Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Magi and More

The 13th century Dreikonigshaus (Three Kings' House) in Trier, named for the effigies of the Magi on the façade*

I grew up in a small (350 population) German-American community where the Christmas traditions were very similar to those which still exist in many parts of Germany today. No one put up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve day. Santa Claus made his visit to our farm in the early evening of December 24. That's when Christmas began and it lasted at least until Three Kings Day, when we moved the kings from their distant location in the manger scene to the very stable where the baby Jesus lay. I still find it difficult to accept the current practice of putting up a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving and taking it down on December 26.

With the feast of the Epiphany/Three Kings Day approaching, it seemed a good time to write about the German celebration of the coming of the Magi and also some of the other lesser know customs which led up to the celebration of Christmas in our German ancestors' pasts.

The Feast of the Magi
The Greek word "Epiphanias" means "uprise, appearance", i.e. appearance of the Lord. Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 and is better know as the feast of the Three Kings, the "Wise Men," or the Magi. According to an old legend based on a Bible story, the three kings or Magi saw, on the night when Christ was born, a bright star and followed it to Bethlehem. There they found the Christ child and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

As the centuries went on, customs grew up around the feast of Epiphany. In many places in Germany, including the Rheinland, the doorways were sprinkled with holy water and the initials of the Three Kings -- C+M+B (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) -- plus the year were inscribed in chalk over doorways on the eve of January 5 or 6 to protect house and home. According to scholarly thought, the three letters really come from the Latin phrase for "Christ bless this house" -- "Christus mansionem benedicat."

In many places in Germany, on the afternoon of January 5, the local priest still blesses incense and chalk for use by the Sternsänger (star singers), three children selected to dress up as the kings. When the stars come out, the children go from house to house, chalking the initials KMB and the year at the entrance of each home. These initials signify that Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar have passed each house as they follow the guiding star on the way to Bethlehem. The children also parade through each house, wafting incense to scare off evil spirits. That night a special dessert is served, Dreikönigskuchen, or Three Kings' Cake, a very elaborate fruit cake.

The German celebration of Christmas, unlike our own American Christmas celebration, has a definite beginning and ending. January 6, the last day of Christmas, comes with its own traditions, rituals and symbols. Carolers are going from house to house; in many homes the Christmas tree is taken down and in some areas it is burnt in a big bonfire. For the children this is an especially joyous occasion because, associated with taking down the tree goes the "plündern" (raiding) of the tree. The sweets, chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil or cookies, which have replaced the sugar plums, are the raiders' rewards.

Saint Barbara's Day
Barbara, the daughter of the rich merchant Dioscuros, grew up in Nikomedia (today's Izmet, Turkey). In order to retain her innocence, Barbara's father locked her up during his absence, in a tower with only two windows. When Dioscuros returned from his journey, he found a third window in the tower. Barbara had been baptized by a priest disguised as a physician, and she ordered the third window as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

As this was done against her father's will, Barbara was accused, tortured and condemned to death. A branch of a cherry tree had gotten caught in her dress when she was locked in a dungeon. Barbara watered it with the water from her drinking cup, and on the day of her execution in the winter of 306, the branch bloomed. From this comes the "Barbarazweig," the custom of bringing branches into the house on December 4 to bloom on Christmas. In some areas St. Barbara's Day is also the day to bake Kletzenbrot, a loaf cake made with prunes, dried pears, raisins and currants. Kletzenbrot is most commonly made in Austria and Bavaria.

Saint Andreas Day
November 30 is dedicated in the evangelical, catholic and orthodox churches to Saint Andreas (St Andrew), the brother of Saint Peter and one of twelve Apostles. His feast day is November 30, traditionally considered the date of his martyrdom in 60 A.D.

St. Andreas' Day marks the opening of Christmas Markets, and many Midwinter customs and folk superstitions are connected to this day. It is the first of the "knocking nights" known as Klöpfelnächte.

"Anglöckeln, Klöpflgeher, Glöcklisinger, Kurrendesänger, Bosseln" describe the groups of Christmas carolers or star-singers from various German regions who walk from door to door. After knocking (klopfen) or ringing the doorbell (Glocke) they sing for gifts. Some sources say that this symbolizes the angel bringing the message of Christ's birth to Mary; others ascribe it to earlier rituals of driving out evil spirits with loud knocking sounds.

Whatever the symbolism, for a long time it was one of the few ways by which the poor could earn a meal during the winter season. The duration of this tradition varies widely and could last until Epiphany (January 6). Today it is mostly performed by children, who try to collect gifts for themselves or donations for some charity.

St. Andreas is also important as the patron saint of marriage and fertility. St. Andreas day was a traditional time of "oracles" for girls who prayed to the saint for a husband and wished to receive some visible assurance that their prayers had been heard. For example, a girl wishing to marry could throw a shoe at a door around midnight on November 29. If the toe of the shoe pointed in the direction of the exit, then she would marry and leave her parents' house within a year. Or she could peel a whole apple without breaking the peel and throw the peel over the shoulder. If the peel formed a letter of the alphabet, then this suggested the name of her future groom. So, the night of November 29 was the night to look into the future and find out one's fate.

*Note: Photos thanks to Arno and Ewald Meyer

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Weddings, Bavarian Style

The Hochzeitlader, "Der Blumenbaum, Jan., Feb., Mar., 2005

After a brief interruption for Martini I’m back to the subject of 19th century wedding customs, this time those of Bavaria. (Upon rereading that sentence, it sounds as if I've been having some liquid refreshment. Actualy, there is another kind of "martini" which is described in my previous post.)

In 1984 I went to Eastern Bavaria with a second cousin on my mother’s side of the family to visit the little villages where our Probst ancestors had lived. When I dragged cousin Allen into a bookstore in the city of Regen, I gravitated toward a book with pretty pictures titled, Der Landkreis Regen: Heimat im Bayerischen Wald, and didn’t worry about the content. At that time the only German I knew was “Der Bleistift ist auf dem Tisch” (The pencil is on the table). An opportunity to read that phrase did not occur very often. But as so often has happened to me when I am on German soil, I had the good luck to pick a book with fantastic information in it.

As soon as I learned to read some German, I realized I had brought home a detailed word picture of life in Eastern Bavaria as well as a pretty picture book. In 1858, Bavaria’s King Maximilian II ordered the district medical officer in each Landkreis (administrative district) to send him an account of his subjects. It was to contain a description of their physical attributes, their clothes, their housing, the way they earned their living, even their customs and celebrations. Here was a king with an uncommon curiosity about the people he ruled.

A number of these written manuscripts were preserved and stored in the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) in Munich. The reports about the Eastern Bavarian districts of Viechtach and Regen were translated by Dr. Reinhard Haller in a chapter called “Ethnographische Beschreibung der Landgerichte Viechtach und Regen aus den Jahren 1858-1860.” The report contained words that no longer exist in regular German dictionaries, which made me unsure of my translation. Help arrived in the form of an article in “Der Blumenbaum,” the magazine published by the Sacramento German Genealogy Society. An article about marriage customs in the mountains of Bavaria, “A Wedding in the Mountains,” was an English language description of very similar customs to the ones I was struggling to understand. In addition to the text, it reproduced pictures from a little book called “A Hochzeit im Gebirg.”

The Engagement
As in the Hunsrück, the prospective bridegroom came to look over the property of the bride’s father and, if his proposal was accepted, the bride-to-be cooked her first meal for him. In Bavaria, this dish was called “Schmarrn”, a popular Bavarian specialty that is a cross between a pancake and an omelet. When it is cooked, it is cut up and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Soon after the second announcement of the marriage banns were called in the church, the Hochzeitslader or wedding inviter began his rounds with the bridegroom. All the relatives had to be invited, and the father of the groom might travel along to make sure none of the distant relatives or acquaintances were missed. The Hochzeitlader’s hat was decorated with rosemary and a cluster of flowers. On his left arm he wore a circle of artificial flowers, and he carried a Hochzeit ramrod (the rod used to push down gunpowder into old-fashioned weapons). To show its peaceful purpose for this occasion, it was decorated with many colorful silk ribbons.

Kammerwagon (bedroom wagon) photo, Der Landkreis Regen in alten Ansichten

Shortly before the wedding ceremony, the bride’s possessions had to be transported to her new home. This was done with as much public display as possible, especially if the bride’s family was well to do. A wagon, loaded with furniture, linens, and whatever finery the bride was bringing to her home, was driven slowly through the village, giving everyone a chance to observe and comment.

The Wedding Day
The wedding itself usually took place in the late morning. As in Normandy and in the Hunsrück, there was a procession to the church, sometimes with musicians leading the way. The equivalent of today's bridesmaid and best man led the bride to the altar.

After the religious ceremony, the entire party made its way to the Gasthaus which, according to the article in “Der Blumenbaum,” was almost always located close by the church. Here a family would provide as fine a meal as their financial situation would allow. Those who were invited but who could not attend because of infirmity or farm duties were not overlooked. They received food packets, sent with friends or relatives and often wrapped in the women’s scarves.

After the wedding meal, it was time for the Hochzeitlader to perform his duties as master of ceremonies. The bride and groom usually sat at a special table that was covered with a white cloth. With them would be the Ehrenvater and Ehrenmutter. These were very honored guests, often a godparent or a grandparent of the bride or groom. The Hochzeitlader called the guests one by one to the table, announcing them with a polite phrase or sometimes a comic insult. There might be an appropriate flourish by the musicians as the family name was called, and guests were called in the order of their relationship to the bridal couple. Once at the table they would drink from the glasses of the bride and the groom and lay down the Mahlgeld, a contribution toward the expense of the meal as well as a wedding gift. Sometimes a well-to-do farmer would make a show of sprinkling just a few coppers or silver pennies in front of the bride and groom. As he turned away from the table he would surreptitiously slide his hand into his pocket, turn back to the table with his fist full of valuable Taler, pleased with his little joke.

When it is time for the dancing to begin, the newly married couple had the first dance. The Hochzeitlader was again in charge, deciding who, in turn, would be next to come to the dance floor. And he decided when it is time for the guests to go home. When he told the band to play the Rausschmeisser (literally translated it would be called "The Bouncer"), a piece of music that was known to everyone as the tune which ended the dancing, the celebration was over.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

November 11 - A Martini Celebration

Cover of
Mein erstes
Buch von
Sankt Martin
Text by Thomas Erne
Pictures by Susanne Kraus
Verlag Herder, 2001

November 11 is Veterans Day here in the U.S, a holiday for acknowledging the sacrifices made by our soldiers and to remind us of their bravery.

Germany and Austria also celebrate on November 11 but it is a different kind of holiday. It is a remembrance of Saint Martin of Tours and is known as Martinstag or Martini.

Saint Martin of Tours is not a saint that we here in the US associate with any kind of festival or custom. So when my genial landlord, Hans Dieter Jung, took me on a short tour of some of the small villages near Saarburg, I wasn't prepared for a lesson on unusual customs in the Rheinland. We had stopped at Hofgut Serrig, a farming community where natural farming and animal husbandry is practiced by workers with disabilities. As we passed a field of fat geese, Herr Jung said they wouldn’t be around much longer because it was almost Martini. “What is martini?” I asked, picturing a stemmed glass, wide rimmed, with a couple of olives. He explained that November 11 is Saint Martin’s Day or Martini. It is the time when geese lose their heads, literally. That didn’t seem a very nice way to celebrate a saint’s feast day but I didn’t say that – mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to put that thought into German.

With the help of my English speaking relative Edeltrud Heiser who lives in Trier, and some research on my own, I soon learned much more about St. Martin and the significance of this holiday which is a combination of our own celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving. I also found out why geese are so associated with this feast day. (Edeltrud gave me the gift of the children's book pictured above, "My First Book of Saint Martin")

St. Martin was born in about 336, the son of a Roman soldier. He too became a soldier in the Roman cavalry. One day a beggar approached Martin, begging for alms. Since he had nothing to give him, Martin drew his sword and cut his cloak in half. A legend grew that the beggar was Christ and that this caused Martin’s conversion to Christianity. As word of his holiness grew, the pope sent messengers to him, naming him Bishop of Tours. Martin, feeling unworthy, ran away and hid in a stable among a flock of geese. But the geese, recognizing his virtues, gave him away by cackling loudly. One could draw the conclusion that Saint Martin took his revenge on them, silencing them each year on his feast day.

A more practical explanation is that on the feast of St. Martin, November 11, it was the time of slaughter for the farm animals, including the geese. Farmers could ill afford to feed all of their poultry during the winter months when the time for food foraging in the woodlots and pastures was ended. It was also the time that taxes were due, and a fat goose or two to the landlord was, in many places, accepted as payment in kind. And if a family could afford to do so, a roast goose was often the holiday fare on Martini. According to an article called ""Eat a fat goose on St. Martin's Day"" in Der Blumenbaum, Nov/Dec. 2002, many restaurants in Germany and Austria still feature Martinsgans (Martin goose) on their menus in late autumn and especially on St. Martin's Day.

The Blumenbaum article went on to say that St. Martin's Day was an important date for shepherds, who considered St. Martin to be their patron saint. His day coincided with the date that their contracts ended. At this time they could bargain for better terms for the coming year of service. By custom, they would blow their horns until their masters arrived to meet with them, at which time the masters were presented with a decorated branch or Martinsgerte. Then the shepherds would recite rhymes for which they received presents.

Saint Martin's day was not just for the shepherds or the landlords. It marked the coming of winter; now people could celebrate the end of harvesting and wine making and look forward to rest from their heaviest labors. For workers and the poor it was a time when they had a chance to enjoy some of the bounty of the harvest. And it would be the last celebration before the solemn season of Advent and the fasting which would not end until Christmas.

The little children would parade through the villages in the evening of St. Martin’s Day, carrying hollowed out pumpkins or turnips with bizarre carved faces. It was customary for them to sing St. Martin songs or “Martinslieder” and recite rhymes in return for small presents. The lantern procession is still observed today but now there are paper lanterns in various shapes and sizes. The children sing a St. Martin's Day song such as this:

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
The rooster, he crows; the cat meows.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
The rooster, he crows; the cat meows.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
St. Martin, he marches on.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
St. Martin, he marches on.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
Lantern light, don't go out on me!
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
Lantern light, don't go out on me!
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
A sea of light in honor of Martin.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
A sea of light in honor of Martin.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
My light is out,
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
We're going home,
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

Happy St. Martin's Day to those of you who read this on November 11!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Weddings, Hunsruck Style

Chapel in Oberzerf

The Hunsrück mountain range is east of the Mosel and Saar rivers. These mountains, though not nearly as high as the Alpine ranges of Germany, do have elevations that are over 700 meters (about 2,300 feet high). There are many small villages in the Hunsrück; Oberzerf, my great-great grandmother's birthplace, lies in a valley at "the foot of the Hunsrück." (Der Hochwaldort Zerf am Fusse des Hunsrücks by Edgar Christoffel, Verlage W. Rassier, Saarburg 1981).

If you've read, "Weddings, Normandy Style," my previous post, you will notice both differences from and similarities to the Hunsrück country wedding which I am about to describe. I found these customs in the book, Die Hunsrücker Küche, Rezepte und Bräuche meiner Heimat, (The Hunsrück Kitchen, Recipes and Customs of my Native Land) self published by Christiane Becker in 1998.

Courtship and Engagement

Until the turn of the century, the rural suitor and the wedding agent were an essential part of the courtship process in the Hunsrück area. When a country lad was ready to marry, he would take along with him a sort of godfather to help him when in his courtship of a prospective bride. So when two men wearing white silk scarves appeared in a village on a Sunday, everyone knew why they had come. They would first unobtrusively scout the house and the outer buildings of the prospective bride's family. Only then would the talking get under way. If the suitor had good luck with his proposal, he and his "godfather", in accordance with custom would be invited to eat fried eggs and Schinkenspeck (fatty ham?). However if bread and cheese with Schnaps was offered, then both men knew that the suitor had been rejected.

Once the wedding offer had been accepted, the old custom of Hillich was sometimes celebrated. The "Freiersmann" or wedding agent would give the young couple a speech about the importance of the vows they were about to take. The bridegroom to be would then place a coin in the hand of his future bride which was called, not surprisingly, "Handgeld," that is, hand money. There followed a Hillich feast. In the 17th century, this meal became so sumptuous that the Catholic church took action against it. So in later times the Hillich meal was much more modest. Bread, butter, cheese, wine and beer were served.

On the three Sundays before the wedding, the couple's upcoming nuptials were "called" during the church service. It was an announcement to everyone in the congregation and probably also a protection for the young woman, making sure that her prospective husband was free to marry. Notices announcing the wedding had been nailed to the doors of the community bakehouse and the village hall. All of the relatives and neighbors had to be invited. So a "Hochzeitsbitter," was employed to invite wedding guests. He usually dressed in the kind of clothes one would wear for a feast. His hat was decorated with laurel and rosemary and he carried a brandy jug. After he spoke a wedding invitation, he poured out a small glass of brandy and offered it. He would receive a slice of bread in return.

The Wedding Day

On the wedding day, the Hochzeitsbitter received the guests at a breakfast of bread and brandy in the wedding house. The bridal couple would then leave for the civil ceremony at the registry office (probably in the town hall) which was required by law and preceded the wedding at the church. Often some kind of obstacle would be placed in the way of the wedding procession, perhaps a chain, a pole, or a ladder. This obstruction could only be bypassed by the payment of a ransom. As a reward for the payment of this "Trinkgeld," (literally "drink money), the men fired their guns, making a loud racket. This noise was meant to drive away the angry spirits which were said to be especially dangerous during happy times. In earlier times, fiddlers accompanied the bridal couple on the way to the church. As they walked along, the bridal couple delighted the youngsters by throwing small coins.

After the wedding, it was time for food. Although the people of the Hunsrück ate very plain food most of the time, a wedding feast was an exception. A cow or a pig was usually slaughtered for the wedding meal. In earlier times, each guest made a contribution to the cost. For the noon meal there might be a beef soup with egg and noodles, pork which was either cooked or roasted, beef with horseradish, bratwurst sausages, sauerkraut or white beans. As the author of the little book of recipes and customs says, "It was a plentiful table."

Monday, October 03, 2005

Weddings, Normandy Style

A decorative plate depicting a
scene from a wedding in

What would courtship and a marriage ceremony held in 1849 Germany be like? That has been an nagging question for me in writing the story of my immigrant ancestors, Johann and Magdalena Meier.

Until 2004, none of the books or genealogical magazines I had read described a wedding in the Mosel/Saar area or any other area of Germany, despite the fact that it was a very important life event. By 2003 I was ready to go a bit afield. On a river cruise that followed the same route that Johann and Magdalena traveled to reach the port of Le Havre on their way to America, we docked at a village called Vernon. There, in a small bookstore, I found a book about Normandy in the 1890's. It contained a very long description (in French) of the marriage traditions and customs in Normandy's rural areas. Reasoning that parts of France and the Trier/Mosel region of Germany might have a number of similarities, I bought the book, and with the help of a friend who had studied French in college, I wrote down the courtship and wedding rituals.


In rural Normandy, courtship must proceed slowly, especially among country folk. Occasional sharing of a few words after church, an offer to help with a chore such as carrying a basket or bucket, then an evening at the party on the feast of the parish's patron saint or a strolling walk, until the day the suitor is ready to declare himself.

An older person acts as the matchmaker. If permission to marry is given, the engagement is announced. It is made official when the young man & members of his family are invited to a fine dinner at the home of the bride-to-be. It is also the occasion of the first gifts.

The bride prepares a trousseau but does not sew the wedding dress. This must be done by someone else to avoid misfortune. A few days before the wedding, the trousseau is transported with great pomp to the future home on a hand cart. In some places the cart is bedecked with ribbons. On the day before the wedding, the cooking utensils are taken.

The Wedding Day

Weddings were usually on Tuesday or Saturday. On the wedding day, the bride's crown is fitted with a small mirror set in a bezel and tied to the back of the wedding crown or headdress with a green silk cord. This is a symbol of virginity. After the marriage, it is removed and tied to the head of the bed.

While the groom dresses in a simple somber attire, guests are allowed to come to have something to eat and drink as they offer their presents. After the bride is dressed, the dressmaker attaches a cluster of orange blossoms to the lapel of the groom's jacket. Now the wedding procession is about to begin.

According to the distance to the mayor's office and to the church, the bride and groom either walk or go by horse-drawn carriage. Two violins go before, playing something "harmonious"; the bride on the arm of her father or in some places, the groomsman. The remainder of the guests walk behind. The civil ceremony at the mayor's office is short, the church ceremony being more important.

The bells ring out as the procession approaches the church. The husband places the ring on the finger of the bride. If the groom cannot get the ring easily over the knuckle, and the bride must finish it, it is then said that she will wear the pants in the family. After the ceremony, the newly married couple go to the sacristy to give a gift to the priest. Then they leave the church to the ringing of the bells. Sometimes sugared almonds or rice are thrown.

A painting by the artist Pierre Outin from the Musee des Arts et de l'Enfance in Fecamp which was used to illustrate the chapter also caught my attention. The costume of the bride and groom would indicate that the time period represented was the late 1700's. In the painting, the wedding party leaves the church and walks to the nearby cemetery where the bride places flowers on the grave of a loved one, probably her mother, as her new husband looks on. Standing back a bit from the couple is a gray-haired , sad-looking man, probably the bride's father.

The Celebration

The bridal procession reforms outside the church in order to walk to the home of the bridal couple, but usually the group is no longer solemn. There is joking, singing, even dancing. In families that are particularly well off, the people who have arrived at the home of the bride and groom go to the wardrobe to admire the trousseau, in which great pride is taken.

Some people who joined the procession that went to the church do not rejoin it after the ceremony. Instead they go to the public house to sing, dance and eat.

Now there is a wedding meal. The table is covered, usually with a white cloth and decorated with fresh flowers. At some time either during or right after this meal, the bride sings a song of thanks to her parents and confirms her separation from them. Then she sings to her husband and inlaws. The groom sings to his parents and also to his inlaws. A relative or parent of the groom sings to the bride. Sometimes others sing as well. After the songs, everyone dances until dawn.

On the first Sunday after the wedding, the priest welcomes the couple before mass and gives them their new place in the church.

(The preceding information is taken from the book, Il y a un Normandie: La vie quotidienne des Normanands, by Hippolyte Gancel)
Want to Know More?
Since 2003, I have found descriptions of a Hunsrück village wedding as well as one of a rural wedding in Bavaria. Many elements of the three are so similar that I've decided to post them too and to draw upon them when I describe the February 14, 1849 wedding of my great-great grandparents that took place in the village church of Irsch, Saarburg, Rheinland. Look for Weddings, Hunsrück Style in my next posting.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Farmer's Life in Poetry

Sometimes you find a description of the German homeland where you least expect it - in poetry, for instance.

I was given a book of poems by Ewald Meyer when I visited Irsch in 2002. It was a very special remembrance of my visit. I also brought home several local history books. I puzzled over the local histories and put the book of poems aside for when I had "more time." One morning as I was finishing my coffee, I picked up Hennerm Plou, the book of poems, to see if I could read any of it. What I found were word paintings of the lives of the farm families who lived near the Saar. They were so evocative I could almost smell the wet earth of the spring, feel the sweat of the summer on my face, taste the roasted potatoes fresh from the fire and hear the calling, calling of the frogs in the stream.

The book I was enjoying was written by Ernst Thrasolt, who was born Matthias Tressel in Beurig in 1878. He was the son of a farmer/ wine-grower/linen weaver. His mother came from a family of shoemakers. Tressel became a priest in 1904; and, after the death of his father, he changed his name to Ernst Thrasolt and began to write using that name, especially the poetry which reflected his love of the place of his birth and the memories of his youth. He also chose to write many of the poems in the Mosel Frankische dialect of the Trier region where he had grown up. Today, there are not many people who can read this dialect. The poems which I am summarizing have been translated into high German and reworked by Ewald Meyer. They are my prose interpretations (admittedly not expert) of poetry that pays tribute to the farmers who sowed, cultivated, harvested and loved the land near the Mosel and Saar.


Come with me to the wine hills - today the heavens are clear. Today you can see far. You see how the Saar foams so wild and white; and when you reach the very top of the wine hills, you still hear it rushing. You see the whole world that lies below. You see how the many fields lie next to each other. And you see the meadows that are already so green, the buttercups in bloom, and the trees blooming, blooming. The grain has already come up and the rape is gold. The first clover can soon be cut for the cattle. And it is always a fine thing to see the bed linens bleaching, almost shining, by the side of the stream. That is when the flax and the spinning and the weaving of that cloth come to mind.

Up here we bind the grape vines, and below us runs the plow. Between wine hill and plow, between furrow and vine, that is our way of life on our farms. And year in and year out all life and all nature go back and forth; spring and fall, summer and winter between wine hill and plow. With dung spreading, digging, planting, cutting, tying, binding up, and harvesting. With plow, sower, mower, sickle and plow, so must we all struggle and toil.

So long as the sun can be seen and the Saar can be heard rushing, this race of men would not exchange with king or emperor. Yes, when you are on the wine hill, you know what heaven and homeland is; what sun and Saar and the farming life is.


The potatoes did thrive and the sacks stand full and thick, one sack behind another dense throughout the whole field. And the children roast potatoes in the fire; an enormous flame, and they scrape the potatoes and hold them on the fire. The potatoes are so delicate and so white inside and so hot. They burn mouth and fingers. God be thanked, the potatoes did thrive!

And the sacks are tossed on the wagon; it takes a strong man to lift and to carry them. The thick smoke from the fire is so blue and comes so near that one person can hardly see another. All the furrows in the field are very red with evening light. And each face is red too and joyful, shining in the setting sun.

Listen, the time for the rosary is rung and the children run: they must go inside (the church). And leisurely and contented each wagon goes home with the blessing of God. From all sides they come, wagon after wagon. And everyone sits so tired and so contented at the top of them. It is late already and dark by the time the stall and cellar doors stand open and the soup is on the table and the children come storming home from the church.


Just smell! There is not a corner in the house that is not full of the marvelous scent. In stable and stall and kitchen and bedroom and cellar comes a scent of blessing over everything. For a hundred meters over field and meadow and wine hill and mountain and valley there is the smell of hay and its aftergrowth and of potatoes and carrots and apples and pears and grapes and nuts and newly made Viez (hard apple cider). And it is the scent of the meadow saffron and fall asters as well. And you are contented and the pigs and cow are contented too. The summer with its work went on and on but now comes rest. For nothing was our worry and misery; we are safe another year.


Doors and windows are closed all round. The cattle are fed: pigs and chickens, horse and cow too; now we have rest. Let us put our feet under the stove and praise God for winter. How good the warmth feels. Listen, only hear how the wind whistles outside. Is the ice already forming on the Saar?

And now the plans (for next year) can be made. Oats and barley and wheat will be in the Hasar*, potatoes go in Krangels* and in the Acht* and on the Font*. Clover is put once again in Schadall* where it grows so good...

The peace in the winter is very good for man and horse and cow so that they are not sick and weak when summer comes. Let us praise the Lord God on high for the winter.

*The names of the open fields where each farmer can plant his share of the land.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Of Apple Wine, Cabbage, and Other Everyday Things

Helena and Ewald Meyer
at their home in Irsch

Imagine that you have been invited to the home of the author of a history of your ancestral village of Irsch
. His wife is seated nearby, and his son, who speaks English, has positioned himself where he can help if communication falters. Herr Ewald Meyer has just told you that he is available to be your tour guide for any place in the area that you wish to see, or your driver if you want to visit an archive to do research. Eyes sparkling with interest, he then asks, "Now, what is your heart's desire?"

That experience was overwhelming for me, especially since I wanted to know everything there was to know about Irsch and the surrounding countryside, see every place that my ancestors might have known, and speak fluent German as well as understand every word of German spoken to me. But that afternoon I chose to begin with the list of questions that I had jotted down as I wrote chapters in my novel. They were little questions, yet they were so important when you are trying to tell an ancestral story; the kind of questions I could answer for farm life in 1920-60 Wisconsin but which I knew nothing about for the Trier Saarburg area of 1820-1860.

Maybe Ewald and Helena Meyer were a bit surprised at how ordinary my questions were, but they answered them enthusiastically, and I took notes to the best of my ability to understand.

I began with, "What would the children call their parents? Were they Mama and Papa, Ma and Pa, Mutti and Vatti?" From them I learned that children in Beurich, where Ewald was born and in the Eifel Region, where Helena Meyer had grown up, called their parents Mutter and Vater or the less formal "Papp," and "Mamm".

Next I asked, "What kind of beds did they have? Herr and Frau Meyer said that the beds were rope tied. The mattress was usually stuffed with straw. There would be a Kisten, a cover filled with the feathers of geese or chickens. Sheets would be coarse linen, woven by hand. The pillows were stuffed with "Spreu", the hulls of the grains that were used to feed the cattle. (It took Arno's English and a drawing or two before I understood about Spreu). Three to four children shared one ordinary-sized bed.

The livestock kept by farmers in Irsch, as I expected, was similar to that found on a Wisconsin farm in the 1800's: pigs, cows, chickens, geese, horses, and oxen. Sheep too were raised in abundance in this region.

I asked how women did the laundry. The Meyers said that many women washed their clothes and bedding in the Grossbach, a small stream, as late as the 1920's or 1930's. (Later the landlord of the vacation apartment I had rented, Hans Dieter Jung, showed me a postcard picture of sheets spread out to dry on the banks of the Saar River after they had been washed there. It was my good luck to have found a landlord with an enormous collection of old postcards from the entire Saarburg area.)

We moved on to my questions about the houses, most of which were actually both house and barn under one roof. In earlier times there were straw roofs. Then in 1842 there was a terrible fire, and most of the village of Biest (today a part of Irsch) burned. The Prussian emperor forbad straw roofs after that time. So the roofs from that time on were made of tile (Ziegel) or slate. The kitchen floor would be of stone (probably sandstone), and in the older houses there were no hallways. One would enter the door from the street and be in the kitchen. The rest of the house was unheated in winter. The floors of the bedrooms would be of wood, and stamped lime was used for a cellar floor. There was a bake oven in the kitchen fireplace; meat could be smoked in the fireplace chimney. Or there might be a bake oven outside.

The bark of the oak trees in the area, known as Eichen Lohe, was used in the tanning industry. The farmers would strip the bark for the tanneries, and this was done when the trees were still quite young. Then two or three new shoots would come up and form even smaller trees, so that today there are no large oak trees in the area.

I had wondered if people drank both wine and beer in this region. People did drink some beer but wine was their usual alcoholic beverage. Each farmer had a few grape vines in cultivation and could make his own wine. In the autumn, Viez, an apple wine, was fermented from small, sour apples. (Note: Viez is still sold at farmers markets and at roadside stands today; it has actually gained popularity in the last several years. Its alcohol content varies, usually about six or seven percent. There is even a publicly proclaimed "Viezstrasse" or "Rue de Cidre" that runs between Saarburg and the Luxembourg border. The word "Viez" comes from Roman times [Lat. Vice = the second or deputy wine] and suggests this apple wine was drunk by the Roman occupiers as a replacement for genuine wine. In the Eifel, Hunsrück, Mosel Valley, and Trier the drinking container for Viez is a "Viezporz", a jug/jar made of white porcelain or stoneware, from which the name "Porz" is derived. In earlier times one stored the Viez in larger stoneware containers (Viezkrug). In the winter, people often drank their Viez warmed at the kitchen stove or fireplace. Source:

Three meals were eaten each day. During the spring, summer, and fall, many of these meals were eaten in the fields; hilly fields that were far away from the farms. (On a drive with Herr Meyer, I saw that the fields of Irsch reach almost to the village of Oberzerf, about five miles away.) Probably it would be the grandmother who cooked at home while the adults and older children worked in the fields. The young children carried the lunch to the fields where the family was working.

The families purchased very little from shopkeepers because money was scarce. While they could make most things themselves or barter with neighbors, villagers always had to buy salt and sugar. Most of their food was grown in the garden or gathered from their trees: Potatoes, cabbage (Kappus in the Trier dialect), carrots, beets, celery, leeks, onion, lamb lettuce, beans, peas, kohlrabi, mirabel plums, pears, and many kinds of apples would be found in most gardens.

Clothing was mostly of linen or wool and work and bed clothes could usually be woven at home. However, families had to take the hides from their slaughtered animals to the tannery so that leather could be tanned for their shoes, then made by the village shoemaker.

Poor farmers had only cows to do the work normally done by a horse. Some farmers could afford oxen and the richest farmers had horses. Oxen or cows wore a head yoke when they pulled a plow or a wagon. Craftsmen like shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, etc., were better off financially than the average farmer.

In the meadows, growing wild or along the roadways, there were poppies, Kornblume (cornflowers) and Ganseblumchen (small white daisies). Edeltrud Heiser, a distant cousin, told me that children weave Kornblume and Ganseblumchen together to wear as a crown. She warned about the Brenn Nessel (stinging nettle), still remembering how much it hurt when she wandered into it as a child. Chicoree (chicory), which could be used in salads, Weiden Katzchen (meadow kittens, known to us as pussy willows), and Maiglöckchen (Little May bells/lily of the valley) were familiar to me but the Schnee Glockchen (snow bells) which flower in January were not. Deciduous trees in the area were oak, chestnut, and walnut. Hickory nut trees, a type of tree found in abundance when my ancestors came to St. John Wisconsin, have never grown in the Saarburg area.

Weddings were festive occasions, but Helena Meyer explained that there was not a wedding feast as we would know it. The food for the celebration was baked Kuchen of many kinds - Obst (fruit) Kuchen in summer and in winter, streusel, dried pear, or apple compote Kuchen. Most homes would have a small bake oven either in the kitchen or outside as a separate structure. But there was also a community bake oven which could handle many more loaves of bread (or Kuchen) and could be used when there was a special event, or if the family wanted to make a lot of loaves of bread at one time.

I asked about holidays, especially the celebration of Christmas. I was told that the people would always go to Midnight Mass at Christmas. If one priest was in charge of two or more parishes, people would walk to the principal or parish church where the Holy Mass would be celebrated. Even if the person were poor, there would be a Christmas tree with candles as well as baked and decorated figures. These would be given to the children as a gift.

Baptism was not celebrated in any special way in these small Catholic villages. As soon as possible after the child was born, usually the next day (there were no baptisms on Sundays or holy days) but sometimes on the same day if the child was born in the morning, the midwife - usually a family member there to assist the mother during the birth- and the godparents would take the child to the church to be baptized. The mother and father did not attend and the mother could not enter the church until nine days after the birth. (Rev. Leonard Barbian, Pastor of St. William Parish in Waukesha, says that from about 60 A.D., the church used running water or poured water three times over the head of the child - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. At first the churches' baptismal fonts were sunken because most baptisms were of adults. But as time went on, the fonts were raised since children were baptized almost as soon as they were born)

During Holy Week, there was a procession on Karfreitag (Good Friday). It was a time when the church expressed its penitence and sorrow by foregoing music and bells. The children in the procession would use a large wooden noise-maker called a Raspeln, which looked almost like a small hurdy gurdy for an organ grinder. It had a handle connected to wooden gears inside a box. When the handle moved the gears, they ground together and there was a rasping noise that could be made rhythmic - rum--rum, rum-rum-rum, rum--rum, rum-rum-rum. Klappern or clappers were also used in the procession as well as to replace the altar bells would ordinarily be sounded at the consecration of the Sacred Host.

On Corpus Christi, a procession went through the streets of the village where each house had a small altar decorated in honor of the Body of Christ.

Musical instruments common to the area were harmonica, violin,and concertina (Ziehharmonika)

At the close of my first visit to the Meyer's home, we had coffee and Kuchen and then Herr Meyer drove me back to Saarburg, stopping along the way in his hometown of Beurig. Today it is part of the city of Saarburg but in the 1800's it was a separate village across the river from Saarburg. There were two things he thought I should see.

The first stop was a famous Pilgrim church of Our Lady. This is where people would come, making the stations of the cross as they approached. The last station was right outside the church on the church wall. Very close by on the corners of the streets leading to the church, there were bakers who sold their wares to the pilgrims who had been fasting and needed food after their pilgrimage was over. Herr Meyer told me that the pilgrims would put dried peas in their shoes as they started their journey to increase their penitence and petition. From about the 1600's until the time of Napoleon, there was a Franciscan cloister along side of the church where the brothers and priests lived, brothers on one side and priests on the other side of the cloister yard.

On our second stop, Herr Meyer showed me an old farm house. Up close, I could see that its thick walls were constructed of whatever materials had come to hand, including pieces of wood. (Few such buildings from the early 1800's exist in Irsch or Beurig. Both villages were heavily bombed and shelled during WWII.)

Old building in Beurig

Small window, upper right corner.
Stone and wood construction,
center left.

Our trip ended at the door of my vacation apartment. My head and notebook were filled with good information, and my stomach was soon to be filled with the remains of the Kuchen and Torte which Helena Meyer had sent as a dinner treat for me and my sister.

Books by Ewald Meyer:
Meyer, Ewald. Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes, ("Irsch/Saar: Story of a Village") 2002
Meyer, Ewald and Gehlen, Bernd. Beuriger Lese und Bilderbuch ("Beurich Reading and Picture Book") 2004
Thrasolt, Ernst. Hennerm Plou, ("Behind the Plow," poems and prose), translated from the Mosel-Frankischen dialect and edited by Ewald Meyer, 2000
Thrasolt, Ernst. Dahäm. Edited by Ewald Meyer, 2000

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Saar River Sailors and Their Helpers

Upper - model of a barge owned by the grandfather of H.D. Jung of Saarburg

Lower - post card in collection of H.D. Jung, Saarburg

Grandma's Story
When I was twenty or so, my grandmother told me that her own grandmother, Magdalena Rauls, had run away from home to marry my great-great grandfather, Johann Meier, who was a sailor. For many years I pictured Johann as a seaman on an majestic sailing ship, a glamorous occupation indeed. No wonder Magdalena was smitten. But when my genealogical research started, I learned that Johann had always lived in Irsch and was listed as a farmer. I wrote the romantic story off as pure fiction.

But as I delved into history books about Saarburg and vicinity, I saw another possibility that gave me a far more likely scenario for Johann or for any man who lived so close to the Saar River. It was possible that as a farm boy who could handle horses, Johann might have looked for extra work on the river as a way to improve his economic situation. Was he a Halfen?

Nickolaus Ritzler in his book, Burg und Kreisstadt Saarburg, says that sailing families lived along the Saar River in Saarburg from the very beginnings of the city and that when the barges sailed, there were always men, known as "Halfen" traveling with them. These were the men who handled the horses that towed the barges against the current. Both of these occupations were held in high respect.

The sections which follow are taken from a village history by Klaus Hammächer called Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte & Geschichten. In a section called "Earlier Village Life," information from Nikolaus Ritzler, Adam Görgen, and Peter Faas describe shipping on the Saar during the "Golden Age" of the river barges.

The Sailors

According to Ritzler, the sailors from Saarburg dressed in high vests topped by blue jackets. On their heads they wore blue caps. This distinctive uniform, along with their deeply tanned skin, marked them as the men who built and sailed the barges that carried cargo on the Saar. Their homes were in the lower city close to the water's edge, as were the buildings where they carefully fashioned their barges. The names Schulges and Mettloch are especially associated with the boat building and sailing families in Saarburg.

The Barges

The Saar barges were made from solid oak without any blemish, and held together by strong iron nails made especially for this purpose by the local nail smiths. When a newly built ship was ready to make its first trip, there was always a celebration in one of the inns in the lower city, with hardy food and drink for all. Once on the river, the barges carried a wide variety of cargo such as coal, wood, iron, hay, straw, and most kinds of produce. During the many wars over the centuries, the barges also carried soldiers, weaponry, horses and food rations.

The Halfen

The helpers or Halfen, a word that seems to have originated in the region of Cologne, came mostly from the small villages of Irsch, Serrig, Beurig, Krutweiler and Zerf. According to Nikolaus Ritzler, who wrote his account about 1912, the Halfen had broad chests and were usually of middle height. They were easy to identify from their clothing and their walk, a swinging gait which developed from the amount of time they spent riding the strong barge horses. Their arms, too, moved in a distinctive way as a result of swinging a "Peitsche" or whip while they worked.

The dress of the Halfen consisted of white woolen (but not knitted) socks, linen trousers of blue or white, and coarse, strongly nailed cowleather shoes. Under a strong, warm white overjacket with horn buttons, they wore unbleached linen shirts. Headware could be either a black, round hat made of coarse felt, or, when it was cold, a knit "zipfel" cap. This was a sort of a stocking cap worn under the felt hat to protect ears and neck from the cold. Red cotton kerchiefs with white stripes were tied around their necks.

In 1904, Adam Görgen also wrote a description of the Halfen. He said they were healthy, strongly built men of middle size. A humble black hat with a large brim fastened to the head by a thin, colorful cord was their headgear. A blue, red, or white striped cotton cap was put on whenever the other hat was taken off. A red scarf was knotted around the neck and a rough linen shirt covered by a gray or white short linen or "Tirtey" jacket was typical. Their trousers were made of thick, white canvas. Over their jackets, they pulled on a still shorter blue coat and over the stockings that reached above the knee, they wore gaiters. Wool stockings and sturdy nailed shoes completed the outfit.

Gorgen says that when a barge owner needed extra help, he would go to a tavern (most likely in the lower city) to find Halfen. To seal the contract between "Schiffer" and "Halfen", a bottle of wine would be set on the table and both men would drink a glass. Wine was also part of the Halfens' workday. At 10 a.m., a helper received a half quart of wine. At noon and in the evening, the helper was entitled to a quart. When a particularly dangerous stretch was successfully navigated, the Halfen received the so called "wave wine."

No matter the weather, the Halfen would lead the horses along the towpath, if there was one, or ride the horses if the landscape was rough or if their was a ford to be crossed. The horses struggled to pull the barges when the boats were sailing against the Saar's strong current, but they were well cared for and were never mistreated. At the end of the day, the men who handled them were probably as tired as their horses. When the horses faced an especially difficult pull, there was a great deal of shouting by the Halfen as they drove the animals forward. The whip was used then but only when it could not be avoided.

The Trip on the River

Ritzler says that a trip from Trier to Saarbrucken would take about three days. Typically it would involve three or more barges which traveled together. Three horses were needed to pull each of the larger barges. The horses were attached to the barge by means of a strong line attached to the tip of the mast. When the trip began, the sailors would shout "In God's name" and then "Johleit rack". The barges were pushed away from the bank and the horses began to pull. There was a great deal of shouting between the sailors and the men leading the horses. The sound, "juh, juh" signaled the horses. By nightfall the barges had usually reached Saarburg where the sailors and Halfen spent the first night. (The vacation apartment that my sister and I rented when we were in Saarburg was once a barge owner's home; our apartment the sleeping area for the Halfen).

Each day there were also rest stops and during that time the sailors and the Halfen would discuss any problems along the next stretch in the river. Lunch would be carried ashore from the ship and eaten at an inn or tavern, with the landlord providing the dishes, tableware and the wine. The shipowner, of course. paid for the wine that the landlord of the inn placed on the table.

During the trip the sailors and helpers might shout and curse and sometime come to blows with one another, but at lunch time and after there was rest. The men would sit outside, smoke a pipe, and enjoy camaraderie. Once rested, the hard work, shouts and grumbles began again. At night the sailors slept in a "Hef," the Halfen in a strawsack bed and the horses in their stalls aboard the ship.

According to Ritzler, the Halfen were paid cash for each day worked with the shipowners also providing food, drink, and feed for the horses. A lesser payment per day was given to each man for his trip back home. This amount paid for the cost of food, night quarters, bridge tolls, as well as hay and grain for the horses.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Saarburg - the City and the Landkreis

Top: Lower city
portal from 1659

Bottom: Upper City with
Saarburg's Butter Markt street and the Leukbach.

I made my first visit to Saarburg in 1984. I was not prepared for the rich history and the charm of this small city of approximately 6,100 inhabitants. I took picture after picture on my first trip, and the city has lured me back to it again and again over the years. The Saarburg of today is still the largest city in the Landkreis Saarburg as it was in the 1850's and 60's when my great-great grandparents lived in Irsch, a village approximately 1 1/2 miles to the east.

The Landkreis in Germany is similar to a county in the US, and the city of Saarburg is very much like the county seat with which most of us are familiar. The German word Kreis can mean both "circle" and "district." And just as in our own county seats, the government offices of the Kreis are located in Saarburg.

Founded in the ninth century, Saarburg has both an upper and a lower city. The lower city is situated at the edge of the Saar River. In the nineteenth century it was home to tanneries, boatsmen's and fishermen's houses, the hospital, barracks, wineries, warehouses and taverns. There was a factory that made the bells for some of Europe's largest cathedrals. This Mabilon bell works had moved from France to Saarburg in the late 1700's and continued to cast bells until 2002.

The upper city is slightly newer than the lower city. Houses and shops began to spread up the hill as the city grew. Saarburg was a market town and the markets gave names to streets and squares in both the upper and lower city. There was the horse market, the fruit market, the butter market in the upper city, and the old market in the lower city. The Butter Markt runs along side the Leukbach, a stream which runs through the upper city, then forms a waterfall and drops toward the old city. The waterfall on the Leukbach powered a water wheel for the former grist mill which is now a museum. Above the city stand the ruins of a castle built in 964. All around the city there are steep hills covered with vineyards.

Maybe it was the magic of Saarburg with its powerful waterfall and the castle ruins that made me want to write a novel about my Irsch ancestors, who surely came to this city's markets to sell fruit, butter, perhaps even livestock from time to time. I began to collect as much information as possible about Saarburg as it was in the 1800's.

Last year, in the city's bookstore, I bought Saarburg: Geschichte einer Stadt, vols. 1 & 2, c. 1991, a compilation of articles about the city by various authors. In it I found a goldmine of information about Saarburg in the mid-1800's. Rudolf Mueller, in his chapter, "Geschichte der Stadt Saarburg im 19. and 20. Jahrhundert," (History of the city of Saarburg in the 19th and 20th century) quoted many statistics on the population of 1861 Saarburg as tabulated by the Landsrat Mersmann, the chief administrator of the Landkreis at that time.

Herr Landsmann reported that there were 2,249 residents of the city of Saarburg in 1861, of whom 2,146 were Catholic, 78 were Evangelische (Lutheran), and 25 were Jewish. There were 306 habitations which would mean that the average house held 7.3 persons.

The Landsrat went on to report that there were 7 tanning factories, 15 looms, 4 water-powered grain mills, and 7 brandy distilleries in the city. There was also an oil mill, a tobacco and cigarette factory and a brewery.

The tradesmen and craftsmen were enumerated too. There were 50 fishermen, 9 master bakers, 7 master butchers, 8 master tanners and leather makers, 20 smiths of various kinds (nail makers, knife makers, locksmiths, etc.), 5 master plumbers, 20 master shoemakers, 13 joiners and furniture makers, 7 coopers (cask and barrel makers). All but the fishermen employed helpers and had apprentices.

There were also a few barbers, a stonemason, a potter, a glazier, some masons, carpenters, roofers, and horse shoers, a master clockmaker, some wool spinners, ropemakers, dyers, harness and saddle makers, milliners, men's hat makers, a basketmaker, a bookbinder, a furrier and even two upholsterers/decorators.

In addition to all of the above, there were 40 shopkeepers of one kind or another, as well as three traders described as "herumziehende" which would seem to mean traders who went door to door; 15 innkeepers; 15 tavern keepers, 7 agents, a hauler and 90 boatsmen.

While the statistics above are for just one small city on a river, I would venture to guess that the occupants of most of the small cities along the Saar and Mosel would have had similar groups of workers, shops, and factories during the time when many of our ancestors made the decision to leave all that was familiar and start a new life on farms, in small towns and big cities in Amerika.

Friday, July 29, 2005

A Visit To The Zerf Heimat Museum

Edith Rommelfanger with butter churn
and the bowl used as a cream separator

In 2002 I planned a trip to the Saarburg area to try to learn more about the lives of my ancestors. I learned that the little village of Zerf, where my great-great grandmother had been born in 1827, had a Heimat Museum, a place where the everyday house and farm tools of the 19th and early 20th century could be seen.

I wrote to the museum to learn more about the open hours but never received a reply. Shortly before my trip, I decided to contact the mayor of the village to find out if there was any way that I could inside the museum. (It sounded so perfect for the kinds of information I needed that the thought that I might not be able to see it was making me crazy). In my letter, I gave my e-mail address as well as my home address and offered to pay for any costs involved.
Almost immediately I received a reply from Edith Rommelfanger, the mayor's wife. She said that when I arrived in the area, I should call, and they would arrange to show me the museum. From then on, the fates stepped in and made my visit to the museum as easy as finding a cheesehead in Green Bay.

Once I arrived in Saarburg, the call for an appointment to see the museum was made not by me but by Ewald Meyer, a retired teacher who was writing a history of another of my ancestral villages, Irsch bei Beurig. Herr Meyer took me "under his wing" and became my charming guide and chauffeur during my visit to Germany.

When all the arrangements were made, Herr Meyer and I drove to Zerf and were met by the mayor, Manfred Rommelfanger and his wife who gave me a two-hour tour of the museum, which is only open by special appointment.

As a souvenir, I was given several sheets of information on the exhibits. I believe Frau Rommelfanger herself wrote them, and she asked if I would translate the pages, which explained the majority of the exhibits, into English so that, should another American arrive, an English text would be available. She understood that my German is mostly self-taught and that mistakes were possible. She did not seem to mind. So when I came home I did my best at a translation and sent it to her.

I have decided to share some of this information in my blog from time to time, hoping that I have made only small errors in translation and that you will enjoy reading about some of the artifacts and how they were used. I will include a picture if I have one available. The quotation marks will indicate which information is translated from my Heimat Museum guide. Information that I added to help myself understand is in parentheses.

Heimat Museum Zerf
"This exhibit is about butter production. The first step was the Milchentrahmung or milk separation. A milk bowl served that function. It had a plug and a little sieve or filter. After approximately 12 hours the plug was removed, skim milk flowed off; and the lighter cream that had collected above was held back by the filter. The successor of the milk bowl was the centrifuge. There was a small bell on this centrifuge. As long as it made a sound, the cock had to remain closed, because the rotating speed was not yet fast enough. As soon as the little bell stopped, one untwisted the cock, and the centrifuge began the separation. The cream came out in front and the skim milk in the back."

"For honey production in former times a bee shed could be made in a very simple way. One pushed four stakes into the ground, placed a slanted roof covered with Ginster (broom) on top; and put the (woven) straw hives underneath." (Broom grows wild all over temperate Europe to a height of 3 to 5 feet. It produces numerous long, straight, slender bright green branches, tough and very flexible. The bright yellow fragrant flowers are large, in bloom from April to July, and are succeeded by oblong, flattened pods, about 1 1/2 inch long. The pods are nearly black when mature. They burst with a sharp noise when the seeds are ripe, flinging them some distance. The continuous crackling of the bursting seed pods on a hot, sunny July day is quite noticeable. The flowers have a great attraction for bees; they contain no honey, but an abundance of pollen).

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A Visit to the Zerf Heimat Museum - Kitchen

Top - Wicker trays, Trockernhurten, for drying greens and fruit
Middle - Bake oven door with Kiss rake

"In the corner is a complete bake oven, in which bread was baked in former times. The glowing ash was pulled out of the hot oven with the Kiss (a long-handled type of rake). With the Brotschiess (literally this is a bread shooter), the loaves of dough were quickly pushed into the oven and the finished bread pulled out with the same device. Once the oven was empty, the Trockernhurten (a woven drying rack) went in. On it might be greens for soup, little plums, or apples and pears cut in strips for drying."

"In the Muhle (a bread trough which could also be covered and used as a table), the bread dough was prepared for baking. If the dough had risen, it was put into the Kurbeln (a woven, round basket) and covered with a white linen cloth and left to rise for approximately10 hours. In former times they said the 'bread must steam'. When the Muhle was emptied, any remaining dough was scraped together and formed into a ball. This dough had to be kept at a place in the room where the temperature was always the same. It was covered with a white linen cloth and fermented for the next 10 days. That became the Sauerteig (leaven) for the next bread"


"Here are various Henkelmänner (lunch buckets). In former times during the potato and grain harvest, the meal was taken to the workers in the field in these Henkelmänner. There is a difference between the normal Henkelmänn and the Marmittchen (taken from the French word for a pot called the Marmit). The Marmittchen consists of several small pots stacked one above the other. This made it possible to transport and keep several meals divided. In the large Henkelmänn there was only an Eintop (a single pot). In the Fresskorb" (lunch basket), children brought an afternoon lunch (bread and so forth) to the fields after school. Coffee was carried in the Zigeunerkanne or gypsy jug. The popular homemade drink, Viez, was kept cool in the Viezbombel made of stoneware."

"In the farm kitchen, the floor is made of stone, usually this was sandstone. The open chimney is above the hearth. The cast-iron pot hangs on a rod that can be raised or lowered depending on the amount of heat needed. Ham, bacon and sausages were smoked in the open chimney."

Monday, July 25, 2005

A Visit to the Zerf Heimat Museum - Work in the Fields

Zerf's Mayor, Manfred Rommelfanger, wears a wrist cutter sometimes used for grain or flax. Sickles at the right; Ginstereisen at the left

"Next to each other here you see Sichel (sickles) and the somewhat stronger Ginstereisen (iron tool for cutting brush). In former times Ginster was dried and used as straw for the cattle stalls. (See A Visit to the Zerf Heimat Museum for a description of the broom shrub called Ginster). The women used sickles to cut the grain stems and bind them into sheaves. They also used them to cut weeds. With a sickle, the goat farmers cut the grass and weeds along the waysides and the field borders to feed to their animals."

"The Dengelstöcke was a device that sharpened or 'whet' metal by hammering it. It was used for scythes when they became dull. The Denkelstöcke was struck into the ground or, more often, into a wood log. The cutting edge of the scythe was worked on with the hammer. The hammer had to be rounded at the head so that no depression was made in the scythe when it was struck."

"Reiserbesen (twig brooms) were made of birch twigs. In former times, most were bound with hazelnut switches; later with wire. The Reiserhaken (twig axe) was used to cut the birch twigs. The birch twigs was pressed together for binding with the broom press. After binding, the brooms were trimmed and shaped with the small Reisermesserchen (little twig knife). One used the twig brooms for sweeping of house, yard and stable."

"Planting tools lie on this table (center). Vegetable seedlings, beets, lettuce, etc. were planted in field and garden with them." (I was told that most are made of cow or ox horns. The tip of the horn was cut off so that the seeds could slowly come through. Different sizes of horns and how much of the tip of the horn was removed allowed for the planting of various sizes of seeds)

Here are Loheisen, iron tools for stripping bark (Lohecken) (tool at the back of the table). They are also called Lohlöffel or bark spoons. With them the bark was stripped from the oak trees. In former times one extracted Gerbsaüre (tanning acid) from this bark. The acid was necessary to process animal hide for leather." (At times there were as many as 20 tanneries in Saarburg in the 1800's, and the selling of the bark to the tanneries provided farmers with a much needed cash crop).

"Here one sees Schlotterfässer, small barrels made out of wood, horn and sheet metal (far left). The name Schlotterfass (shaking barrel) comes from the typical noise which developed when the whet stones inside knocked together. The farmer hung the Schlotterfass, which contained the whetstones and the water, on his belt when he went mowing. Then, if necessary, he could always sharpen the scythe."

"For beet cultivation, the Hackpflug plow was used. A cow led between the rows could pull it. Then the farmer only had to hoe the soil crosswise between the plants to chop out weeds." (To my surprise, I learned that many farmers could not afford an ox or a horse for field work. So their cow/s were pressed into service, very much decreasing the amount of milk that a cow could produce)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Visit to the Zerf Heimat Museum - Conclusion

The following section ends my information about the Zerf Heimatmuseum. It contains a description of miscellaneous artifacts not covered in the other posts. Just like the other entries I have posted, these artifacts may help paint a better picture of daily life in the village of Zerf and/or of the many other small villages near the Saar and Mosel rivers.

As I explained in my first post on the Zerf museum, the descriptions below without parentheses are my translations from the German language museum guide I received as a souvenir at the time of my visit. Anything in parentheses is additional information gleaned from other sources which I hope makes the original description a bit clearer.

Now back to the museum

In the blacksmith's shop one can see the forge with the bellows, anvil, hammers, pliers, a bending machine for bending the eisenreifen (iron wheels) for the farm wagons. (According to the book, Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte & Geschichtenby Klaus Hammächer, a dog could be trained to run inside the wheel shown in this picture. As he ran, he powered the bellows and the flame of the forge. The picture was taken at the Roscheider Hof open air museum near Konz)

Trumpets were used by Schweinehirt (swineherds). At the sound of the trumpet, the farmer opened the pig stalls and the Schweinehirt drove the pigs into the oak forests and guarded them there. In the evening the Schweinehirt brought them back with the trumpet signal. On the Feast of St. Martin (November 11) the Schweinehirt received a measuring beaker/cup full of grain for each pig under his care. (St. Martin's day was also the traditional time to prepare for winter by slaughtering pigs, geese, and other animals since they would soon be unable to forage for food and would have to be fed by the farmer)

The half Vierzel was a measuring instrument for grain. In former times the grain was not weighed; it was measured with this container. Four half Vierzel 'filled not too much and not too little' ( leveled?) equaled one hundredweight of corn, barley or wheat. Six half Vierzel made up a hundredweight of oats, because oats is finer. In earlier times, the teachers in the village were often also the swineherds, because there was no school in the summer (when the pigs could roam). School was held from St. Martin's Day to Easter.

One could distinguish cow, sheep and goat bells by the different tone qualities.

The small Nicholas bells were used by the adults to make the children aware of the feast day some weeks before it arrived. They rewarded the children's obedience by putting small gifts at the door on St. Nicholas Eve

In the bedroom we see the straw filled mattress, the pillow filled with grain chaff, and the feather bed. (The villagers made use of almost any part of the crops that they grew, even in the bedroom. For instance, small pouches were filled with grape seeds and could be heated to ease pain, much as we can relax tight muscles by using the same sort of pouch and heating its "magic crystals" in a microwave. These grape seed pouches are still sold at the "Golden Autumn" festival and market in Saarburg)

The broad low-lying wooden box sled was, in former times, a popular plaything for the children during the long, snow-rich winters.

Kleppern (wooden clappers) and Raspeln (a rattle-like wooden device which rotated and made a rasping sound when shaken by its long handle) replaced the bells during Holy Week when bells could not be rung on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

This is the Rosenkranz on which the house sign and hedge land identifiers for the Gehöfershaft were placed. These blocks were drawn in a lottery for distributing the Lohhecken among the farmers in the Gehöfershaft. (Above is a photo from Der Hochwaldort Zerf am Fuße des Hunsrücks, by Edgar Christoffel, c. 1981, Verlag W. Rassier, D5510 Saarburg. It shows wooden blocks with symbols which are rune-like rather than alphabetic characters. This Rosenkranz, the German word for rosary, served as a sort of plat map for the hedge lands which belonged to the entire community of land-owning farmers. In the Saar and Mosel region these landed farmers were usually referred to as a Gehöfershaft. A symbol identifying each section of the hedge lands, sections which were especially valuable for the oak tree bark stripped for tanning, was painted on one side of each small wooden block. Then a lottery was held. Each farmer in turn drew out a wooden block containing a hedge land symbol. His distinctive house mark could now be painted on the other side of the wooden block and the section was his to work until the next lottery was held. When the lottery was completed, the blocks were strung into the Rosenkranz and probably kept by the mayor of Zerf. In Zerf, this lottery took place every five years. The neighboring village of Irsch had a similar Rosenkranz, according to the book Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes, by Ewald Meyer).

The kitchen utensils and the farm equipment are described in Part 2 and Part 3, the other parts of this amazing visit to the past.