Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Pig Herder

Bremen square gives a tribute to the pig herder

To try to hang on to my German vocabulary when I haven't had a chance to speak it or review a practice tape for some time, I picked up a book that is at least somewhat close to my reading level, Geschichten und Sagen von Saar und Mosel by Josef Ollinger. Once again, I learned something new and I wanted to share it with you.

The chapter I chose to read was full of facts about a job that Olinger says was considered one of the four most useful occupations in any Rhineland village. This is the order of their worth: Pastor, teacher, mayor, herder. The first three did not surprise me, but I had not known that a sheep, pig, goat or cow herder held such an important post. If you discovered that your ancestor was a pig herder, you might make the mistake of thinking his was a lowly position. To the contrary, herders were valuable and respected for what they did.  They were the farmers' insurance that their animals were cared for in a way that assured these assets would thrive. All of them depended on the herders to find good foraging spots for their animals and guarded them from any form of danger.  So important were these herders that they were entitled to special rent-free dwellings, "Hertenhaüsern" (herder houses), for themselves and their families. They were also provided with a small piece of land for a garden.

In the 19th century, especially the first half, all but very tiny villages had a herder for each kind of animal. Hence the occupation "sheep herder, goat herder, cow herder, pig herder" can be found in the pages of church baptismal records which usually list the occupation of the father of a newly baptized child. The occupation of herder was one that was often passed from father to son.

The work of the herder was seasonal. It was not unusual for the village teacher to take over the job of herder when school ended in March and the children went to work in the fields. The herder of pigs might supplement his income by doing the fall slaughtering for farmers who had raised a pig for a winter supply of smoked ham and sausage. For this service, the herder received a piece of the meat from each pig he slaughtered.

Many of the herders were gone by the late 1800s, choosing to migrate to the industries in nearby cities. But in the little town of Tunsdorf, which is in Saargau area near Kreis Saarburg, Nikolaus Adler, the son of the former pig herder, kept his job until 1959, when he retired. He felt great pride in the work he had done, especially because, in all the years he worked, he had never lost a pig.

Each year Adler started his work as a herder on March 17, the feast of St. Gertrude,  called St. Gertraud in most of Germany. This saint's' feast day was often associated with the coming of spring. Some examples of Gertraud lore: "A sunny Gertraud's day will bring the farmer happiness. If Gertraud's day is sunny, it is the gardener's delight. If it freezes on the Gertraud day, the land will need 40 more days to warm it enough for planting. If it freezes on Gertraud's day, all summer will be cool."  St. Gertraud's day somewhat resembles groundhog day in U.S.

In his book, Josef Olinger described this last herder of Tunsdorf as a daily presence, walking the village road with a horn he tied around his neck with a piece of rope. There were three different notes that he blew. One was used to signal the pigs to come out to him. At that horn note, pigs left their pens without coaxing and came through the farm yard into the road. From one end of the village to the other, new pigs joined those which had been called out earlier. If a farmer neglected to open their stall, his pigs would push and might break the pen's latch at the sound of that horn call. A different horn note alerted the farmers whose pigs were still in the stable. They knew it was time to open the pen latch rather than risk a broken stall. The third note was one that seemed to calm the pigs as they walked, assuring them that the herder was looking out for their well being.

Male pigs and boars did not leave their pens. They were fed a diet of table scraps and garden root vegetables, fattened as much as possible for the slaughter in the fall.  The sows and the young pigs ate from the meadows and woodlands. They could use their snouts to dig for food in the fields chosen by the herder. There was enough vegetation to sustain them during the summer months. A successful herder like Nikolaus Adler knew the best places for forage.  On hot days, he would look for a spot in the shade to keep the pigs tender skin from the burning sun.  He would try to get permission from the village forester who protected the government's woodland to allow the pigs to search for acorns and beechnuts that had dropped to the ground, a gourmet treat that the pigs loved.

Since pigs are not easy to keep together in a herd, Adler had two dogs that helped him round up a sow or young pig that went astray.  His dogs were rough mongrel types but devoted to their master and to the job for which he had trained them. Even a huge sow with formidable strength did not deter the dogs. One sharp bite to a sow's rump or leg, and the animal hurried to regain the safety of the herd.

In the evening, the herder brought the pigs back to their pens. The older pigs recognized the barn and stable which they had left that morning and trotted to it willingly without any help from the herder.  The very young pigs sometimes wanted to stray into the wrong farmer's pen.  Nikolaus Adler knew his pigs so well that there was never any mixup.  If a piglet strayed in the wrong direction, Adler would call to his dog, "Kastor, get me the little one" and the dog would sort the piglet out and bring it back for delivery to the proper barn. The number of pigs grew smaller until each was back in the pen where it belonged.

On Fetten Donnerstag, (Fat Thursday), which was the Thursday before the beginning of Lent,  Nikolaus Adler was paid, mostly in foodstuffs like meat, grain, sausage, and lard.  Each house that paid him also served him a glass of Schnaps.  I can only assume that the herder had a significant hangover, perhaps lasting until Ash Wednesday.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this fascinating post. My ancestors lived in Udenhausen (near Boppard). One was listed as Sauhirt, another listed as Kuhhirt and his house name was Kühhirten -- this was his rent-free dwelling?! I have indeed mistakenly thought this was a lowly position, but apparently this was not the case. Thanks for such informative posts.