Saturday, June 30, 2007

Village Roads and Fields

Wall-to-wall dwellings in Irsch, Kreis Saarburg, 2004

Before I began my research on the social history of my native villages in the Trier region, I mistakenly pictured the farms of my ancestors as replicas of the farms outside of the village of Sherwood, Wisconsin where I grew up. In Sherwood there were a few shops, a church, school, and the houses of the people who were not farmers. In the outlying countryside, there were farms. Each farm had a house, a barn and some outbuildings. These buildings were surrounded by farm fields and woodlots belonging to each farmer. Farm houses were at a considerable distance from each other with open fields between each dwelling.

It was quite a surprise when I learned that the 19th century villages in the Trier/Saarburg region of Germany, as well as those across the border in Luxembourg and in the French province of Lorraine were nothing like the typical Wisconsin farm with its 40 or 80 or 120 acres surrounding the farm buildings. In Irsch or Zerf or in any small farming village in the Mosel/Saar region, the farm was as much a part of the village as the church or the Gasthaus.

Along the Road

The Bauernhaüser, which I can best describe as “barnhouses," were constructed so that both the family and the livestock could live together under one roof, the family on one side of the building and the livestock on the other. In many of the villages, these barnhouses formed a row on both sides of the road, built wall to wall. This made access to the street possible only through the front of the house. Typically, each barn house would have a garden at the back of the house, which was reached by way of the back door. The garden was fenced, usually with a low wall made of stones or twigs and branches, woven into a secure fence. The land behind a barnhouse might belong to any one of the residents of the village.

The distance between each row of houses was fairly wide. The middle part of that space served as the road, and the free space between the road and the front of each barnhouse was a place for stacks of firewood, tools, equipment used for field work, and the manure pile. This may seem strange until one remembers that a farmer's land was not at the back of his own house. He had to transport his tools as well as his natural fertilizer to fields that were sometimes as much as five miles away.

The space at roadside was also an extension of each farm’s living space, where the housewife sat on a stone or wood bench and cleaned her vegetables or mended clothes. The children not in school played here during the day, dodging the poultry that ran free. In the evening the men and women rested from the day’s work in their multi-purpose yard. The people of the village would often chat with their neighbors until darkness began to fall. This was the signal to go inside and to bed; there was another day of hard work to come at the first light of morning.

According to author Edgar Christoffel, in Zerf the village road was convex, and there were many rough spots. Such a combination caused horses to stumble with some regularity. After dark, the residents of Zerf were also likely to slip and fall as they walked along.

The village's streets were not canalized to handle heavy rainfalls and sewerage. The street and yards turned into mud, and puddles formed from the runoff of the manure piles. When the farmers drove their cattle out into the pastures each morning, cow dung covered the road with a gray-green carpet. In a wet summer, the manure piles did not dry out completely so that there was usually an unpleasant odor in the street.

It is no surprise that most people wore sturdy wooden shoes for work and walking on the road. These wooden work shoes were never worn in the living areas of the barnhouse. In the kitchen or the “Stube” (a combination living room, eating area, and in some regions also the master bedroom) wooden work shoes were exchanged for clogs, thus keeping the dirt of the roads outside.

The Fields

As I have explained, a farmer's fields might be miles from his barnhouse; nor was the possession of adjacent fields common in the 19th century. Areas called "Flur" had descriptive names that clarified the approximate location of each strip of land worked by a farmer in a particular section of open land. Ewald Meyer, in his history of the village of Irsch, says the names of the Fluren were usually related to landforms, local farms, woodlots, etc. That is, a farmer might have his clover planted in a field "by the stone cross" and his potatoes in a strip of land "below the Bodem house." The land registers called Kataster were officially recorded in high German but often mangled by local dialect. (Thus it can be difficult to translate the names of the Fluren and I haven't tried.)

Some Zerf Fluren were: Bei Paleschhaus, Bei Schneidershaus, Hinter Raulshaus, Die Forsthofen gegen Schuttershaus. Some Irsch Fluren were: Beim Apfelbaum, Hinter Baurenhaus, Bodemsgarten, Beim Pützborn, Bey der Schleifmühlen.

"A man can step out his front door and see if his grain is ripe for the cutting" That would probably be how a German immigrant farmer would describe the convenience of his newly purchased and planted farm land in Wisconsin. His house may have been of logs and as yet poorly furnished. But what a luxury to see one's own fields from the doorstep rather than walking miles to assess when the flax field would be ready for harvest. On the other hand, perhaps his wife would say, "This is a lonely place where I cannot call to my neighbor if I need a little help or want a bit of gossip."

*Morette, Jean. "Landleben im Jahreslauf." Saarbrücker Druckerei und Verlag, 1983
*"Freilichtmuseum Roscheider Hof Konz Museum Guide." self-published, 2001
*Christoffel, Edgar. Der Hochwaldort Zerf Am Fusse Des Hundrücks Landschaft; Geschichte, Kultur; Gegenwart. Saarburg, Verlag W. Rassier, 1981
*Meyer, Ewald. Irsch/Saar; Geschichte eines Dorfes. Geminde Irsch, 2002
*Alles unter einem Dach? Die Hauslandschaft in der deutsch-franzoesisch-luxemburgischen Grenzregion.
Hauskundliches Roscheider Hof, Mai 2000