Farmers Were Kept Poor.--The Pennsylvania German farmers were good farmers by practically all standards. They were descended through thirty generations of tillers of the soil. All things being equal in their Old World haunts they would have been on the average well-to-do. But the wars kept them poor, or, if they were on the wrong side of the political or religious "fence" they again were likely to be mulct of what they had.
Travel, being what it was in those days, was expensive, and the more so because unscrupulous ship owners found they could get the price, either from the pioneer or some one who would pay for this passage.
Those who undertook to pay off their passage under a bond which sometimes took twenty years to redeem, would be termed "redemptioners." This took on a form of "white servitude" in the early days, and much of interest may be read about the subject.
Fine Soil Ready in Pennsylvania.--It has been pointed out that the situation greeting the newcomers was pretty nearly made to order. There was little barrenness; fertilization was not necessary in the same degree that it was in Germany, where tilling for many years required more attention.
The farmers were smart enough to rotate their crops; they grazed cattle for fattening and got back fertilizer quite precious. They fed their horses well, so that they could do twice as much work in a day as horses underfed; they were kept warm in winter, and were excused from doing extra work, such as dragging logs, or pleasure driving.
"Swiss Barns" Erected.--The early pioneers first cleared sufficient land to get a start on farming; then came an immense barn, well built, of the "Swiss" type. The first barns were built of logs. Later there were some of stone, then frame or brick. Interesting features of some of the barns included the stars on the sides and ends; also the ventilator designs obtained by omissions of bricks which formed the designs, or cut-outs in the odd shapes of hearts, diamonds, quarter-moons, clubs, etc.
Most barns were double-deckers, and allowed for threshing-floors, mows and lofts for storing hay. The complete barns had a granary on the upper floor, a cellar under the drive-way, in addition to the usual stalls for horses and cattle. They ranged from 50 to 60 feet wide, and 60 to 120 feet long, with an overhang of 8 to 10 feet beyond the stable doors.
Originally barns and houses had thatched roofs; in later years they were shingled, slated, or tinned. If painted, it generally was of deep red, for lasting qualities.
Lumber could be obtained on the spot; likewise good building stone might be found nearby, needing but the blows of the stone mason to dress them for use. But it might be a decade or two until they got around to the building of a substantial house.
Houses built by the pioneers were generally of logs, if the builder was pioneering some miles away from centers of population. These could be built in a few days after a clearing was made.
Two-story houses were the general rule at the outset, with the familiar two-and-a-half-story to follow. The first with pitched roof, and with cornices run across the gables and around the first story.
Types of Construction.--The English and Scotch fashion was to build the chimney at the gable-end, but the German style was to bring it right up through the center of the house. Most of them seemed to be spacious, with open fire-places in most rooms, and with deep-set window and door frames. Window weights were used quite early.
Travelers usually note on these older houses the odd inscriptions, verses, dates or initials found well up on the gable wall. This is a hangover from customs in Germany and Switzerland.
There are many variations held by people today as to the meanings of the decorations on barns, certain markings found here and there on houses and necessary outbuildings; even on cooking utensils, etc.
Gaudy Colors and Designs.--It will hardly suffice to say that the farmer liked to have his barn look attractive, and to be in good state of repair, as a sign of his progress and success; nor that his wife was odd, in that she had a lot of dishes with gaudy decorations of birds, flowers, alphabets, scenes and verses painted thereon; nor that the good housewife had these same decorations on her bed linens, and her furniture as well.
Most of the decorative schemes came from the Old World, a throw-off, or hand-me-down from ancient Persian and Chinese ideas. We are informed that German houses today have on their walls counterparts of many of the ideas expressed by our own native artists with a slight touch or blend of native instinct which do not in the least detract from the value or interest of the items in question.
The farmers were not alone the great builders. We had the well-known preachers and teachers; scientists and astronomers; inventors and many others. A catalog of German firsts in Pennsylvania is an imposing array of talent and accomplishment.