The saying, “Chust fer nice,” or “just for nice,” is a phrase used in Pennsylvania Dutch-accented English to describe something that is pretty, but not necessarily useful. It was how Berks County’s folk artist Milton Jacob Hill described the colorful geometric star patterns he painted in southeastern Pennsylvania. He colorfully inscribed them on local barns and later onto disks that allowed his “barn stars” to be enjoyed by people across the U.S., whether or not they owned a barn.
Hill is the subject of a new book, “Painter of the Stars: The Life and Work of Milton J. Hill (1887-1972),” published by the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. A collaboration between Hill’s grandson, Lee S. Heffner, and Patrick J. Donmoyer, director of the center, the book includes historic photos of Hill and his family, as well as full-color pictures showing many of his barn star designs.
A Prodigious Talent
Hill, one of John M. and Ellen Elizabeth Wanner Hill’s three children, was born and died on his family’s Virginville, Pennsylvania, farm. Milton Hill’s father supplemented the family’s dairy farming income by painting barns and houses in the area. By the time Milton turned 14 in 1902, he was assisting his father on those painting jobs.
Although Milton Hill’s formal schooling ended after completing the sixth grade at Virginville’s one-room schoolhouse in 1899, his quick mind and penchant for both geometry and art did not escape the attention of his teacher, Jeremiah Adam. Adam fostered young Milton’s interests and, by the end of his school years, Milton had created a series of complex geometric designs in watercolor on heavy paper that would be echoed in his future artwork on barns.
Hill was a prodigy, with other talents and aspirations that might have changed his destiny. He held patents in both the United States and Canada for a three-room mouse trap he invented. Its clever design shielded each mouse entering the contraption from the fate of those which had gone into the third room, where a swift beheading awaited. He also maintained a lifelong interest in inventing a perpetual motion machine. Had these endeavors proved more successful, Hill might’ve found a career in science or technology.
But Hill married a young farm girl named Gertrude Strausser from nearby Shoemakersville in 1910 and the two set up housekeeping as part of the extended family residing on the Hill farm. They had five children and were married for 61 years. During that time, Strausser eventually came to run the family’s multigenerational dairy operation and oversee the related crop farming. She also maintained a large garden and was noted for her homemaking skills.
It was Strausser’s skillful endeavors on the homefront that allowed her husband to pursue his career in painting. Since Milton’s painting jobs paid just 15 cents per hour in 1912, Gertrude was their household’s main breadwinner. A ledger from that same year shows Milton and his crew were only paid $1.75 for each star design added to a barn.
By the 1920s, Hill was a master painter, with his aging father assuming the role of paint crew member along with other family members and friends. The Hills’ business not only painted the exteriors of barns and houses, but also offered interior painting, wallpaper hanging, stenciling and wood graining. Thus, only a relatively small portion of Milton Hill’s efforts were devoted to what he became best remembered for — decorating newly painted barns with the colorful, round emblems known as barn stars, or “Stanne” in the Pennsylvania German dialect spoken within Hill’s childhood home.
Hill did not invent the barn star — it was an existing folk artform. However, he became one of its most notable practitioners in northern Berks County, where barn art caught the eye of passersby on the road called “King’s Highway,” running through Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties.
Hill used a compass to create his precise geometric barn star designs, first scribing their outlines directly into the barn’s wood, then filling them in with contrasting colors. He mixed his own paints, combining boiled linseed oil with pigments to achieve his long-lasting hues. Even so, he recommended repainting his barn stars every 10 years.
Hill’s first star was painted onto a Windsor Castle, Berks County, barn in 1910 using 10 colors —black, yellow, three shades of red, as well as four shades of green or blue. This eight-pointed star pattern was repeated as stars within a star, surrounded by an elaborate border based on concentric circles. The result was not only striking, but also gave the impression of movement, reminiscent of circling windmill blades. This distinctive style became known as the “Hill Star.”
A Cultural Tradition Goes Mainstream
Hill’s stars would offer many variations on this original theme through the years. He became known for making especially good use of scalloped edges and shading to give the borders of his stars a three-dimensional look. Nevertheless, he didn’t become a slave to this style, instead creating an amazing variety of “Stanne” during his six decades as a barn star painter, and inspiring other folk-art painters who followed in his footsteps.
Donmoyer notes that, in spite of Hill’s considerable creative talents, he might’ve remained relatively obscure were it not for an event founded in 1950 by Dr. Alfred Shoemaker, J. William Frey and Donald Yoder of the Pennsylvania Folklife Society. Their Kutztown Folk Festival aimed to celebrate and preserve the cultural traditions of the Pennsylvania Germans — and they sought Hill’s participation as the region’s most accomplished barn star painter.
Since summer was Hill’s busiest season for barn painting, he initially declined the festival’s invitation. But when he finally appeared at the 1953 Kutztown Folk Festival, he brought with him an innovation that altered the course of his career and the popularity of barn stars.
Not everyone who admired his work owned a barn, nor was Hill able to travel widely to decorate barns. Thus, he introduced the use of Masonite composite hardboard, cut into circles of varying sizes. He scribed his barn star designs onto them and applied paints while eager festivalgoers observed his technique. These portable painted disks soon became the ideal souvenir for gracing properties well beyond Berks County.
Following decades of climbing ladders and scaffolding, Hill set up a studio in an old chicken house on his Virginville farm and started painting the colorful disks year-round, propping them against a section of snow fence to create an impromptu gallery for customers. As Donmoyer noted, doing smaller stars on a flat surface permitted Hill to be more experimental and served to further enhance his creativity in later years.
It should be emphasized that Hill firmly rejected calling his works “hex signs.” That mystical sounding term was likely concocted by others to attract tourism. Hill did not ascribe symbolic meanings to his barn stars; rather, clad in his ever-present painter’s overalls, he remained a congenial, but humble and introverted man who viewed himself not as a talented folk artist, but more so as a painter who created barns stars “chust fer nice.”
For more information, contact the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Society by calling 610-683-1589.