of barn history for our region. The Pennsylvania Germans used rye straw for roofing materials early in our Adams County history, yet its use has eluded many local historians.

One author writes that “on the Pennsylvania farmsteads the Swiss bank barns almost without exception were thatched with rye straw.”

Another forgotten out building of the early farm scene was the Schot Scheier or barracks. The housing for the cider press was also covered with thatch. The dwelling houses were a different matter and shingling was used for their covering. The wagon shed was also covered with thatch. I have long contended that modern academics ignore the religious connections to architecture, but it was real and now ignored.

The Christian Biblical connections extend to brick-end barns, where one sees a square which is taken from the Bible representing a “measure.” The triangles one often sees at the apex of the brick ender is a folding lily. The religious event of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was a significant holiday for the Pennsylvania Germans and is reflected in the motifs that appear on brick end barns. Sheaves of wheat have Biblical significance. Sheaves and the symbolism found on brick end barns have religious meaning that is blatantly ignored by historians who fear ridicule from colleagues. A single sheaf of wheat represents fertility and the harvest. People lived by the seasons and at harvest time men and women all came together from far and near to bring in the harvest lest there be waste. Our Christian ancestors were more religiously devout than our modern culture. For historians to ignore these religious and folk traditions is to present to the public an antiseptic view of our history.

James Fritz is a member of Historic Gettysburg Adams County.

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