Monday, December 28, 2015


Why St. Nicholas puts candy in boots and steals our hearts

Picture rom Deutsche Welle

Before I left on a trip to visit the Christmas markets of Bavaria and Austria in mid-December, I had hoped to have time to finish a Christmas holiday blog post.  Lacking packing organization, I got behind and had to put my good intentions aside.  Therefore, this post is appearing after December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, and is even late for Christmas.  But the article in the blog I found for Germany's  Deutsche Welle broadcasting is so much fun and so full of information that it should be spotlighted, even if read in January.  There is always next year to be sure of a gift on St. Nicholas Eve and an understanding of how the saint became a kind of Santa Claus.

When I came across the above mentioned Deutsche Welle blog post, I was looking for information on what I should do to make sure St. Nicholas brought me something this year.  Because of our mixture of cultures in the United States, we have no hard-and-fast rules for St. Nicholas Eve. My ancestry is German, and I found the answer I wanted about the Germanic customs - although too late.

I also learned what kind of receptical (shoe, boot, etc.) the generous saint fills in other European countries. The title of the wonderful DW article is above their blog's picture ("Why St. Nicholas puts candy in boots and steals our hearts").  The explanation is so well written that I suggest you use this URL, to read a smile-producing account of the Saint who has been awaited by children for centuries.

I wonder if St. Nicholas will forgive my blog tardiness and give me another chance to share in his generosity next year?  What do you think?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Raising a Crop of Oak Bark

"She was tired by the time she reached the place where her father and brother we working.  They were cutting oak trees that had been stripped of their bark.  That bark was in high demand by the tanners in Saarburg.  Leni always thought the trees looked naked when she saw them after the Lohe harvesting had taken their bark."  HOUSE OF JOHANN, Chapter 13

On my first research trip in Kreis Saarburg, Ewald Meyer, the author of the book "Irsch/Saar; Geschichte eines Dorf" a history of Irsch, took me on several tours of that area.  When we neared a small forest of oak trees, Herr Meyer made a point of telling me that there were no tall oak trees in the Irsch area because, in earlier times, the bark of the oak trees was stripped off and sold to the tanneries along the Saar River.  The thought flashed through my mind but I didn't ask him how the trees managed to survive without their bark.  Little by little that year, I learned that it wasn't just squirrels who needed the oak trees.

Lohhecken, the oark hedges that formed a forest of small trees were not a natural creation. They existed because man had formed this type of forest in a very specific way to turn it into a cash crop. In the past, portions of these oak hedges were stripped of their bark and cut to the ground.  That explained how they survived without their bark.  They didn't!

The bark stripping was done each year, but in different parts of the oak forest.  A group of trees grew to the right size to be cut about every 20 - 30 years.  The bark was carefully stripped off of the trees. It killed the tree.   The underlying wood could be used for a great many needs of the villagers; either homemade items like buckets or benches or more highly finished pieces like cabinets, tables and chairs, etc. The thin branches could be used as firewood.  But it was the bark that was of primary importance.

The bark was sold to one of the eight tanneries in Saarburg along the Saar River.  They needed tannic acid, made from the bark of the oak trees, in the production of leather.  These tanneries did a good business in the production of high quality leather, much of that leather used for the boots of the Prussian military.  The farmers were paid for this bark, delivered by the load.

After the oak trees were cut, that field could be used for regular crops.  In the following two years, grains were planted in the section that had been stripped of its trees.  Rye was planted in the first year and harvested.  In the second year, the field was used to grow buckwheat.  By the third year, a new forest was beginning and the sweet broom thickets known as Ginster grew between the new trees.

Oak trees can put out new new growth from their stumps. Thus, the oak trees began to grow again -several new tree shoots would grow from the old root. This kind of growth went on for another  20 - 30 years.  By that time, the forest looked as it had when it was cut 20 years before, leaving new stumps and also the old stump from which the new ones had sprung.  There developed a thick coppice.

Oak bark was the cash crop that saw many a farmer through a bad growing year for their other crops. Since the majority of Lohhecken hedges were privately owned, a patchwork of small areas, all at a different age, dotted the farm lands.  The plants and animals sheltered by the hedges varied depending on the size of each part of the hedge, and which plants and animals needed more sun (small trees) or heavy shade (oak ready for bark stripping).

After about 200 to 250 years, the stumps had to be removed and replaced with new oak trees, or so says the article I read to find this information.  As the tanneries went out of business, the oak trees remained uncut and kept their bark, but after 100 some years, the trees are not as tall as one would expect from village forest land that is over 1,000 years old.

As Ewald Meyer said, there are no tall oak trees in the fields around Irsch.  Their tree ancestors gave their lives to help our ancestors survive.

Saarburg, Geschichte einer Stadt: Band I, Im Strom der Zeiten.  Stadt Saarburg, 1991

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Harvest of Survival Food

Digging potatoes
picture by
Gathered cabbage
picture by

With September over, the autumn work on the farms in Kreis Saarburg in the 1800s was about to start. The successful harvest of two very important crops made the difference between a winter of sufficient food or of on-going hunger or even starvation.

The late summer months brought to an end the farmers' work in hay and grain fields. Many of those fields already were harvested and then planted for the next year. Now it is time for the autumn crops to join the hay and grains which are already stored in the barn.  All ages of family members are cutting, digging, picking and gathering. The grapes hang heavy on their vines (I have been told that almost every farm in the Saar River Valley grew grapes for their own wine making), and they will be harvested. The chestnut tree catkins of the spring now have turned a strong rust red inside their spiny covers and can be gathered up for cooking or roasted as a winter treat. The nut also could be ground into a baking flour.  The youngest children gathered the nuts and any fruits like plums and pears that could be dried for use in the cold months.

Some of the hardest work of the autumn is bringing in the potato crop, a labor that calls for rugged days of digging and bending to get that year’s yield into storage in a cool dark place so that the potatoes will last for the entire winter.  All the peasant farmers depended on the potatoes as a major winter food source.

In a good year sacks would stand full and thick throughout the whole field. Parents and the older children worked together in the potato field. Each worker dug the potato stock with a hoe or fork which loosened the plant from the ground.  Next the potato stock was grabbed with the free hand and pulled from the earth, the potatoes mostly hanging tight to it.

 Usually three baskets were used for sorting the newly dug potatoes that were pulled from the stock or picked up from the ground where they had fallen from the stock. The big, thick potatoes went into the first basket, the little ones or those that had been damaged by hoe or fork were thrown in the second basket and used as food for the pigs. The third basket held the medium sized potatoes which would be used as seed potatoes for planting in the spring. The half dry stocks of the potato plants were thrown aside to dry. Landless day workers helped with the harvest for a share of the crop of the larger farms. At noon the housewife or the grandmother prepared a noon meal. Most fields were far from their farmhouse and their meal was carried to the field for them. There was laughter and gossip to make the work more pleasant.  At the end of the day, the sacks were loaded into a wagon and unloaded, usually into the cool dark cellar.

It took about three days to finish the potato harvest. When the potato stocks had dried completely some days later, the young would make a high pile ready to be burned. The roasting of potatoes once the potato stocks were burning was one of the highlights of the year for the the young.  It seems to have been the equivalent of a giant marshmallow roast.  They scraped the potatoes and held them on the fire with pointed sticks. The potatoes roasted to a very white delicate texture inside. They were also very hot. There were many shouts because of slightly burned mouths and fingers during the night of the big potato fires.

Bonfire of potato stocks
In 19th century Germany and for centuries before that, cabbage played a major part in the winter food supply of peasant farmers and craftsmen. Cabbage was their only winter vegetable.  The German word for cabbage is Kohl but in the Saarburg Kreis dialect it was and still is known as Kappes.

Kohl/Kappes is a vegetable that, like the potato, could help keep families from starvation during a long winter. This plant did not require a lot of ground space relative to the size of the head of cabbage that could be harvested from it. Like potatoes, cabbage could be kept all through the winter. Unlike potatoes though, the cabbage had to be sliced into a large barrel and made into Sauerkraut, a fermented cabbage.

The entire family was involved in the process of making sauerkraut. Two of the most important people in preparing sauerkraut were the cabbage cutter and the stomper. The father of the family or, at times, a migrant worker who went from house to house during cabbage season, was usually the cutter. The cutter placed a long board with a cabbage shredder embedded in the center over two stools. He sat on the board and ran the cleaned head of cabbage over the shredder. The finely cut cabbage fell into the tub placed on the floor between the stools.

Krauthobel (cabbage shredder)
When the tub was filled, it was emptied into a well-cleaned barrel, and other ingredients like salt, sugar, herbs, sour apples, and herbs like dill were added. In wine producing areas like Kreis Saarburg, wine was also an important sauerkraut ingredient and made what was called Weinkraut. Each layer of cabbage added to the barrel was stomped, usually by young sons (or daughters) of the family whose feet and legs were washed thoroughly and then covered with stockings called Krauttretensocke (kraut stomping socks). When the last layer of cabbage was in the barrel and stomped, it was covered with a round piece of wood that fit tightly and it was held down by a stone. According to the recipe book, Das Leibgericht, (The Favorite Meal) by Hans Fischer, sauerkraut making began about November 1 and the kraut was ready to eat after about 4 weeks of fermentation.

One interesting side note. I read that in the Hunsruck area, the bridal meal had to include sauerkraut as one of the dishes served because it was considered to be lucky. It is my suspicion that the origin of this story came from necessity since most weddings were celebrated between Christmas and Lent, a time when the workload was light for all the families and when sauerkraut was the only vegetable available on the bride and groom's special day.

Christiane Becker, Die Hunsrücker Küche
Joseph Ollinger, Geschichten und Sagen von Saar und Mosel.
Hans Fischer, Das Leibgericht.
Der Blumenbaum, April, May, June 2002

Sunday, August 02, 2015


The Brautfahrt

If you’ve been reading my blog posts for awhile, you know that I am very fond of the book “Die Dorfstrasse.” (“The Village Street”) by Maria Croon. It is filled with vignettes about the customs in a small German village; customs that have almost completely faded away in our time. But thanks to authors like Frau Croon, we, the descendants of the people of Kreis Saarburg, can learn about the traditions, rituals, unwritten rules, and observances of our ancestors who lived in small farming villages in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Today's post is a short sketch from the chapter "Die Brautfahrt," one of my favorites.  We are introduced to two young people, Veronica and Peter, but better known as Vron and Pitt.  It is the story of a special ride before they were married but already promised to each other.

Custom of the Bridal Ride and the Guardian Angel

As an old woman, Vron, the nickname for Veronica, works at her spinning wheel most evenings. One night her mind goes back to the time 50 years ago when she was a bride-to-be and about to go for the Brautfahrt. Her betrothed, Pitt, had hitched the horses to a small field-wagon and was about to help his Vronchen (little Vron) up to the front seat of the wagon.

Pitt's mother called to him.  He must take the Schutzenengel, (the guardian angel), with them on the journey to protect the reputation of this still unmarried couple.  The mother combed the tousled hair of Pitt's little sister, Resel.  Then she walked the little sister toward the wagon and seated her on the wagon's back seat, just behind the betrothed couple.  In two weeks time,  Resel would be Vronchen's sister in law, but today she had the responsibility of guardian angel.

Once they were underway, Pitt showed Vronchen his land as he held the reins and pointed the short whip this way and that, and directed the horse along narrow paths that ran alongside the fields.  Then they went back to the road and drove from village to village.  Vronchen came from a town some distance away, and this was her first look at the place that was to be her new home.

They had just passed a small village when they saw a stand of birch trees that almost formed a trellis above them. Pitt said it was a special bridal decoration he had created especially for his Vronchen.

 The next field was full of wild primroses, and the guardian angel shouted for them to stop.  She wanted to gather them.  She jumped from the wagon and began to collect an armload of the colorful blossoms.  While she picked the flowers, her brother had his mind on other things. He begged his Vronchen to give him a Schmatz (I think you can guess the meaning of that word).  As he teased and begged, Pitt paid little attention to holding the reins of the horse.  The animal started off, leaving the little guardian angel far behind before Pitt was able to retrieve the narrow straps and control the wagon again.  Little Resel ran after them, shouting for them to stop the wagon and scattering the flowers that she had gathered hither and yon.  The boulders and grass along the way were now graced with the flowers that fell from her arms.

Guardian angel with flowers
After that excitement was over, they drove through a village noted for the shop where especially fine spinning wheels were made.  The almost-bridegroom bought a well-made little spinning wheel for his bride to be and placed it in the back of the wagon next to the guardian angel.

Now it was lunch time, and they stopped at the inn where the Wirtin (woman innkeeper)  met them at the door.  She knew of the upcoming wedding and teased Pitt.  How had Schneiderpitt* managed to find such a special young lady to be his bride?  Veronica blushed bright red but said nothing.  Pitt twirled his mustache and enjoyed the banter and the praise of his Vronchen. Then the Wirtin went to the kitchen and brought out a large goose egg.  Vronchen said nothing as she  stared at it in wonderment. She could think of nothing to say.  The Wirthin told the young Veronica to put the egg in the bag she carried. Pitt explained to Vonchen that this was the custom in the town. If a person cames into the Inn and said nothing, the innkeeper must make a gift of a goose egg in order to please the guest enough to start the business transaction - the cost of either a meal or a place to stay for the night

goose egg
Vronchen had one glass of wine, her wagon driver two or three, and because of the guardian angel's important duty, she was given only a glass of raspberry water.  The innkeeper then served them a plate of bread and ham slices.  The horse, Braune, gladly ate his oats before they all left for home.

As they drove toward Pitt's home where his mother and the mother of Veronica were making wedding arrangements, Resel decorated Vronchhen's new spinning wheel with the primroses she had picked; then used the rest of the flowers to make a crown for her sister-in-law to be.  The movement of the wagon along the road eventually lulled the guardian angel to sleep.  Pitt put one arm around Vronchen's shoulder, and they rode home watching the stars and listening to the song of a cuckoo.

Fifty years later, Vron experienced the bridal ride as if it was yesterday while she sat spinning on the little spinning wheel purchased some 50 years before.

*Note for Clarifying Nicknames

It is necessary to know that in Kreis Trier and Saarburg, generation after generation of babies were named in honor of their godparents. It was the custom. Naturally there would soon be a surfeit of boys in a village who were named Peter or Johann or Michael or Nikolaus, etc. There would also be an abundance of girls named Anna Maria or Barbara or Susanna and so forth.  At first using nicknames to distinguish one child from another could solve the problem of duplicate names. But at the time Maria Croon writes about, nicknames were not definitive enough. In the case of the bridegroom Peter, his nickname Pitt was shared by many other boys.  When a father called for Pitt to stop playing and come home, there was a lot of confusion about which Pitt was being summoned.  One way to solve that problem was to say the surname first and then the nickname. It was necessary for the Papa to shout,”Schneiderpitt, come home at once; you are late for supper.”

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Spinnstubenfest in Kreis Saarburg

18th Century Flax Spinning Wheel 

In some areas of Germany, especially those close to the French border, there is a celebration known as Karnival, the equivalent of Mardi Gras. Now and also in the past, the week before Ash Wednesday had many special "fests" during the Karnival time. One of them, to the best of my knowledge, is no longer celebrated. Because of changing times and industrialization this fest is only remembered because of a narrative in memoirs or history books or examples at open air museum celebrations. This Fest took place on the Thursday evening before the beginning of Lent. It was known as Spinnstubenfest or, roughly translated, the Spinning-Wheel-Stube Celebration.  Fortunately, Maria Croon called my attention to this festivity in her book, Die Dorfstrasse (The Village Street).

Little is written about the many winter evenings that Kreis Saarburg women spent spinning. However, like a quilting bee in this country, the Spinnstubenfest could be a time for getting together with other village woman.  As they worked, they talked while spinning the thread for the family's clothes, sheets, or anything else that needed weaving.

Frau Croon describes one such night that was very special. On the evening of the Thursday before Lent, called Fettendonnerstag (Fat Thursday), the sound of women's shoes were heard tapping on the streets in her little town as evening fell. Every woman was dressed in Sunday best from head to toe.  The young women wore colored ribbons in their hair and most had shiny buckles on their shoes. Each woman carried a spinning wheel that was decorated with red and blue ribbons. The spinning wheels were freshly polished until they fairly gleamed.  Fettendonnerstag was the time for the spinning wheel celebration, the Spinnstubenfest.

A Spinnstubenfest was held in a home with a large Stube.  It lasted at least three hours.  In the first hour every Frau and Fraulein did her spinning, creating thread from wool or flax while they gossiped and told stories of current or older times.

In the second hour, the spinning wheels were put aside in another room and tables were set for coffee and eating such things as crumb cake or pear bread, made with the dried pears that were harvested in the summer.  I picture them in smaller groups: the older women exchanging recipes and laughing about the foibles of their husbands and children; the young women gossiping about any new romances in the village, including their own.

As the third hour arrived, tables were pushed back against the walls, and the men, single or married, were invited to come in for dancing.  Some of the men brought accordions, harmonicas or Teufelgei.   No German dictionary in my collection or on the internet has that last word, but I will make a guess that this was a dialect word for some kind of fiddle (Geiger) played fast as the devil (Teufel). A favorite dance tune was "Herr Schmidt, Herr Schmidt, What Brings the Maiden With" (exact word order of the German)

Late that evening, when the music and dancing was over,  the men "played the cavalier" and carried the spinning wheels for the ladies. While the very old and the very young slept, the rest of the village folk made their way home in the dark. The streets rang with their voices singing the old songs until one by one doors closed behind them and the streets were dark again.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Farmer's Coat of Arms

Village of Irsch, Kreis Saarburg, Hausmarken

Does your family have a coat of arms? Royal families had magnificent coats of arms since the middle ages and took great pride in them. Books on Heraldry can be studied to find out if you have an ancestor with a coat of arms and your family genealogy indicates royal blood.  Heraldry, according to the American Heritage Dictionary is "the profession, study, or art of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol, as exercised by an officer of arms." For many years I believed that my ancestors, basically of the farming and laboring classes, would not have had a coat of arms and therefore could not be genealogically traced.

 It was only after I read the best-selling book "Roots" by Alex Haley, a black man descended from slaves, that showed that no matter how unknown and poor one's ancestors might be, there were ways to trace back to earlier ancestors.  People like me with peasant ancestry finally understood that there was a great difference between searching in a book about heraldry for a coat of arms or using books and old records to find the history of a family.  Everyone has genealogical roots.  Not too many people find that their ancestors also had a coat of arms.

However, the chart of figures above could be called the farmer's coat of arms. After tracing my ancestry to peasant farmers in the Rhineland, I was surprised that some landowning farmer did have a picture code that bore a resemblance to the heraldic coat of arms.  These coats of arms were without the colorful figures used by the aristocracy--bears, stallions, tigers, crowns, jeweled swords, etc.   In Kreis Saarburg, the farmers coat of arm's had nothing to do with royal blood, but everything to do with a type of land sharing known as the Gehöfershaft.

What is the meaning of Gehöfershaft? With my limited German, I still do not fully understand all the ins and outs of this complicated term which represents a manner of sharing a very large amount of land held in common. According to my research, in a Gehöfershaft, only small areas of land were privately owned, mostly valley meadows, which ensured the farmers a crop even in dry years. The rest of the land, especially land with hedges and oak trees was owned in common.  Gehöfershaft is a rare word that cannot be found in German dictionaries of today or even going as far back as the last century's dictionaries.  My American second cousin with whom I share Bavarian ancestry and who speaks fluent German, told me he had never heard this word and had no idea what it was.  Puzzling indeed, because if you go to a Kreis Saarburg village and visit their museum of historic objects like tools or cooking utensils, you may also be shown (if it has survived the years) the village's Rosenkranz (rosary) and given an explanation of what it was. And yes, the word "Gehöfershaft" will be used over and over in that explanation.

However, the Gehöferschaft method of land sharing exists in only a few areas of Germany, including Kreis Trier and Saarburg and also much of the Saarland. If your ancestors, like mine, were landowning farmers in these regions where the Gehöferschaft land system existed, they would have a specific house mark (Hausmark) for the farm.  The mark that identified their "Haus" (house and barn were in one building) was rather like the coat of arms used by royalty.  It plainly meant, "this possession is mine and here is its unique symbol that proves its descent."

In his book on the history of Irsch in Kreis Saarburg, Ewald Meyer writes that a basis for the long existence of the Gehöferschaft land-sharing system in Kreis Saarburg (until almost the 20th century) might just be the lingering survival of the house marks. In 1853 there were still a multitude of house marks, 137 in Irsch alone as shown in the chart above.  This means that 137 landed farmers had shares in (belonged to) the Gehöferschaft.

Originally Gehöferschafts rights were assigned to a farmer and identified by the Hausmark.  Research shows that these Hausmark identifiers are ancient kinship characters and were passed from father to oldest son.  After Napoleon changed the inheritance laws when he brought Kreis Saarburg into the French Republic, all the children of a family now were allowed to inherit an equal share of the family's possessions.  This law remained in force under Prussian rule.  It also complicated the Gehöfershaft/Hausmark system.  Originally, the shares of the Gehöfer land were equal in size/value.  With the introduction of the French law, the Gehöferschaft shares had to be sized into smaller sections and it was not always possible to keep the land share sizes completely equal.  Also new Hausmark symbols had to be created.

The Hausmark was not only used to show land boundaries.  It was also a property mark carved or painted on possessions or branded on animals.  The unique mark sometimes decorated a house's door lintel. They could be used on contracts and documents when the signers were illiterate.  Most of the marks consist of rune-like images. Letters are in the minority as you can see on the Gehöferschaft chart of Irsch in the illustration above.
Rosenkranz for the village of Schoden

The Gehöferschaft land shared in common were allocated by drawing lots. The lot numbers were engraved on wood-drilled beads, cubes, or tablets, which could be strung on a strap of leather and tied in a circular "Rosenkranz" in the same way as the beads on a rosary were strung and used for prayer (Rosenkranz is the word for rosary).  When it was time for a reallocation of the land shares, usually after about five years use by a farmer, the administrator of the Gehöferschaft would unstring the old Rosenkranz, drop the loose cubes or tablets into a hat or some other container, and the new division of land would again be drawn by lot.  As each land section cube was drawn from the hat, the new Hausmark was added by painting over or carving away the old symbol and painting on the new Hausmark.  Then the Rosenkranz was restrung. The Gehöferschaft community's administrator preserved the "Rosenkranz" until it was time for the next draw.

It was typical that any newly created house marks would show a strong resemblance to the original Hausmark of the family. It was usually a slight addition to the lines or characters of the first house mark in that family. Look at the each Hausmark in the chart above and see if you can find relationships among them. For instance, could there be a set of related family marks in row 5 where there is only one difference between square 2 and square 3. As you keep looking, you will see more possible linked house marks.

Unfortunately, emigrants lost their Hausmark when they sold their Gehöferschaft land before leaving for America so I don't know what the rune-like characters for the farmers Meier or Hauser or Rauls might have been.  But since I come from a family of hearty eaters, I think at least one of the Hausmarks might have resembled No. 87 above - a fork!

Meyer, Ewald.  Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes.  2004

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Disappearing Time

One of my writing corners

A Word of Explanation:
During the almost 10 years that I have been writing posts for this blog, I have also been working on a novel about one family, my Rauls ancestors.  Based on the genealogical and historical records I have found, and also German books on the cultural history of the farming class in the 1800s, I have let my imagination fill in the blank spaces and done my best to create living, breathing people who worked, celebrated, loved, and sorrowed in Kreis Saarburg Germany.

As I went along, I shared much of my research with you in blog post form on a monthly bias.  I suspect that during the time I have been writing the posts for "Village Life in Kreis Saarburg," I have gathered enough information for a fair-sized cultural history.  Sometimes I considered forgetting about the novel, especially when I was going through a period of that thing called "writer's block."  However I kept going, using background from this blog for the novel which is now finished - at least in first draft form.  That is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.

However, published authors tell me that my work has just begun and I see that they are right.  I am editing the draft now, approximately 400 pages, and also choosing a title.  Then I will have some volunteer readers give me their opinions of what is good and what is not so good in the story I have written - and where it didn't make sense at all.  (I hope there aren't too many of those parts).  The novel will be published as an e-book and also in paperback - and I will be making decisions there too.

This means I will be changing my blog posts somewhat.   My posts may become shorter and somewhat sporadic for the next few months as I struggle toward book publication (the lateness of this post shows it is already happening).  But I will keep sharing any interesting information about Kreis Saarburg that all of us with German immigrant ancestry might want to know about, and I will try to keep the posts coming on a nearly monthly basis.

I thank all of you who have been regular readers of this blog and assure you there is still lots more to know about our part of Germany.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Railroad Travel Then and Now

This year I was granted my wish to spend Christmas together with my sister and cousin.  Our Christmas day was spent in an exciting location, Rouen, France.  The three of us had booked a Christmas cruise on the Seine River from Paris to Rouen.  During our trip, we also allowed time for a special day in Germany.  We took a train to the German Christmas market in Saarbrucken, Germany.

Saarbrucken is about 300 miles from Paris.  By taking the fast (200 mph) French TVG train, we could go one way in less than two hours.  It was our first experience with Europe's high speed rail service, and we came away impressed by this experience.  Nothing like it is readily available in the United States.  We had comfort, convenience and amazing speed, all available at a reasonable price.

A Train Trip in 2014
Why am I writing a post about my Christmas vacation and trains?  Because the railroads played such a major part in the emigration of all of my ancestors - and probably yours.  I was traveling back along part of a train route which my great-great grandparents also traveled as they left Europe for a new life in Wisconsin.  I was returning to their former homeland area - and in great comfort.  I had no luggage to carry and barely felt the motion from the train wheels which seemed to almost ride above the rails.  It was as easy to walk down an aisle of the train as it had been to walk down the aisle flying to Paris in perfect weather. The return trip to Paris again took less than two hours.  We sat relaxed in well-padded, adjustable seats and also had a table to hold our snacks and drinks.  Some other passengers used their tables for laptops or to play cards. In what seemed like no time at all we were back in the Paris train station.

An early passenger train

A Train Trip in the 19th Century
This was not the way my 2nd great grandparents, Johann and Magdalena Meier, made the trip by train.  Almost certainly they had brought a large trunk with them, and I'm guessing that they carried sacks or baskets filled with necessities such as food to be eaten during the trip.  They had to keep track of four children ages 10 years to 18 months.  The train was coal fed, and I have read that the locomotives belched coal smoke back into the passenger cars.  The seats were of wood and every movement of the train on the track could be felt, rocking their bodies and even landing them on the floor if the train had to come to an unanticipated stop.  Still, the train that carried them was as impressive to them as was the one on which the three of us traveled last month.

Some train history:  By March 1861, my ancestors' emigration month, the railroads already were crisscrossing Germany. In 1852, the completion of a rail line from Forbach (very near Saarbrucken) to Paris made it much easier for emigrants from parts of Bavaria, southern Germany, and Switzerland to reach the French port of Le Havre by rail.

On May 25, 1860, the railroad line connecting Trier with Saarbrucken was officially opened, reaching as far as Forbach. The emigrants from the Trier/Saarburg area could, for the first time, get to the port of Le Havre in France entirely by rail. Prior to that time, the usual route was by land and barge to Antwerp.  The difficulty of traveling to America obviously started long before the emigrants set sail on the ocean.  By the time they reached their port of emigration in Le Havre, Johann and Magdalena Meier and their four young children had ridden on three different but intersecting rail lines: Saarburg to Forbach line, Forbach to Paris line, and Paris to Le Havre line.

Gare de l'Est, 20 December 2015

Gare Saint Lazare by Monet, 1877

The transfer between the train from Forbach to Paris and then from Paris to Le Havre was the most intimidating.  The emigrants had to navigate the city streets of Paris.  Travelers from Forbach arrived at the Gare de l'Est station.  However that was only one of several railroad stations in the city.  To this day Paris has no central rail station.  Even in our age of high speed rail travel, passengers who arrive at Gare de l'Est (the station for trains to and from the east) trundle their luggage from the Gare de l'Est to Gare Saint Lazare in order to get to the train that will take them to their vacation spot on the Normandy coast.

Johann and Magdalena and emigrants like them had to have some means to get their trunks and other possessions (including children) through the Paris streets to that second railroad station.  I have not found any information on how that process was actually handled.  The most likely scenario I can imagine would be that the emigrants had to pay to hire a wagon to take their trunks for them.  Did they know about this difficulty when they bought their train tickets?  I have not found such information.

Most of the emigrants arriving in Paris had never been in such a huge city. They must have gazed in awe at the Paris of 1861, which was still being reconstructed into the Paris of today using the dramatic plan of Georges-Eugène Haussmann who was tearing down much of old Paris with the permission of Emperor Napoleon III.  Some emigrants probably traveled through a construction zone of some kind.  Upon finding the Gare Saint Lazare, another trip of approximately five hours awaited them before Le Havre harbor was reached.

It took my sister, cousin, and me one hour and 50 minutes to travel from Paris to Saarbrucken. A very rough estimate of the time it took my ancestors to complete that same part of that trip is about 10 hours of actual time when the train was moving and not stopped in a station.  How many stops were involved could change that calculation considerably.  A second estimate of their total time from Saarburg to Le Havre, using my less-than-ideal manner of calculating, would be at least 18 hours and does not take into consideration any time spent waiting for the next train connection or crossing a part of the city of Paris.

The French website developed by the Historical Association of Triel has a chart that shows a train schedule from Paris to Le Havre in 1849 and a multitude of stops.  Another quote from the website: "The advent of the railway in the early nineteenth century has revolutionized communications between people by reducing an unimaginable journey time. For example, to get from Paris to Le Havre, it took more than 30 hours in 1814 and only 5 hours by train forty years later."

It just goes to show that the term "high speed" is in the mind of the one who experiences it, whether traveling in 1849 or in 2014.

Hammaecher, Klaus, SERRIG: LANDSCHAFT, GESCHICHTE & GESCHICHTEN, Saarburger Satz & Druck GmbH, Saarburg, 2002)