Farmers depended on weathervanes to help them predict the weather so they would know when to plant and harvest their crops. In the days before the barometer and more modern methods of weather forecasting were developed, a farmer could make a pretty good guess about the weather if he knew which direction the wind was coming from…an east wind brought rain and inclement weather and a west wind was followed by favorable weather. Not only were weathervanes a useful instrument for the farmer, but they also were often beautiful examples of folk art! In the late 1700’s, the originality, charm, and workmanship of many weathervanes placed them among the best of America’s artistic achievements of the time.
If you have taken a look at the roof of our new Indoor Learning Center, you have seen two stunning examples of handcrafted,all copper weathervanes. Our dairy cow stands atop the new classroom wing, and, one of our Leghorn roosters is captured crowing at the top of the bunkhouse. Both weather- vanes represent New Pond Farm activities and both come from New England Craft Center where they were hand made by Roger and Otto Gust and Jonathan Swanson.
The weathervanes are full bodied (as oppos- ed to silhouette) and contain extraordinary detail. Take a look at the rooster see if you can make out his feathers! You will note our cow has the confirmation of a proper dairy cow, not just a “generic” cow … to make sure the weathervanes looked just right, we took photographs of our animals to New England Craft Center where they were used to create our custom-made weathervanes.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WEATHERVANES
The earliest record of a weathervane was in Athens, Greece in about the 1st Century BC. A papal edict issued around 1000 AD did much to promote what would later become weathervanes. The edict called for the symbol of a rooster to be installed at the top of every church in Christendom. The rooster was to serve as a reminder of Peter’s three denials of Christ, which Jesus said would occur “before the cock shall crow”. The cock on the steeple was to prod the faithful to come to services so as not to deny Christ as Peter had done!
No one knows exactly when the roosters on the churches were converted to weather- cocks or vanes, but Chaucer makes literary allusions in some of his works suggesting that “cocks were turning with the wind” by the 13th or 14th Centuries in England. Because the roosters were on the tallest structure in every town, it made it possible to
easily see the vane from a long way off on a clear day and it probably wasn’t long before most church steeple roosters became weathervanes.
During the middle ages, as the nobility gained wealth and importance at least equal to the church, weathervanes with heraldic designs began to appear. A nobleman’s coat of arms was carried on a banner and supported by a rod to keep it unfurled. From there, they became vanes suggesting ban- ners, pennants and flags which remained popular in England for centuries and in America, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, were widely used on churches and public buildings.
The oldest weathervanes in our country were made in Europe and imported by the early settlers. The making of less sophisticated weathervanes flourished in early rural America. The farmers needed to know which way the wind was blowing, but they were too far away from the towns to see the weathervanes on the church or other buildings. Therefore, they made their own vanes or had local blacksmiths make them. The farmers and blacksmiths introduced new subjects to the weathervanes including those that were part of their everyday life. After the Revolutionary War, patriotic themes became popular, particularly the eagle, which had been chosen as the symbol of the new nation. As the country spread west, so did weathervanes.
Next time you are at the farm, take a good look at the two weathervanes, atop the Indoor Learning Center. You won’t ever see another one just like them!