Seeing stars: Acadian, barn and Texan

What’s the difference between a barn star, Texas star and Acadian star?


We visit Morrisburg, Ont., once a year and I’ve spent some amount of time wandering its lovely streets. But this was the first year I noticed the stars. Usually made of distressed tin but sometimes wood or just painted on, the five-pointed stars appear mostly on the walls of front porches, to the right of the door.

That weekend, Jilly and I took a quick jaunt to Ottawa, 80 kilometres north of Morrisburg, and were surprised at how many stars we saw along the way. Okay, I was more surprised than Jilly. She’s pretty chill about stuff like that.

An "Acadian" star on a home somewhere near Maxville, Ont.
An “Acadian” star on a home somewhere near Maxville, Ont.

I was flummoxed, and so I turned to Facebook. My friend Laurie immediately suggested Acadians, and Alan backed her up:  “She is right Hayley, Acadiens. They don’t want anyone to know they are really from Quebec.”

Acadians? Prejudiced by our road trip to the deep South, it hadn’t entered my mind that they could be anything other than Texan. But lots of cultures and groups—from the military to pseudo-Wiccans—have taken the star as their own. More power to them—who can own the stars?

The one thing almost everyone seems to agree on is that the five-pointed star was introduced to North America by the Amish in the early 1700s. They are also called—you guessed it—Pennsylvania stars. Whether the Amish assigned meaning to colour is more ambiguous—most scholarly sources say they don’t, but sites trying to sell you something will make you click through dozens of meaningful colour options.

These Pennsylvania Dutch stars are not the same as what we call hex signs, which look like quilted patterns and are designed specifically for the family that owns the barn or outbuilding on which it is painted. They don’t have superstitions attached to their use, as the Amish Country News points out: “A more accepted interpretation of the hex sign is as an indicator of ‘ethnic symbolism’.”

The Lone Star is meant to symbolize all Texans. It is not just seen on buildings; it is the focal point of the state’s flag, whose pledge of allegiance goes this way: “Honour the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”

Now what about those Acadians and all those stars in Morrisburg?

The Acadians arrived on Canadian shores about the same time the Pennsylvania Dutch were making their home to the southwest. The Acadian symbol is the Stella Maris, the yellow star of Mary, who is the patron of mariners. But the Acadians settled in New Brunswick and were chased off into Quebec—they don’t have roots in Ontario.

Even now, of the 370,000 Acadian French in Canada, fewer than 9,000 make their home in that province and although it would make geographic sense for those uprooted from the Maritimes and Quebec to stop their journey that far east, I’m going to make a (mostly educated) guess and say the stars we came across in our travels were inspired by a sale at Home Depot or a strong case of keeping up with the Joneses.

My favourites are true barn stars. These are the symbols—not always stars—that appear on the front of a barn, under or instead of a small window. Often they are shaped like a wagon wheel. These do not have magical properties, either, and they don’t indicate safe travels for marooned sailors.

They were used by the barn-builder to sign his work—literally a trademark.

A barn star somewhere between Ottawa and the Quebec border.
A barn star somewhere between Ottawa and the Quebec border.



The quiet streets of Morrisburg and the St. Lawrence Seaway

ImageMORRISBURG, ONT. – I’ve lived in big cities and the burbs and a hundred-acre farm, but I’m a small-town girl at heart, so I was pleased that Miss Jillian’s first road trip was to Morrisburg, where Mel was headed for her annual art retreat. I spent a lot of my growing up years in this county. It smells like home.

Mid-April is an awkward time of year here: too late to spy huge flocks of Canada geese, too early for fun attractions like Upper Canada Village. Thus, 5-month-old Jilly and I spent our Saturday exploring a few quiet streets in tiny Morrisburg.


A mural at the pharmacy off Hwy. 2 in Morrisburg, Ont.

The main road in to town, old Hwy. 2, is like any other in North America. The most exciting bit is the Fryer Truck chip wagon. Besides that, there’s a strip mall with a sub-par dollar store, a liquor store, a McDonald’s. The ubiquitous Timmy’s. We ditched all that to amble through more residential neighbourhoods.

The houses here are a lesson in architectural history. There are the plain, war-time buildings beside stumpy, one-storey homes with shingled roofs and large front windows oozing ’70s style. Now and again a more American-style house, tall with white siding and more than one veranda, windows with shutters, maybe a tower or widow’s walk. Red-brick houses – easily found anywhere in southern Ontario – are the homes of my heart, whether they have gingerbread or not, whether there are planters beside the stairs or lacy curtains in the windows. One day I will live in a red-brick house.

ImageThe road we took snaked down to the riverside, past the golf course where carts carefully navigated around geese. We passed a boy playing street hockey alone while a melancholy poodle wearing an Elizabethan collar watched him wistfully from a nearby window.

The wind picked up the closer we got to the narrow rocky shore and by the time we made it to water’s edge the fresh air had put Jilly to sleep. The boardwalk is a paved path; beside it is a small green strip, maybe two feet wide, that drops off into the water, lined with chunky rocks. If not for the stroller, I would have walked on these and let the river tease the soles of my boots.

We watched a ship glide eastward toward Montreal or the ocean. A man was exploring between stones with his young granddaughter. The grandmother smiled at us as we walked by. Another couple called out, “Good afternoon!” as though we were friends they hadn’t seen in weeks. A dog-walker apologetically kept his little white mongrel from kissing Jilly’s hands. We turned back when we got to the gazebo – we’d been gone for an hour and about a mile and half. We could have cut up, wandered through more streets, but I was reluctant to leave the water and so we followed our own path back.

The poodle in the collar was at the window still, looking sad and like he’d rather have been strolling with us.