Thursday, December 06, 2012

Christmas Traditions Cross the Ocean

My favorite Christmas Tradition

Over the past seven years of this blog, I have researched and shared many Christmas customs of the people who lived in Germany in the 19th century, especially those in the Rhineland. This year I wanted to write about the customs I can identify as German that carried over to my own family's Christmas.  Most of them originated in Catholic Germany, either the Rhineland (Dad), Bavaria (Mom) or the western edge of Bohemia (Mom and Dad).  I'm sure there are other traditions that are equally German and which I know nothing about, but these are the Christmas memories that were dear to us and which became part of our holiday customs, passed down when the ancestors immigrated to Wisconsin.  These German Christmas rituals were still a part of our observances approximately 100 years later.  At that time, when my sister and I were children, or as the Rhineland ancestors would have called us, "little mice", we had no idea that we were participating in preserved German Christmas traditions.
The First Sunday of Advent

The First Sunday of Advent was a very important part of the Christmas celebration in Germany's Catholic and Lutheran Churches in the nineteenth century. The German language word often used to describe Advent is vorfreude, literally "before joy," and that was what I remember about the Advent time when I was a child. The German Advent began on the first of the four Sundays before Christmas. During our childhood, about 100 years after our ancestors' immigration, Advent still maintained its importance. It was a time of anticipation, of getting ready for joy, for a celebration. There were no Christmas buffets, get-togethers, or holiday parties during this time.  Even weddings could not be held without express permission of the bishop of the Catholic diocese.  Nothing should take away the feeling of vorfreude.

The Advent wreath, I have learned, was much more common in the Evangelische (Lutheran) Church and the lighting of one, two, three, and finally the 4th candle was a religious observance for the children and the adults alike. The wreath had a place of honor in the home. That tradition did not follow my ancestors to the new land since they were Catholic but the Advent wreath is still very much a part of the Advent season in German homes. Only in the last several years have many American Catholics adopted the tradition of the wreath in the home; but it was not a part of our childhood Advent customs.

Hard Pfeffernuße also known as peppernuts
Christmas baking was a part of Advent in the 19th century. When it began, there would be much excitement as the aroma of cookies in the oven filled the air. The cookies were known as Plätzchen in Germany; a century later Christmas cookies were still being baked during our Advent time. They were sampled, sometimes more than necessary, but then they were put away in tins until Christmas arrived - just as in the German villages of one hundred years before.  In Germany of old, a large plate of the goodies baked during Advent was placed on a table in the Stube.  It was known as the Bunte Teller, the colorful plate of Christmas treats that was very much a part of Christmas Eve.  In our Christmas in Wisconsin, I don't remember a special plate of cookies near the tree, but the cookies did come out of the tins after Santa Claus had trimmed the Christmas tree.

To me, there is one recipe that the most nostalgic cookie - our mother's, grandmother's and Aunt Lillian's Christmas Pfeffernuße, all of which must have originated from the same recipe. They called these little, very hard cookies peppernuts, but they were not at all like the Pfefferrnuße that I have since purchased in German-based stores like Aldi or World Market.  There is very little history for the origin of either the soft or the hard variety of Pfeffernuße.   A Wikipedia article traces the hard variety to Germany, Denmark, and Holland.  I have also seen a web article that says the hard peppernuts were made by German Mennonites.  Discussing the question with friends, one remembered having the hard variety in the home of a neighbor of Bohemian descent.  Nowhere can I find a clue to the origin of the soft variety, made without nuts or pepper.  Recipes just say they are of German origin (something like saying hush puppies are native to North America). Our Dad especially enjoyed the hard peppernuts, and I've never come across them on anyone else's cookie platter. I had planned to share our mother's recipe but since there is no clue about oven heat, yield of batch, or how much flour to add to make the dough "real stiff," (and I've never tried to make them) you may be better off searching for the recipe, which has many variation.  Search for "Pfeffernusse, hard" on Google or Bing or trying the recipe given in the first comment on this blog post.  That one has measurements!

St. Nicholas Eve always falls during the Advent time and was celebrated in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and in the parts of France that are close to Germany's western border. I've written about the German customs in Nikolausabend/St. Nicholas Eve.  This custom partially remained a part of our family's Christmas tradition a century later. Both my sister and I believed in St. Nicholas when we were little, and were excited as darkness came on December 5.  Our Dad played the part of St. Nicholas. He didn't dress as the Saint and there was no Knecht Ruprecht. All Dad had to do was come to the front door, knock authoritatively, and shake the real sleigh bells that came from an old sleigh. We didn't want to go to the door; we waited until enough time had passed for St. Nicholas to be on his way elsewhere. Then we carefully opened the door and there was a paper bag with candy (chocolate and hard candies) and nuts.  I'm grateful that we were spared the experience of our Aunt Helen, who fainted when St. Nicholas came into the parlor at her grandparent's house.  I imagine St. Nicholas  (a friend of grandpa's) had never expected such a reaction.

Trimming the Christmas tree would never have occurred before December 24 in our ancestors' time - if they had a Christmas tree.  If your ancestors were middle class or royalty in Germany, undoubtedly there would have been a legally acquired Christmas tree waiting to be trimmed on the evening of December 24. However, even experts who have written about Christmas traditions seem unsure about who among the lower classes - farmers, craftsmen, day workers in smaller villages - had a legal Christmas tree. (Some people did cut them illegally in forest lands that were administered by a representative of the Prussian Government in the Rhineland).  One hundred years later, the Christmas tree (legally acquired) was an integral part of our Christmas in Wisconsin, even though our ancestors may not have been able to obtain one. Like its predecessors, it was never decorated until the evening of December 24.  If our ancestors did have a Christmas tree, the children were told it was decorated by the Christkind who may or may not have left gifts, depending on the part of Germany in which they lived.  Our Christmas tree was decorated by Santa Claus, and he left unwrapped Christmas gifts, not having time to do all that wrapping for all the children all over the world.

The Christkind vs. St. Nicholas. The Christkind who brought sweets or gifts, most historians believe, was an attempt by Martin Luther to put more emphasis on the birth of Christ rather than on St. Nicholas.  It was successful in the part of Germany that was Lutheran.  Gradually Catholic parts of Germany also adopted this idea of the Christkind without giving up the idea of St. Nicholas as a gift giver. Catholic Bavaria still uses an angel with golden wings to represent the Christ Child. However, the Rhineland, which I am primarily writing about, has kept the identity of their 19th century Christmas gift-bringer a secret from me. I must settle for a sentence often found in books on Christmas in Germany: "While some parts of Germany kept their belief in the Christkind, others maintained the St. Nicholas tradition until the middle of the 20th century." My sister and I received our Christmas gifts from Santa Claus and knew nothing of the Christkind.  Was this a Germanic tradition combined with an American poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Moore.   Although the Christkind angel did not bring our gifts, we had an angel with golden wings at the very top of our Christmas tree. Today's Germany does have a Weihnachtsman (Christmas man). How the Christkind fits into their Christmas I don't quite understand, and also it is beyond the scope of this post.

Between December 26 and January 6 was the time when the Christmas cookies and candies were eaten. Christmas visits to relative and friends were made, and the Christmas baking was passed around.  About 100 years ago, it was a time when the villagers in German villages, most of whom were related at some level, exercised the Christmas tradition of Christbaumloben (Christmas tree praisewhere people visited each other and complimented the decorated trees.  A shot of Schnapps was served by the owner of the tree.  In our childhood, we joined our parents in admiring the Christmas trees of our relatives and friends.  A mixed or soft drink replaced the Schnapps and later an informal meal of cheese, sausages, breads, pickles and a dessert was served, often the fourth meal of the day.

The celebration of Christmas lasted until The Feast of the Magi, sometimes called Three Kings Day.  The German customs that went with it did not last until our time.  Were they ever practiced in earlier times in the communities and the outlying farms in Wisconsin?  I don't know.  The tradition of marking the door lintels with chalk and blessing the house with holy water was unknown to our family 100 years later.  Our tradition was much simpler.  The youngest child went to the Christmas nativity scene, which was under the tree or on a table, and moved each of the Magi and the one camel to a position right in front of the manger.

Many of the Germanic traditions of my youth are disappearing.  Advent is now hardly observed except in churches; Christmas celebrations go on all during the month of December.  I miss the building excitement of a quiet Advent, and I also feel rather sad when I see a discarded Christmas tree, sometimes wrapped in plastic, out on the curb on Dec. 26.  Mine stays around much longer!

Advent Vorfreude and Merry Christmas wishes to all.

Ollinger, Josef, Geschichten und Sagen von Saar and Moselüsse

Friday, September 14, 2012

Catholic Choirs - A Joyful Noise Unto the Lord

The Door of Faith at St. Gervasius and Protasius Catholic Church in Irsch

Hymn: Holy God, we praise You

If you are writing a novel and you know your main character, your great-great grandmother, came from a long line of Catholics and that she and your great-great grandfather passed that Catholic faith on to their descendants to the present day, you might wonder if part of her Catholic heritage included a love of singing her prayers that she exercised by being a part of a church choir.  Were there Catholic church choirs in the villages in which she lived, or did the congregation of those churches just sing together to honor their Lord and God? In earlier times, how did the villagers of Oberzerf and Irsch "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" and in what form?"

I went to the history books written about the villages of my Rhineland ancestors to search.  Local histories of Zerf, Irsch, and Serrig, where the Catholic church was the heart of each village, satisfied my mind that the Catholic church choirs of the time existed and were made up of both men and women. They certainly existed during the 19th century, the time period when Magdalena Rauls Meier worshipped in the churches of Saint Laurentius (Zerf), Saint Wendalinus (Oberzerf), and Saints Gervasius and Protasius (Irsch) 

The Catholic Churches in Zerf and Oberzerf.

The St. Laurentius Catholic church choir did exist in the late 18th and the 19th century.  Since Oberzerf is about a mile away, it  had a smaller chapel and was called a daughter church.  It was dedicated to St. Wendalinus.  The school in Zerf was an integral part of the Catholic church of that village, and the teacher also served as a sexton for the church in order to earn extra money for himself and his family. Caspar Goetten (1770) probably played the organ as part of his sexton duties, and he is described in the old records as a Vorsänger, that is, someone who stood before the congregation and directed the singing of a choir or the congregation. It is also likely that Lehrer Goetten trained a group of school children as a choir. After Caspar Goetten no longer taught, his son Nikolaus (1813) served as teacher and choir leader. He had, it seems, a number of supporting adult singers to help when more complicated choral music was required for the mass. This was not a choir with the stature and organization of modern times, but its men and women who wanted to use their voices to pray probably did practice regularly so they could sing the Latin songs and responses together as a choir.  The school children, male and female, sang together at services as well.

Nikolaus Trapp took over as teacher and organist in Zerf from 1837-1856 at the end of which time he was transferred, at his request, to the newly built school in Oberzerf. Herr Trapp also brought together the choir group in Zerf, which was the larger of the two churches.  The teacher who replaced Herr Trapp in Zerf was a Herr Diné. He assisted Herr Trapp from about 1846 on, and he took the organist position in 1885 when Herr Trapp was no longer teaching. But he had helped Nikolaus Trapp as an organist and church choir director before that time, perhaps in Oberzerf. Evidently, the choir was a very important part of the Zerf Catholic church's liturgy.

The Catholic Church at Serrig

The first evidence of a St. Martin Catholic church choir in Serrig is documented in 1789 in the church administrative records. A payment of four Thaler to Christophel Tressel from Irsch to serve as the choir leader of the church in Serrig was recorded. In 1790, Herr Tressel was again paid four Thaler to direct the Serrig choir of "Sänger und Sängerinnen," which means that both male and female singers were part of the choir group that sang for the Holy Mass in the Serrig Catholic church.

By 1827 Serrig was a full-fledged parish church which was no longer dependant on the church at Irsch. The choir must have continued because the pastor of the new independent parish asked the Diocesan authorities for a clarification about the singing of songs during services. The answer received was that the choir only should continue to sing the Latin Mass and hymns; the congregation could join in the singing of any songs that were written for the German language. Almost always these would have been sung at the end of the mass

The Catholic Church in Irsch

In Irsch the Catholic Saints Gervasius und Protasius church choir was founded in 1780. The first choir director was the same Christoph Tressel who trained the choir in Serrig. This teacher and sexton was assigned the job of working with the choir as an additional part of his duties. The history of Irsch written by Ewald Meyer does not indicate whether women as well as men sang in the choir. But the information on the church choir of Serrig, once the "daughter" church of the larger "mother" church of Irsch, most likely could be applied to Irsch as well, since the choir director was the same person and he trained a male and female choir in Serrig.

Yes, I believe my great-great grandmother had the opportunity to sing in both the choir of Zerf, the village a short way from where she grew up; and in Irsch, her home village after her marriage.

Hymn singing by the congregation during the service was not that common in the Catholic churches of the 19th and 20th centuries because of the Latin liturgy. Many of the hymns from the 1700 and 1800s were written in the vernacular, the common language of the people; but they were sung during the church service mostly by Germany's Lutheran congregations. During the Catholic masses, the choir sang in Latin and the congregation was silent, only listening to the music. Their time to sing was almost always after the Mass liturgy was concluded; and the people had been told, in Latin, that the mass had ended and they should go in peace.

In the illustration above you see the German words for the hymn I knew as "Holy God We Praise Thy Name." When I was growing up (before the changes of Vatican II) this hymn was sung at the end of mass by the congregation in the Sacred Heart Church in Sherwood Wisconsin at the end of especially celebratory Masses. It was my favorite hymn, there was something so powerful and prayerful about it that made it very special to me and, of course, I could understand the words which were in English.

Holy God We Praise Thy Name 
Holy God, we praise Thy Name;
Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim,
All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.

Hark! the loud celestial hymn
Angel choirs above are raising,
Cherubim and seraphim,
In unceasing chorus praising;
Fill the heavens with sweet accord:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord.

Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.

I hope that the final hymn sung by my great-great grandparents on the Sunday before they left Irsch in order to emigrate to Ameria was "Grosser Gott wir loben Dich" and that it was sung again in the new country when their log cabin church at St. John, town of Woodville, Calumet County, Wisconsin was used for the first time.

1) "Grosser Gott wir loben Dich" is a beautiful classic Catholic hymn, used by the Church for more than two centuries. The words are attributed to Ignaz Franz, in Maria Theresa’s Katholisches Gesang Buch (Vienna: circa 1774) and it was translated from German to English by Clarence A. Walworth, 1858. The English translation is not literal; it was adjusted to maintain the rhyme.

2) In honor of the "New Year of Faith 2012-2013," proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, the blog "Catholic Gene" is hosting a “Doors of Faith” celebration online. Bloggers are asked to share their own or their ancestors faith experiences. This is my contribution. On October 11, The Catholic Gene will share some of the websites that are participating

Der Hochwaldort Zerf am Fuße des Hunsrücks, by Edgar Christoffel
"Die Geschichte des Kirchenchores 'Cäcilia' Serrig,"in the chapter "Serrig: Landschaft Geschichte und Geschichten" by L. Thinnes, from Serrig; Landschaft Geschichte & Geschichten by Klaus Hammächer et al.
Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes by Ewald Meyer
Photo from

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Land Auctions in Irsch in 1861

Meadowland in Irsch
The fields around Irsch

A wine hill

Kataster Map with Meier House

The morning of February 22, 1861 was a momentous one for me and for all of the present-day descendants of Johann Meier and Magdalena Rauls Meier.  That day determined our nationality for the next 150 years.

Although there had been an application to emigrate legally executed earlier in February, and although there would be an auction of farm and household items in March (as described in my post of February, 2012), the selling of the land a farmer owned was the day that the emigration decision was cast in stone. Now there was no turning back for Johann and Magdalena because at the end of the day they no longer had fields in Irsch to support their survival during the coming year. By the time the sun set on February 22, other farmers were in possession of their land and the very barnhouse that had been their home since their marriage on February 14, 1849.

It is amazing to me that,  in that small village of Irsch sometime during the first three months of 1861, the auctions of five families took place.  They would join Johann and Magdalena on the same ship that would sail from Le Havre about the beginning of April. It is obvious that a monumental division was continuing.  The buyers of all of these auctioned fields may have considered the idea of emigration but decided against it.  The farmers buying the Meier's land, which would mean a mortgage to be paid, were clinging to their homeland.  In spite of ever-lurking hardships, they were setting their roots more deeply into the soil of the only place most of them had ever known . They would be the ones to continue their way of life of the old country.  The sellers were uprooting themselves, determined to have a better life for their families, although it meant leaving everything and everyone they had ever known; a change of allegiance and of customs that were as yet unknown to them.

The Land Holdings of Johann and Magdalena Meier:

The auction of the land owned by Johann and Magdalena Meier began at 10 a.m. on the morning of February 22, 1861 and ended at 3 p.m. In was held on the premises belonging to Mathias Peter Britten. It is more than likely that this was the Peter Britten who is listed in the Catholic church registers as a farmer, ship-puller, and innkeeper and that the inn's taproom was the setting for the sale.   There were two witnesses, Theordor Ney who was a house painter/whitewasher in Beurig; and Johann Becker who was a field guard in Irsch.  The official in charge of the auction was again notary Waringer of the almost "unintelligible handwriting".

There were two classes of land to be sold--the land which the Meiers owned outright, and the land which was part of the Irsch Gehöferschaft. The Gehöferschaft holdings were either meadows or Lohhecken/oakbark hedgerows. Lohhecken, to the best of my understanding, came from (scrub?) oak trees growing in the wild, the bark of which could be stripped and then sold to the tanneries along the Saar river in Saarburg or Beurig.

The other pieces of land which Johann and Magdalena Meier offered for sale consisted of farmland where crops were sowed, cultivated and harvested; garden land which could be used by the family to grow the produce which would see them through the year; wildland; a wine hill for growing grapes; Wande (steep hillside) land; forest land; and a woodlot.

As I have explained in the post, "Village Roads and Fields", a farmer's fields might be miles from his barnhouse.  The possession of adjacent fields was uncommon in the Rhineland in the 19th century. Areas called "Flur" had descriptive names that identified the approximate location of each strip of land owned by a farmer in a particular section of the village. Ewald Meyer, in his history of the village of Irsch, says the names of the "Fluren" were usually related to landforms, names of local farms, woodlots, etc. That is, a farmer might have his clover planted in a land section called "By the Stone Cross" and his potatoes in a strip of land known as "Above the Trier Way." The auction bidders as well as the official conducting the auction would officially be accepting the land boundaries described in the Kataster, which was the land map and tax register document used by the Prussian Government to identify the owner and boundaries of each parcel of land and assign tax responsibility to each landowning resident.

The conditions read out for the sale of the land and building being auctioned were, in many ways, similar to those for the "moveable objects" as explained in my February post.  In addition, there were warnings that the buyer was getting the land as described in the Kataster register, regardless of any unknown errors in it. The land buyer would be responsible for one third of the purchase price of property, with interest, on November 11 of 1861, 1862, and 1863. The interest rate was five per cent yearly. However the taxes for the land would not become the responsibility of the new owner until January 1, 1862. There was also a penalty for late payment and provisions for default of payment. The new owner also had to pay the cost of recording the new ownership on the Government's land Kataster.  A few of the other conditions listed defeated both my ability to read German and the power of "Google Translate."  All of the conditions were read aloud before the actual auction started.

The Land Auction Begins:

When the auctioneer was ready to begin the actual selling, the field description was read out.  The bidding was then open and when the gavel fell awarding the lot, the same description was read again to the buyer to make sure that he understood both what he was buying and the cost. If the buyer was satisfied that all was correct, he signed his name. These handwritten signatures varied from very clear to downright impossible to read. (Picture the hurried scrawls of many doctors, business people and public officials).   It was rare to find an "X" or some other mark in place of a signature. Most of the adults in Irsch must have had at least elementary schooling by 1861.

The auction document gives no indication of how the bidding on each field was brought to a close, but a fellow genealogist, who also has an auction document for her family from the Rhineland area near Koblenz, shared an interesting detail. At the point at which an auctioneer heard a significant silence, a candle would be lit. This candle would burn for only one minute before it went out. The auctioneer would then light another one-minute candle. The same procedure was repeated with the third candle. Hearing no other offer before the third candle flickered out, the land was officially declared sold to the last bidder.  The auction officials in the Koblenz area were definitely sticklers when it came to assuring that everyone had the same amount of time to think over a further bid!

When the auction record for the land of Johann and Magdalena Meier was placed on file for me to see 151 years later,  it contained the following kinds of information for each piece of land.

*the number of the land lot in the Flur - Lot 1647

*the name of the Flur - hinterm Keltergarten (behind the Kelter garden)

*the size of the piece of land - 16 Ruthen, 60 feet

*the owners of the fields that bordered the field being sold - Nikolaus Fuhs-Klein and Johann Schuh

*the buyer and his residence - Anton Schuh, Irsch village

*the amount paid for the piece of land - 20 Thaler

*the signature of the buyer - signed in his own handwriting

When the auction ended, the total land sale had earned 1,269.15 Thaler for Johann and Magdalena.

The Auction of the Land and the Dwelling On It:

Property 4091 consisted of a "Wohnhaus" a place for the family to live, for the animal stalls, and for storage of crops.  It was located in the middle of the village with a land area size of 10 Ruthen and 10 feet.  Bordering it were the dwellings of Anna Hauser, "unreadable" Feilen, and the main street. (I've noticed that a number of people had the first or last name of "unreadable," due to the poor handwriting of notary Warigner.)

The highest bid for the house, barn, and stables (all under one roof) was 320 Thaler, a combined bid from two Irsch farmers, Nikolaus Fuhs and Mathias Konter.  This was somewhat unusual.  It begs the question of why.  Was the current barnhouse then divided into two dwellings or was it shared in some other way by the two winning bidders?

Auction of the cows

After all of the land had been purchased, the auction was declared over at 3 p.m. and the auction of the animals began.  It was in the same location, the inn of Mathias Peter Britten, and the same official and witnesses were present.  There were three cows in the stalls of Johann Meier; however,  one cow was held back and would not be sold until the moveable property auction of March 22. This exception made sure that the Meier children would continue to have milk to drink until all the family's possessions were sold.

One cow was sold for 40 Thaler to Mathias Lehnert-Schreiner, A farmer in Irsch.  The second cow brought 48 Thaler, more than many of the land pieces.  The new owner was Nikolas Reiter,  a farmer from neighboring Beurig.  The auction ended at 4 p.m.

After the Auctions Ended:

On the same day that the auction was held, the rights to land and property were transferred to the Jewish merchant Simon Wolff.  The money from the buyers of that land was not due in full until November of 1863, and the Meier's left Irsch to go to America in March, 1861.  Ewald Meyer who did the translating of the auction documents says that this Jewish moneylender from Wawern loaned back the money minus interest to the Meiers based on the anticipated land payments that would be made.

There is no written explanation that tells me whether Johann, Magdalena, and their children were able to stay on in their barnhouse. Technically, they no longer owned it. But I think staying in it is very possible since their movable possessions would not be sold until the following month at the "movables" auction. Also, the winning bidders had not yet paid any money for the property and would not owe for taxes until 1862. Johann Meier had made the expenditure for the taxes on land and buildings in 1861 from his own pocket.

In the following four weeks, it must have been a peculiar feeling for Johann and Magdalena to hear their neighbors and friends talking of their planting plans for the coming year in the farm fields, some that had once belonged to Johann, his father and his grandfather.

NOTES: An unmarried uncle, Michael, must have lived with Johann and Magdalena and their family because he was going to America with them and sold his land too. His auction was held the next day, February 23.

The notary seems to have used square units: Fuß (feet), Ruthen, and Morgen. In Prussia, one square Ruthe was 14.18 square meters and one square Fuß (foot) was .092 Square meters.  One Morgen was 2553.22 square meters.

Aussenstelle of the Landeshauptarchiv in Neuwied - Rommersdorf, Rheinland.
Meyer, Ewald, Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes
Translation of Auction Documents of Joseph Thielmann and Katharina born Henn by Walter Petto and Ulriich Thielmann, 
Translation of Auction Documents of Johann Meier and Magdalena born Rauls by Ewald Meyer.
Pictures from www.Irsch/; Kathy, the Single-minded Offshoot, and Annette Schwickerath of Trier

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Early Posts Remembered

Wedding  Document from Hunsruck

Barge Stop on the Saar

Zerf farm life shown in village museum -
horn planters
Saarburg mill stream

On June 24 I celebrated an anniversary of sorts - my 7th full year of written posts for "Village Life in Kreis Saarburg". That means that this blog post begins year eight! When I wrote that first post, seven years seemed an impossibly long time to continue my project; now it seems impossible that the time has gone so fast. As these early posts are probably the most neglected, it seems fitting to bring them to the forefront again as part of my personal anniversary observance and as examples of ways to learn family history from less used sources.

My very first post on this blog was about Easter customs in the Hunsrück area of Germany. I bought a small recipe book, self-published, in a bookstore and it was a treasure. In searching for traditional recipes my ancestors might have enjoyed, i found not only recipes for Easter dinner, but also a gold mine of information about the traditions that went along with the recipes. For instance, children began to gather moss from the forests about two weeks before Easter so that they would have enough for a soft nest. The night before Easter, the moss nests were carefully placed in the garden, thus inviting the Easter Hase to lay its eggs there. But what if it rained on the evening of Easter Saturday? The children brought the nests inside and placed them in the kitchen, using a little willow basket to help keep the moss in nest-shape form. Recipe books can be a great source of information! 

My next four posts were written about a visit to a small village museum in Zerf, Germany. This dusty little museum was crammed full of farm implements, furniture for the living spaces, tools, baskets and buckets carried to the fields, harnesses for the ox, horse, or cow. There was even a reconstructed stone bake oven. That museum was the labor of love of one man in the village. When he died, the museum was kept closed unless one applied for permission to see it. The mayor kept the key in his office. Luck was with me when I visited because a local resident procured my entry. I had a guided tour from the mayor and his wife, and was given a guide to items in the museum. Because they knew I was coming, the mayor's wife had hand typed it especially for me. Through the blog, I was able to share that guide, along with the pictures I took, since much of what was inside that large room would be very similar to other village museums all over Germany. And there are many almost-forgotten museums in every state in the United States. When visiting the places where ancestors lived for a time, it is wise to ask if there is an almost forgotten museum. One of my favorite souvenirs of that day in Zerf was the tiny wooden peg I was given. Such pegs were used in place of a nail by the shoemaker when constructing the sole of a shoe.

I wrote three posts about wedding customs. My little Hunsrück recipe book - mentioned above - had the ingredients for traditional dishes served at a wedding meal in a location near Kreis Saarburg, Germany. It also included some traditional Hunsrück wedding customs in addition to the recipes for wedding dishes. On two other visits to Europe, I had stumbled across books that included the wedding lore of Normandy and weddings in Bavaria. So I included two other posts as a comparison to the Hunsrück wedding celebration. It was interesting that very far-flung areas had many baptism, marriage and death ceremonies and customs that were similar, something good to know when one is unable to find the "perfect" social history of the ancestors' town. A lot of the birth, marriage and death rituals in other parts of Germany, especially if the same religion was practiced, can be described (with proper notation) when writing a family history. There is more chance of being right than being wrong.

The history of Saarburg, Germany, which is the equivalent of a county seat in the US, was the subject of another early post. A German city which is designated a Kreis is one where the officials, who were a step above the local mayors, had offices and where most of the residents of the small villages had to travel when legal matters complicated their lives. The growing middles classes were likely to live in the Kreis or county seat in the 19th century. There were also owners of mills, tanneries, inns, and a great number of shopkeepers, since a city that could call itself a Kreis was a market town for cattle, produce, etc. My ancestors, I am sure, made a trip or three to Saarburg, sometimes to buy what they could not barter in their small village; or to sell produce. After the market closed for the day, there was an opportunity for the visiting villagers to observe the way of life in the "big city"- in what to them must have been a place of fascination. While there may not be that special book about your ancestors villages, there undoubtedly is some published information about the county seat or a larger city nearby, whatever it was called.

My grandmother had told me that her grandfather was a sailor, a story I dismissed as fictitious until I grasped the concept that a sailor did not necessarily sail on the ocean. The men who transported cargo in the unglamorous barges going up and down the Saar River were also sailors/seamen. The craftsmanship and ability necessary to build and sail the barges was greatly respected in Saarburg and the neighboring villages. It was a proud profession passed down from one generation to another, and it is doubtful that grandma's grandfather, Johann Meier, came from one of these families. But was he a hired "sailor" or one of the Halfen? As if to lend credence to Grandma's story, Johann still owned his own coil of rope, the kind used for pulling the barges, which he sold to a sailor from Beurig before leaving for America. It's always wise to take family stories with a grain of salt, but don't overlook the kernel of truth in the process. 

Some people believe that local customs have to be learned from the people who lived at the time. With today's quick-changing technology, it may seem that memories of the way life was lived told by parents or grandparents can't help much in recreating the lifestyle of great-grandparents and their parents. It's easy to forget that customs changed much more slowly even 50 years ago, and that a parent or relative or even a careful listener of one's own generation may have a head filled with details and tales a genealogist has never heard. All you have to do is ask. That's why I recorded every detail that Ewald Meyer and his wife Helena described about earlier times in their village of Irsch. Sometimes we were discussing customs from their lifetimes (more than a hundred years later than the period at which my great-great grandparents had lived there). It didn't take me long to realize that, from their reminiscing, I could learn about traditions which were observed in much earlier times. Using those notes, I wrote the blog post, "Of Apple Wine, Cabbage, and Other Everyday Things."

Yes, I've learned a lot about the Rhineland villages of my ancestors right from the beginning of my posting. Organizing my information well enough to make it clear to a reader often showed me anomalies that I would have missed otherwise, and even better, new thoughts occurred that put me on the track of more and more resources. Some of those documents and pictures I had never dreamed I would hold in my hands. And writing this post about my 2005 posts shocked me too. It reminded me how quickly I forget; how much I've already forgotten. Thank goodness for celebrating anniversaries!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thank You, Family Tree Magazine

Kreis Trier-Saarburg

When I began this blog almost seven years ago, it was a new adventure; a way to share information on life in German villages in the 1800s, especially in the Kreis Saarburg villages of my ancestors.  I hoped what I had learned would help other genealogists who had a special interest in family history.  I tried to show how much the social history of our German ancestors could enhance our family trees and help bring each ancestor to life.

I am very honored that this year my blog, 'Village Life in Kreis Saarburg, Germany' has been chosen as one of the Top 40 International Genealogy Blogs in an article entitled, "Around the World in 40 Blogs" published in the Family Tree Magazine of July/August 2012.  Thank you for the honor, Family Tree Magazine.

I have added a link to "Around the World in 40 Blogs" on my blog page.  There are so many excellent blogs to choose from, and I hope you will enjoy this look at family history worldwide.

Map image from

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thankful Thursday - The Wägelchen and Heilige Johannes

How many Groschen am I bid for these fine pieces?

In my February post, I talked about the auction of Johann and Magdalena Meier's "moveables"; how the auction was carried out, a few of the items that were sold, the amount of money that my great-great grandparents earned from the auction, and how, in the absence of banks as we know them, how a Jewish tradesman served as money lender, taking a risk on the ability of the buyers' readiness to pay him in a few months, with an interest charge added to the amount due. It was not unlike having a credit card.

I did not list all of the 168 transactions that took place on that late March day, for obvious reasons. But as I studied that list, I began to see that there were more bits of history to be gleaned and a few that touched my heart and made me thankful for my great-great grandparent' willingness to give up many of the things which were either close to their hearts or which had been acquired by endless days of work on their farm.

While it is possible to find information on the layout of a typical house and barn, it is more difficult to discover what was inside the structures that might have been unique to my emigrant ancestors. The auction adds so much color and realism to what lay behind closed doors of an especially meaningful farm home - in the barn where there were tools and equipment that were used again and again, in the storage areas where provisions that brought them through hard times as well as through winter, and in the living area where the cupboards and closets held many items used every day. Given the amount for which each item was sold, it is possible to know what the members of this farming community found most valuable. Some items that were purchased with Thaler; others with the more lowly Groschen (there were 33 Groschen to a Thaler). The items seem to have been sold in a way that would keep both men and women interested, mixing household goods with farm tools. To keep the crowd from leaving before all the items were auctioned, some of the highest priced and most highly prized goods were held to the last - the bags of potatoes, the tub of cabbage, barrels - with Trank/drink - and the wagons.

Sold from the barn area

Spades and axes; hammers, hay forks, scythes, rakes, flails, chains of varying lengths, a wedge and a small ax for splitting wood, a saw, knives and a whetstone to keep a sharp edge on tools used for cutting, a Fruchtwand which separated the grain seed from the hull, a flail, ladders of varying sizes, a winnowing fan - All of these things were sold from one to 28 Groschen.

More expensive were a rack-wagon which sold for 14 Thaler, a handcart sold for 6 Thaler, harnesses or Pferdegeschirr* earning approximately one-half to one Thaler each. A Hexelbank* brought in two Thaler. Several other items sold for a Thaler or more, but unfortunately the handwriting on these items is not readable.


Two of the cows that the Meiers owned had sold for 40 and 48 Thaler and had already been claimed by their new owners on the same day that the barnhouse and all the farmland were auctioned. That auction, with much higher bids, was held in February. The third cow, however, was needed for her milk until the family was only a few days away from leaving Irsch. Thus it was still in the Meier's barn on the day of the moveables auction. While the first two cows sold had brought in a few Groschen more than 40 Thaler, the winning bid for the remaining cow was only 25 Thaler and 6 Groschen Most likely this was due to which people attended the second auction, many of whom were not rich enough to buy more land.  They were also not able to bid as much for the last cow. The four geese were sold for varied sums from eight to 12 Groschen.

Sold from the living quarters:

I picture the doors of the cupboard open, the shelves bare as these items are auctioned bit by bit: a spoon, cake pan, tin kettle, three iron kettles, coffee grinder, crockery, pitcher, a plate (perhaps it was considered special by great-great grandmother Lena, since it was sold separately from other crockery).

From inside the kitchen or the Stube, furniture and larger pieces no longer stood in their usual places. On offer were chairs and benches, a stove, a straw basket. Is it possible it was one worn on the back for harvesting grapes? More likely it is one that carried a meal to the fields to to feed the hungry family when the Angeles bell of the church rang out. A bed and a bedstead (I don't know how these were different), a house stove, and a Laden, which my dictionary tells me is either a shutter or a shop) sold for Groschen; a cabinet or cupboard, sold for three Thaler, one of the more valuable items from the house.

Provisions Stored for Future Use:

For the stored potatoes, the winning bid was usually one Thaler  for 50 kilograms. Considering that a baking or cooking pan sold for about seven to ten Groschen, the potatoes to put in the pan were a valuable and expensive commodity and more important than most things man-made.  The potatoes were sold in bags weighing from five, two, or one Zenter (according to Wikipedia, one Zentner equaled about 50 kilograms) and seemed to sell at a price of one Thaler per Zentner of potatoes.  An empty barrel was worth about 27 Groschen, but the barrel with "Trank" or drink (wine or Viez?) was worth 10 Thaler and 15 Groschen to one buyer.  The tub of cabbage sold for over two Thaler.  There were also bundles of wood meant for fires in a fireplace or stove, and the harvested Lohrinde, which was the bark stripped from oak trees that could be sold to the tanneries in Saarburg.  The buyer gambled that some one tannery would pay more than the twelve Thaler he originally paid. 

Some Unique Surprises:

*A sail was one of the more surprising items on the auction list; perhaps the family story saying Johann Meier was a sailor is more accurate than I thought.  It was purchased by a sailor from Beurig (a sailor would often be a barge owner) for one Thaler and 12 Groschen.  A correction and proof of an assumption: I made a mistake in translating the word Seil; which is not a sail at all.  Instead it is a cord, rope or line which would have been used by the Halfen, men who controlled the horses pulling a barge against the current.  I had always suspected that Johann Meier sometimes worked as one of these Halfen, handling a team of horses on the trip between Saarburg and Serrig.  

*A resin pot - Resin or Rosin is added in small quantities to traditional linseed oil/sand gap fillers and used in building work. Players of bowed string instruments rub cakes or blocks of rosin on the bow hair so it can grip the strings and make them speak. While there is good reason to have such a pot as building material, I would like to believe that someone in the Meier family played the violin. I know that the grandchildren descendants born in this country had good voices and sang in harmony at parties.  Why not fantasize that one of their grandparents also played a "fiddle."

*Boxes of junk - Coming from a long line of pack rats, I have a "junk drawer" - doesn't everyone?  I also have a box here and there of stuff I might need in the future like old eyeglasses in case the three pair that actually have my current prescription might all be stolen by a thief with poor vision; a bunch of cassettes that already have something on them but could be used to tape something new; bunches of string in case I need to give tie support to every plant in my flowerbeds; and so forth.  I smiled when the auction list of my 2nd great grandparents included two boxes of Gerümpel, the German word for "junk." One box sold for two Groschen, the other for 12 Groschen (evidently the second box had a higher class of "miscellaneous" - or it was a bigger box).

*Two of the most touching pieces sold during the emigration process of Johann and Magdalena were "The Holy Johannes" and the Wägelchen. Both received a high bid of five Groschen, and I think that these two items in particular must have been difficult to part with. Holy Johannes may have been a picture or a small statue of the patron saint of Johann Meier, perhaps given as a gift to Johann at his baptism or first Holy Communion. The Wägelchen was some sort of a carriage for a baby, perhaps more like a small wagon than a decorated Victorian baby buggy one might picture.  Had all five children been taken to the fields or to a neighbor's farm in it?  For Magdalena it would be much easier to part with the crockery or an iron kettle, I think, than with these last two possessions. 

I wish one or the other of any of the auction pieces, but especially "The Holy Johannes" had come to America and been handed down to my generation.  But survival meant that only the practical pieces could be placed in the travel trunks and bundles.  On this thankful Thursday, I am so thankful that my ancestors had the courage to sell their unnecessary items to add to their resources for beginning a new life in a new land.

*A Pferdegeschirr is a harness, although the word gave me a moment of pause and a grab for a dictionary since Pferde means horses and Geschirr means some kind of crockery. My first thought was that this was dishware decorated with horses.
*a Hexelbank was a device that cut straw into small pieces.

Sources and Resources: 
1. Records from the Koblenz State Archive
2. The patience of Ewald Meyer for his many hours spent struggling with the translation of the German of yesteryear as written by a careless official.
3. The generosity of the researcher who remembered the family names which I had been seeking when searching for his own purposes
4. The great memory of a fellow genealogist who recalled that an article on resources in the Koblenz Archive had included my ancestral villages

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Easter Epilogue

Since I wrote my last blog post about the Kläpperjungen (young boys) in Kreis Saarburg and their duty to call their village to prayer and church services when the bells in the church steeple were silent from Holy Thursday to Holy Saturday, I have learned a few things more about both the Easter customs in the Rhineland and in my very own Heimat village in Irsch.

This epilogue began to take shape because of  comments about my last post: "Easter Tales: the Kläpperjungen and the Mirror in the Fountain." The first comment was made by a fellow blogger who was born and grew up in Germany.  She said that her village in the Lower Rhineland area had no Klapperjungen, but she remembered that the church bells were completely silent on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The children were told that this silence occurred because the church bells had all "flown to Rome" to be blessed by the Pope.  On Easter Sunday morning, the bells flew back again, ready to ring out all over the city. This took me by surprise because Maria Croon, who had written about the Kläpperjungen in the Rhineland area that encompasses the Mosel and Saar rivers, had made no mention of flying bells in her reminiscence.

Friko, the blogger who had furthered my education on these Rhineland flying Easter bells, also said, "I come from the Lower Rhineland area, that is roughly the stretch between Cologne, Germany and the Dutch border, from the town of Krefeld. I went to Catholic schools and we were told these stories as children. Easter was the highest religious festival of the year and had a lot of ritual attached." 

Interesting, I thought.  Here is a person who came from today's Rhineland Pfalz state of Germany as do my ancestors, but her area lay north of Kreis Saarburg, and is not a quite as near to France as my ancestor's homeland. I knew that the French bells flew away during Holy Week.  Was it possible that my ancestors, too, believed the story of the bells making a trip to Rome, just as in France.

My relative Edeltrud, who grew up in the village of Irsch in the 1950s, was the logical person to ask. Her e-mail answer to my question read, "Yes, the bells leave here too, and kids run arround with wooden "Klappern" and call the hours when normally the bells were ringing. In Irsch they sang (in the old dialect): 'Beetgloock leut, de Beetgloock leut!' (The prayer bell is ringing). They are called Kläpperkinder. In earlier times they were just boys, but now there are girls too."  That accounted for the change of name from the more gender specific Kläpperjungen to the non-specific Kläpperkinder.

Ewald Meyer, who has been so much help to me in researching the social history of Irsch, e-mailed after he read my Easter blog. He had information about the Kläpperjungen and their three days of replacing the church bells.  He gave me another version of the calls of the Kläpperjungen - in the local dialect.  I believe he once called those words as he went about the village with the other boys who were replacing the voice of the bells.  Below are the calls and then, in parentheses, a translation of the dialect into today's German.:

1. Zum Angelusläuten am Abend ( before 7 p.m. ): "Et laut Baetglock!" (Es läutet Betglocke)
2. Mittags (noon): "Et laut Mettech!" (Es läutet Mittag)
3. Vor Beginn einer Messfeier: "Et laut zesummen!" (Es läutet zusammen).

Translation: 1. At Angelus time in the evening: "the prayer bell is ringing." 2. At midday: "It is ringing midday." 3. Before the celebration of a Mass: "It is calling (us) together."

My Summary of All the Additional Things I Learned:

*Church bells are silent as a sign of mourning for one or more days before Easter in Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The tradition around the silent bells originates from the 7th century when the Church forbade the ringing of the bells in homage to the death of Christ between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.

*In France, and in bordering parts of The Netherlands and Belgium, legend has it that on Maundy Thursday, the bell’s chimes flee to Rome where the Pope blesses them. There, they collect the Easter eggs which they will scatter in gardens and yards on their return journey which is the morning of Easter Sunday. When children hear the bells, they go out to the garden on an egg hunt. The Easter Bells are often represented with a pair of wings, ribbons or sometimes are transported in a cart. 

*In the Rhineland t"he bells also fly to Rome, but only here do the Kläpperjungen take on the bells' work until the bells return on Easter morning. The Easter rabbit, meanwhile, is busy hiding Easter eggs and chocolate eggs and bunnies in gardens all over Germany.

As I was writing this short piece I was struck by  something.  My great-great grandparent's emigration journey across Germany and France to the Port of Le Havre must have begun just after the auction of their moveable property on March 22.  Palm Sunday was on March 24 in 1861, very early.  Thus the day that they and the other families who were traveling with them began their journey was sometime just before or during the Kläpperjugen days.  Four boys, including my great grandfather Mathias, who should have been carrying their Raspeln and crying out  "Et laut Baetglock!, "Et laut zesummen!" were instead traveling into the unknown with the rest of their family.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter Tales: The Kläpperjungen - the Mirror in the Fountain

The Klapperjungchen Scupture

Easter is nearly here. For many people, it is both a religious holiday and a day when children receive little gifts given by some unusual benefactors such as rabbits (Germany) or the church bells coming from Rome (France). For the Catholics in Kreis Saarburg, this most important feast day of the Church year was preceded by Karfreitag (Good Friday) and Karsamstag (Holy Saturday), days on which bells were not heard in any religious service or observance. Thus, the church bells could not be sounded three times a day for the praying of the Angelus, in respect for the passion and death of Jesus Christ.

Maria Croon, in her book, Die Dorfstrasse, starts most of her chapters by describing things she sees from her window in the village, the customs and conditions that my ancestors knew well. On this particular Good Friday, she turns her attention to the sound of the Klapperjungen.

The Klapperjungen Come:

Each year, some older boys are chosen to lead a procession on the three days before Easter Sunday. They will remind the villagers, in lieu of the church bells which do not ring during this time, that a church service will soon begin or that it is time for the prayers of morning, noon, and evening. These Klapperjungen take their job seriously. They carry a heavy wood rasp, or Holzraspel, in their left hand and turn its handle with their right, making a sound, says Frau Croon, rather like 20 grinding coffee mills. After each stop along the way, they cry out "Heh Mettech." Not finding this phrase in my dictionaries, I'm guessing that this is dialect and might mean something on the order of "Hark, Matin time." 

The four leaders of the procession that Frau Croon is observing are strong for their age, the Pitt, Kläs, Klos and Häns. So are the other boys of similar age who are part of the official procession. However, a spontaneous procession walks behind them, for almost all of the children of the village come along, even those as young as two. The little ones don't have any kind of a rasp; they carry a "Klipp-Klapp" rattle which is made of light wood, a wooden shell which they shake. Always there are some of the youngest ones who stumble over stones, tumble over their own feet, or step into puddles and fall. But they get up again, usually howling over their mishap, wipe the dirt off their faces with any tears and nose "moisture" there, mostly smearing the Dreck very effectively as they struggle to catch up with the rest of the procession again.

The older Klapperjungen are annoyed by the unwanted "tail" of "Klippklapp-Buben and of girls. They would like to make frightful faces at them, trying to convince them to stop following along. However they control their annoyance because they know they are now grown up and dedicated servers of the Church and community - and also because their mothers, grandmothers and aunts are watching at windows and doors.

By Easter Sunday, the responsibilities of the Klapperjungen have ended, but it is decided by these Klapperjungen to do a bit extra. Very early Easter morning, on their own, they make a last round through the village to wake up the sleepers, calling out that the Savior is risen from the grave.

The Water Mirror in the Fountain

Zerf Frommersbach

The Klapperjungen are not the only early risers in the village, says Frau Croon. The young women may go quietly to the village water fountain to get Easter water, believing the superstition that if they wash their faces with this special water and also if they drink it, they will be made beautiful in the eyes of others. Also, if they take three joyful little jumps and then look closely into the water just as the sun's first rays appear, they will be able to see in the water a picture of their future.

On this Easter morning, one young woman, slender little Eva, head covered with a cloth and wearing red slippers, comes quickly and quietly to the fountain so that no one will see her. At the same time, a cow named Sarah with a crumpled horn, awakens earlier than usual and makes her way out of the barn door, through the front yard with its manure pile, and her children and grandchildren follow after her. But there is no hay or grain out for them so early in the morning so they head toward the fountain to find water. Most onlookers would not know why the cows are out so early, but Franz, their young owner had pushed them along this morning. Franz, you see, secretly loves Eva. He has often seen her go to the fountain, but has never had the courage to say something to her because someone is always nearby.

For the first time, Franz and Eva will be alone at the fountain. He has worked up the courage to speak to her, taking the cows along as an excuse for being there so early. He is in luck. Eva is standing at the fountain's edge.  The sun is just about to come up, putting gray-blue fingers of light into the dark sky. And as Franz comes after his herd, old Sara with the crumpled horn has put her tongue in the water. Eva is staring at the water mirror to determine her future and sees the face of a large cow with a crumpled horn as her fate. She gives a cry that strikes pain to Franz's breast and puts her hands over her face.  She cries, "No, no, no! I will not have horns!" Franz kneels next to her and gently pulls her hands from her face. "Can this be the picture for your future, Eva," he says, as they both stare at the water mirror which now reflects them together. "Yes, that is what I want," the flustered Eva replies. In that moment as the sun leaves its bed to climb to the heavens, Franz places a brightly-dyed goose egg in Eva's apron.  Eva finds she has much to say to Franz, and so t
he cows wander back to their shed alone


Croon, Maria, "Die Dorfstrasse; eine bunte Heimatchronik," 1956/1989
Top Photo:

Friday, February 24, 2012

They Belong to Us No Longer

The Auction
PBS Television "Germans in America"

Johann and Magdalena Meier of Irsch left their home village in order to emigrate to Wisconsin, but three cows, four geese, a ladder wagon, and an iron pot were left behind - as were many other possessions or  "moveables."  These were sold at auction on March 22, 1861, most likely a day or two before the couple and their four children said goodbye to the barnhouse on the main road  of Irsch in Kreis Saarburg, Rhineland.  The familiar house was no longer theirs.  And they were leaving behind the grave of their child, Anna Maria, who had died just one year before.

Almost since I began working on my family history, I have tried to imagine what my great-great grandparents' last days in Irsch were like but never imagined that I might actually know what they sold before leaving, who bought these things, and how much money the Meiers earned from their sale.  This auction of moveable possessions was the final opportunity to acquire additional funds for their future in the new land, but for that money, the family Meier must stand watching as the bits and pieces of their life in Irsch were carried off by others.

The notary from Saarburg, Mathias Waringer was in charge of the auction. The sale began at nine in the morning.   In all, 168 "moveables" were sold that day for a grand total of 223 Thaler and 3 Groschen.

There were a number of rules of the sale set down in this auction document.  It seems that most of the buyers did not pay for the items they bought on the day of the auction.  Essentially, they bought on "credit."  Evidently it was unusual for a winning bidder to have in hand the money to pay for his purchase.  Most purchasers had until November 2 to make a payment for the things they bought.  Due to the difficulty of deciphering and understanding the old German in the document and my limited ability to translate a German transcription (sprinkled with question marks where words were illegible ), I cannot tell you with any certainty whether the barrel or the axe or the jug, as yet not paid for, went home with the man or woman who gave the highest bid.  At the very least the cows and the geese, which needed to be watered and fed, probably were with their new "owners" by the evening of the auction day.

Those who bought on credit were to make payments to the "old" tradesman, Simon Wulff, who lived in the village of Wawern and who functioned in approximately the same way as today's banks.  He probably loaned money for the expenses of their upcoming trip to Johann and Magdalena Meier in advance of the auction against the anticipated proceeds of the auction sale.  As a result, all money from the auction went to him.  After he deducted the cost of the loan and the additional interest fees due him from Johann and Magdalena, he gave any remaining money to them, taking the risk that each successful auction bidder would pay him as agreed. There was also an extra fee (a type of interest) paid by the bidder at the time payment was due in November.  

Most of the people at the auction were Irsch villagers.  But other villages were represented, so either word of mouth or some type of printed advertising must have brought people from them. For instance, Johann Meier's uncle Peter from Freudenburg bought a farm chain of some kind for six Groschen .  A farmer from Magdalena Rauls Meier's birth village, Oberzerf, bought a sack of grain for two Thaler.  One of the three cows, costing 25 Thaler and 6 Groschen, was walked to a new home in Paschel, a somewhat distant village.  Villagers also came from Serrig, Ockfen, Beurig, and Saarburg.

Where does one find these actual auction documents signed by Johann Meier and his wife Magdalena?  The nine pages of handwritten minutes of the auction proceedings on 22 March 1861 were found in the State Archive in Koblenz. The Landeshauptarchiv Koblenz  holds a magnificent variety of historical documents which are becoming better known as the archive digitizes its holdings. 

Special and heartfelt thanks to the two generous helpers who made my knowledge of my ancestor's departure from Irsch more detailed than I could have ever dreamed: the Rhineland researcher who surprised me with the auction records in November, and my German friend Ewald from Irsch who managed to read almost all of the old German "Gekritzel" of notary Waringer.  (As a boy, Herr Waringer evidently doodled while the other school children practiced their writing skills!)

*Gekritzel = scribbles, scrawl

Monday, January 23, 2012

Travel Tuesday - Emigrating from the Rhineland

Emigrant Agent recruits travelers in 1855;
Exhibit at Kommern Museum, Rhineland
Have you ever thought about your ancestors' last weeks in their homeland before they set sail into the unknown? Just moving from one city to another because of work or marriage or retirement is a wrenching change for most of us. However, we live in a world where going back now and then to what we left behind is usually possible. When our 19th century ancestors left, they were very aware they would never see their birthplace or the remainder of their family and friends again.

It was pure serendipity that I found a German website for a museum in the Northern Rhineland that spelled out in great detail the drama of the days before departure.  Descriptions of exhibits at the museum in the village of Kommern, gave me new insights into the reasons that people left, the process of making travel arrangements, and the days of "farewell."  The following is based on an excellent overview written by the Museum staff and loosely translated by me.

Poverty and Famines in the 19th Century

The majority of the population had always lived in difficult circumstances. In the 19th century, however, the poverty was often so oppressive that fundamental nourishment was lacking in many families' diets. While the population grew steadily, the area of land available for cultivation stayed the same, and more and more people had an amount of food that stayed the same from year to year but was much less than they needed. Their principal foods were potatoes and bread. In years of crop failures, disaster struck.  The famine years were at their worst in 1816/17 and again in 1846/47;  many could not feed themselves and their families.

Although serfdom, compulsory labor and taxes in kind were abolished during the years of Napoleon's rule of the area, high transfer fees were paid to the aristocratic landowners who still held the majority of the land. The farmers, now free to own land, had gone into debt. Thus the agricultural economy was deprived of the means which it needed for improved farming methods and new equipment.

Due to the spread in the west and southwest of revised inheritance laws that allowed all children of a family to divide the land for inheritance, farms were fragmented.  Many farmers added craft work such as weaving to supplement their family's income.  At the same time the industrial revolution, which was spreading through Europe, made it impossible for craftsmen to compete with cheaper industrial goods, especially from England.  Mass poverty and political hopelessness after the revolutions of 1830/33 and 1848/49 impelled more and more people to emigrate.

"Selling" Life in the United States

America offered the hope for an income sufficient to survive and even prosper.  With the increase in the number of emigrants from Germany to America, the population's need for information about the United States also increased. "America letters" from settlers already in the United States, sent back to relatives in the Rhineland, served as the first guides for likely emigrants.  Very soon promotional literature about the American states as well as specially created "guides" for emigrants appeared. In bright colors, some fabricated pamphlets, which promised a land flowing with milk and honey and roasted pigeon on every table, began to circulate.  For many who were dissatisfied with the economic and social conditions of their country, it seemed that the promised land was no longer "three miles beyond Christmas,"  Rather, it was obtainable by anyone who was ready to leave and wanted to make his fortune.

Many times the agents of the shipping companies deliberately exaggerated the living conditions in America, describing America as a kind of paradise, in order to win over the doubters and have a lucrative business. Ship brokers were located not only in port cities, but maintained many offices within the country. In the Rhineland agencies were located in Koblenz, Cologne, Trier and Dusseldorf. There were also numerous part-time agents working in smaller villages who recruited interested potential emigrants.  Many a man booked his passage to North America in the Gasthaus tavern.

The agents earned money according to the number of bookings they made.  Fraud occurred, most commonly in the early days of emigration fever.  Eventually the authorities issued warnings, and newspapers presented realistic descriptions of the new world so that the situation improved  in the second half of the century.

Farewell and Departure

The farewell to relatives and friends was the hardest step in the process of emigration to America.  Much as birth, marriage, and death involved ceremony, emigration was perceived as a similar profound turning point in life.  Symbolic ways of coping with such a momentous event came into being.

In many places the departure for America was made festive. Where possible the emigrants who were about to leave, along with their relatives and friends, celebrated in the home that soon would be left behind. Some of the wealthier emigrants donated memorial crosses to the village in order to preserve their remembrance in the Alte Heimat.  On the day of departure, the emigrants with possessions loaded on wagons or carried on shoulders, were often accompanied to the border of the village by all the residents staying behind.  The song and music was a way for those staying behind to express solidarity with the travelers. This almost joyous farewell thus offered a positive outlook to the present and also future immigrants.
Cemetery at Beurig, Kreis Saarburg

One last visit that was commonly made before the day of departure was to the cemetery where each person took leave of departed parents or grandparents. Often they filled some earth from the grave into a small bag. This soil was meant to be placed in the emigrant's grave in America  It was a way to symbolically reunite with the family that lived across the ocean.