Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Building That Was Left Behind

Getting near to hallowed ground in 2004

Every time I came to Irsch - from the 1980s to my last visit in fall of 2010 - I passed the place where my ancestral home once stood.  Part of it, greatly changed over time, was still there.   But I had no idea I was walking or driving past what was, for me, hallowed ground.   

I had asked about records that would show the location of Johann and Magdalena Meier's house many times over the years and was always told that those records no longer existed.  In a village that had seen severe destruction from the time of Napoleon to World War II,  I had to accept the idea that I would never know where my Meier (or Hauser, Schawel, or Weber) ancestors had actually lived.  

I also thought that I had exhausted the resources in the Koblenz Archive when I found great-great- grandfather Meier's and Hauser's emigration documents.  But that was definitely not the case.  That Archive has so much more to offer - if you know how to look.  A genealogy friend told me about a researcher friend in Germany who used the Archive documents regularly and about the possibility of additional records.  She encouraged me to write him and ask him if he would do a search for me when he next visited the Archive.  He graciously agreed.  That was in about July of last year.

Just back from my trip to Germany in September  and October 2010, I retrieved my mail and found a package full of documents from the Archive.  It had been sent by the German researcher.  There were Kataster maps of Irsch and Zerf, or what we here in Wisconsin would call plat maps.  There were also pages of tax lists.  They dated from approximately 1829.  The Kataster maps showed not only numbered land holdings, but also tiny sketches of each house in the village.  It was possible to see the shape and relative size of each dwelling including the barn-house where Johann and Magadalena, my 2nd great grandparents had lived just before they came to Wisconsin!

No. 4091- Barn House of Matthias Meier in 1829, future home of Johann Meier and Magdalena Rauls Meier
That was exciting but would not have been as much help without the tax documents which came with the maps.  The copies of tax lists gave the size of each land parcel by number, told what type of land it was, the name of the area in which it lay (Beim Holzapfel Baum, In Der Wolfshek),  and showed the tax rate for each piece of land, no matter how small.  I matched Kataster number to Prussian tax number, and found the pieces of land owned by my Meier and Rauls ancestors in 1828-9, including their dwelling.

Herr Ewald Meyer of Irsch, who has always been a wonderful help to me, is able to read the old German handwriting, and once more I counted on his aid.  I sent copies of the documents to him, knowing that he would be able to read the difficult handwriting on the tax lists and also hoping that there might be a place in Irsch and Zerf to keep this duplicate information as an example of what a wealth of family history information can be found at the Archive in Koblenz.

E-mails began to fly back and forth.  I learned that the Meier family had pasture land, two small garden plots (neither close to the house they lived in) some fallow land - 19th century Germany used the three field system at this time - and one small field of "wild land/hedges."  Herr Meier, analysing the total land ownership in 1829 of Matthias Meier, Johann's father, came to the conclusion that he was a "small farmer" known as a Kleinbauer.  He had barely enough land to feed his family and probably owned very little livestock -- perhaps a cow or two and a pig.  To pay the taxes on the land, most Kleinbauern like Matthias had to have a second way to make a living, perhaps as a small-time craftsman such as a tailor or barge puller.

I thought my knowledge of the area couldn't get any better than that - but it did.

Remains of the Barn House of Johann Meier today
As always, Herr Meyer went the extra distance - and then some.  Soon after he got my package of documents, I received e-mail pictures of the part of the dwelling - the storage barn and the stable - which exists today in highly remodeled form. It is owned by the family across the street, even though it stands wall to wall with the home of another Irsch resident.  The Fisch family uses the former home of my ancestors for storage of wood, tractors, and other equipment.  This remodel was done sometime after I visited Irsch in the 1980s.  Because of the German love of order and paperwork, there were documents which spanned the time of the first remodel in 1927 and, after a visit from Herr Meyer, Herr Fisch, the current owner, was willing to give them over for scanning.  You can imagine my excitement when the e-mail scans arrived in my mailbox. 

First the building of today.  Notice the wall without windows in the new storage building.  That was the length of the Meier family's living space - and the width of their quarters was about one-third of that length.  According to my calculations, there could hardly be more than three rooms on the first floor; and each room on the first and second floors would have been about 6 feet by 7 feet in size.   Have you ever felt your kitchen or bedroom was too small?  It is probably palatial by these standards.
Diagram of the Barnhouse of Johann Meier in Irsch

The three colors on the diagram indicate remodel plans by Michael Britten in 1927 (red) and the later remodel (green) by the neighbor across the street, Herr Fisch.

Also notice the size of the stall area and the storage barn, (Stall und Scheune) compared to the size of the family's living quarters.

There was also a diagram for the walls and roof of the house.  You can see that in the last remodeling of the barn area; that is, the stable and storage, the top of the roof was reshaped and now has the flatter roof one can see in the current photo taken in 2011.  Before that time, there was a second floor for the living quarters.  A little more than a year before they applied for permission to come to America, Johann and Magdalena Meier had five children, and it is likely that Johann's father Matthias and his unmarried uncle Michael also lived in the house with them.

view of the buildings from the main street

It seems that by 1927, the part of the structure that had been the living quarters was in very bad condition and at that time was rebuilt by Michael Britten and combined with the storage area.

The living quarters faced the side street off of the larger main road
The final site plan shows an unusual land pattern.  The land on which the Meier dwelling sat had been divided into three separate plots: house, stable, and storage areas - each have their own site number.  Did Johann and Magdalena have a difficult time selling their dwelling and barn before they left for America and divided the lot for a quicker sale?  Another idea to be considered for my novel.

The building that was left behind saw its worst time in 1945 because of its unfortunate location near the German defense line set up to stop the invading WWII Allied troops if they managed to cross the Saar River.
American GI walks where once Johann and Magdalena lived

History ebbs and flows, changing destruction into renewal, enmity into friendship and, with luck; it allows families, once divided by unhappy circumstance, reconnection in future generations.  I feel privileged to be part of such a reconnection.

Landeshauptarchiv Koblenz, Kataster 001_Best.737 Nr.164 Bl.103 tif; Cataster 002_Best.737 Nr.164 Bl.103 tif;
Catastral-Steuer, Mutter-Rolle für die Catastral-Steuer der Gemeinde Irsch
Photo collection of Ewald Meyer, Irsch