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

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