A Look Back in History: From Native Clay to Beautiful Roof tile Adorning our Most Primitive Homes

There is no better a cultural material tie than between Rhineland natives who settled the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and used medieval orange clay roof tile that still protect our ancestral homes and buildings in Germany.
There is no better a cultural material tie than between Rhineland natives who settled the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and used medieval orange clay roof tile that still protect our ancestral homes and buildings in Germany.
Closeup of an orange clay roof tile
Closeup of an orange clay roof tile

In the Colonial years, when handmade brick was scarce, the availability of native clay also afforded Valley pioneers to build attractive brick chimneys with courses of brick corbelling. The result: the entire Oley Township being honored as a National Historic District by the United States Department of the Interior, for its heritage. Unlike the quickly fashioned frontier homes built by the Scotch-Irish, these sturdy Germanic homes with their clay-tiled roofs and salmon brick arches built by Rhinelanders showed a commitment to America that these families were here to stay.

The lower Oley Valley was Swedish and Quaker English, but when these immigrants reached the confines of the “Oley Hills,” around Lobachsville, the many Rhineland orange clay tile roofs were unmistakably Germanic. Perhaps by design of their inhabitants that including French Huguenots and Swiss, but possibly more so by the availability of clay that could be fired into earthen tile. Following Rhineland Valley European tradition, Germanic immigrants arriving in Colonial days, where good clay is abundant in the Dutch Country, preferred to roof their farm manor houses with bisque fired orange colored roof tile.

Such was especially the case in the Oley Valley where prosperous Germanic pioneers built steep roofed manor houses covered with bright clay tile, while their Quaker English counterparts took advantage of roofing with splitting and shaving long side-lapped oak wooden shingles popular by other pioneers. Most clay tile was of a standard width and length of 6 1/3” X 13 1/2” or rounded to 7” X 14” to be overlapped on a strong timbered truss roof. Occasionally, perhaps because of economy and availability of clay, some longer and wider tile was manufactured. But if the tile potter had the facility to give the surface of the tile a simple salt glaze, on occasion, he did not hesitate to do so.

Since clay tiles were widely utilized on bake oven roofs and damp spring houses, unglazed bisque fired tile with the appropriate tulip design to gather rain drops were most common individual tile and were hung on the roof lath by a lug of protruding day on the backside of the top of the tile, but never nailed on. Surviving examples of early steep roofed clay-tile Germanic manor houses in the Oley Valley are also dressed with beautiful salmon colored brick arches over their doorways and windows to bear the weight of their stone wails. However, the average Dutchman who owns a farmstead with this historic roof tile is more concerned about roof leakage.

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Most often outbuildings with Germanic clay Colonial tile are missing the curved ridge roof tile on top that protects the peak of the ridge, just budding up against one another, across the ridge. Folklorist, Robert C. Bucher, perhaps did the most expansive research on this subject matter. In his article, Steep Roofs and Red Tile, in the summer issue of the 1961 Pennsylvania Folklife magazine, he stated that “by and large tile roofs did not leak, despite the fact when looking at the underside of the tile structure; one could see daylight between the joints of the vertical tile.” “It would have to be a tremendous downpour which would cause leakage.” But since most roofs are timbered with oak rafters and lath, whatever leakage might occur would not be immediately a problem.

As an exception, Bucher included a unique photograph of rare roof tile that were staggered on a building located on Bernville Road, north of Womelsdorf, Berks County. In the early 1960s, Bucher counted twenty-three clay tile roofed structures still surviving in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and made a map locating these sites for his article for editor, Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker.