Weather Vanes in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
West Coast Weather Vanes: Hobby Farmer Turned Weather Vane Maker
Do you have $1 million perched atop your barn? Believe it or not, certain prized weather vanes have sold for more than that figure at auction. In fact, one folk art original of an Indian chief went for an amazing $5.8 million in October 2006.
While only a few weather vanes can fetch these the-sky's-the-limit prices, recreational farmers can own vintage and modern weather vanes for a lot less.
These treasured symbols of country life have always been appealing, but in recent years, they have become more popular than ever with collectors.
Old and new weather vanes are easy to collect and look charming in your home perched on shelves, tabletops or displayed on walls. Outdoors, they can enliven your garden, deck or patio. They also provide the time-tested practical use when installed on top of your buildings or in open spaces. Here's why your farm or home shouldn't be without these cherished icons of America's rural life.
Winds of change
Weather vanes used as wind indicators have ancient roots; they can be found in many cultures throughout time. The earliest known weather vane was in Ancient Greece in the form of the Greek god Triton, according to Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator of the American Folk Art Museum, New York City.
“However, weather vanes as recognized today are closely associated with the form developed in America from Colonial times to the present,” she says.
The earliest American weather vanes were shaped either as banners or roosters, a Biblical symbol. All early American weather vanes were hand-forged or hand-wrought and usually made of metal, although they also could be constructed from wood, Hollander says.
“The most popular designs on Colonial public buildings were banner forms mimicking a fabric banner blowing in the wind,” says Kenneth Schwarz, master blacksmith, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia. “The part that catches the wind was made from flat sheet, while the arrows are normally bar iron forged and ornamented with scrollwork. All of the examples in Williamsburg are banner forms.”
“By the late 19th century, weather vanes were mass produced, although even those made in factories were hand-crafted from original carvings,” says Hollander.
Legends and lore
There are fascinating stories connected to famous weather vanes and their part in our nation’s history. For example, two presidents have had noteworthy weather vanes.
“Jefferson had a banner vane at Monticello, with an indoor indicator of direction so that he did not have to step out into the yard to see the vane,” says Schwarz. “Washington's home at Mount Vernon has a weather vane in the form of the Dove of Peace with an olive branch in its mouth.”
In 1787, George Washington designed and commissioned his famous weather vane from a craftsman in Philadelphia where he was presiding over the Constitutional Convention. This Dove of Peace weather vane, which stills flies on the cupola, is considered to be one of the most interesting features of Mount Vernon.
“One of the weather vanes in our collection at the American Folk Art Museum is the Chief of the Delaware Indians. It was on the roof of a New York fraternal organization called the Improved Order of Red Men,” Hollander says. “This organization traces its roots to the American Revolution and claims to have participated in the Boston Tea Party.”
Through the roof
Why do certain weather vanes command such through-the-roof prices today?
“There is a steady interest in weather vanes. In the last few years, some superlative examples have come to the marketplace that have certainly spurred a new scene of excitement,” Hollander says. “Weather vanes are recognized as a major American art form. They have enormous appeal to a wide public. The best examples are fully realized as sculpture and command art market prices. For the serious art collector, the finest examples are on par with other works of American sculpture.
“What makes a great weather vane is how successfully it is conceived and made, as well as its scale, detail, rarity and history.”
You don’t have to spend millions to buy old or new weather vanes to grace your garden or home, or adorn your buildings. You can find weather vanes online, from folk art dealers or at country flea markets.
A few contemporary weather vane makers, such as West Coast Weather Vanes, handcraft custom weather vanes. Another source of handcrafted weather vanes and other items is Weather Vanes of Maine.
If you commission a building from Morton Buildings Inc., headquartered in Morton, Illinois, you’ll get a free weather vane – with the classic trademark M – which is not available for retail purchase.
“Customers have other options. Horses and eagles are popular, as well as roosters, ducks and cows,” says Dennis Rusch, Morton Buildings’ product manager.
Sleek sky silhouettes
People often cherish weather vanes today because the objects represent something significant.
Suzana Oei, owner of Fox Feather Farm, commissioned a weather vane of a fox with a feather in its mouth from West Coast Weather Vanes. Her husband commutes 50 miles to New York City, while she trains horses and teaches horseback riding on their 33 acres in Califon, New Jersey.
“When we first moved to our property in 1997, we were delighted to see so much nature, including foxes and red-tailed hawks,” she says. “We saw many foxes with feathers in their mouths. We didn’t want our weather vane to look cute, but something that actually appears as a fox moves and looks.
“The weather vane has glass eyes, which glint in the sun. The vixen is watching the activities of the farm. She is our protectress,” she says. “We have pennies inside the weather vane from the years of our births, as well as those of our two daughters.”
Weather or not
The classic design is not only decorative, it’s also utilitarian, says LizAnne Jensen, an artist who, with her husband, Ken Jensen, owns West Coast Weather Vanes.
Wind direction continues to be useful information for rural folk despite modern weather services. After all, the meteorological information you receive via radio, television, the Internet and other sources can only provide general reports of your area. What’s really important is the weather right on your own acreage. For a weather vane to work, there needs to be at least 60 percent surface area at the back of the pivot point, says Jensen. Whirligigs, on the other hand, have equal weight on each side of the pivot point. They generally indicate wind speed by how fast they whirl.
Weather vanes are accurate, depending on where you put them, she says.
Weather vanes traditionally have been placed on barns because those are the tallest structures with few obstructions.
“If the wind has a clear path to the weather vane, it will point true,” says Jensen. “However, placing your weather vane in the backyard near a shed or big group of trees may disrupt the wind direction, and you won’t get an accurate reading.”
In the past, weather vanes were important because supply ships could be blown off course without them, Jensen says. There was always a weather vane on the tallest building in town – usually a church or the town hall.
Most people could see the weather vane and determine if a storm was coming. During the fall, everyone was recruited to pull in the harvest because a storm could obliterate the crops, which meant famine in the winter.
Oei first checks her weather vane to determine how she should dress in the morning.
“In the Northeast, the weather is changeable, depending on where the wind blows. I can tell what the weather will be by glancing up and seeing which way the vixen’s nose is pointing. If the wind is from the South that means hot, humid air and possible rain.”
“We grow hay on 10 acres. When you cut and dry hay, you need several good days of sunshine,” she says. “Rain can make hay mold so it’s important to know when a storm is coming.”
In a new vane
Will weather vanes continue to be popular?
“They are simple enough in form that they can be made by self-trained workmen from many materials,” Schwarz says. “They will endure as an art form because they have a simple function that allows for whimsy in their design.”Freelance writer and photographer Letitia Star has written more than 1,000 articles, including many Americana and country living features.