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I was in Northwest Thuringia (Germany) in October 1998, researching Gabel, Hartlip and Kruse ancestors who moved from the neighborhood of Heiligenstadt to Newport KY, Lima OH, Grant Co. Wisconsin, Cherokee IA and Park Rapids MN, Livingston MT etc, and I discovered a few things which might be of interest to your readers:
Many German Catholic pioneers of Southwest Wisconsin came not from Bavaria, Wurtenburg and Baden, but from a Catholic island in Lutheran ThÂ¸ringen called Eichsfeld. The state of ThÂ¸ringen is less than half the size of Wisconsin, and the county of Eichsfeld is about the size of Grant County.
Eichsfeld is agricultural, with no significant industries. Many Eichsfelders left their homes after the failure of economic and political reforms in 1848. In parish records after the names of hundreds of men and women you see the entry, Ã¬gone to America.Ã®
This October I decided to go back. One-fourth of my ancestors had lived in Eichsfeld but I knew little about the quality of their life, except that they were devout, sometimes disturbingly so. This report is primarily to update my Bertram, Conway, de Rosia, Gabel, Goebel, Gentz, Hall, Hartlip, Heinz, Huggins, Hutchinson, Jewell, Kisting, Kruse, Maclennon, Monohan, Moore, Morgan, Muller, Parker, Rasque, Sigafus, Staber, Thiel, Townsend, Wagner, Wedig, Weigel, Weirus, Wollf and other cousins in southern Wisconsin about what I found.
Geography: Eichsfeld is the northwest corner of ThÂ¸ringia, 60 miles northwest of Erfurt, the capital, 40 miles east of Kassel, 30 miles southwest of the university of GÂˆttingen, and 40 miles north of the Wartburg castle, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament.
The rolling hills covered with oaks and small farms in southern Wisconsin reminded Eichfelders of home. Houses are clumped in tiny hamlets, under a thousand people, two to six miles apart, surrounded by open fields. This is ecologically sound because it leaves larger spaces of continuous forest on the hilltops.
Agriculture: Efficient corporate farmers from Western Germany have bought many collective farms in ThÂ¸ringia, displacing rural farm workers. However the rolling hills of the Eichsfeld do not lend themselves to large scale farming, and most of the hills remain in forest. Lumbering is managed for sustainable yield.
Politics: Eichsfelders do not think of themselves as Thuringian, but simply as Eichsfelders. Eichsfeld was ruled by the Archbishop of Mainz for over 600 years, until the time of Napoleon. Because of absentee rule, local magnates, such as the Hansteins, Hagens, Bodensteins, and Wintzengerodas, never dominated the community to the extent that they did in a hundred other independent principalities and free cities within the Ã¬Holy Roman Empire.Ã® Although many local nobles supported Martin Luther's reforms, common people remained loyal to their bishop. Some joined Thomas MunzerÃs revolt against landlords in nearby Mulhausen.
Eichsfeld was granted to Prussia in 1803, during the Napoleanic wars, but it was not until after the insurrections of 1848 that the Prussians tightened their grip. In 1933, when Hitler captured almost 60% of the national vote, only 10% of Eichsfelders supported him. Eichsfelders were equally unenthusiastic about communist rulers from 1948 to 1989. Both Nazis and Communists left the Eichsfelders alone, rather than risk mass insurrection of a people bred for centuries to resist high-handed outsiders. Today they still resist the crass materialism of modern Germany.
Economics: For centuries Eichsfeld has been periodically devastated by foraging armies, plague, and famine. The largest town, Heiligenstadt, has only 18,000 inhabitants. Eichsfelders today often commute by efficient trains to jobs in Kassel or GÂˆttingen, to the West.
Technical obsolescence has haunted Eichsfeld. By 1840 competition from English linen mills had replaced beautiful local hand-made linen. By 1920 foreign cigarette factories had replaced local hand-rolled cigarettes. Today there is hope that the industrious Eichsfelders can make a cottage industry of computer programming, especially in the arts.
The Arts: The county seat of Eichsfeld, Heiligenstadt, contains many works of art in the streets and shops. The Heimats museum has samples of the great Renaissance woodcarver, Tilman Riemenschneider. The quality of recent watercolors, both modern and traditional, in local museums is excellent. There are pleasant bronze statues in the main street, named after a Prussian king, which is limited to pedestrians. Most streets are named after writers. Some, like Heinrich Heine and Theodor Storm, are associated with Heiligenstadt.
Architecture: Half-timber construction is still common but newer houses use fluted red ceramic blocks, a little narrower than our standard concrete block. Tino ReithmÂ¸ller and his fiancee, Heike Rheinlander, two of my hosts, are building such a garage and house in preparation for their marriage.
Religion: The heart of Eichsfeld is in the parish church and family. The devotional calendar includes a yearly pilgrimage to the isolated Hagis Chapel, a mile west of Wachstedt and a half-mile east of Gleichenstein Castle, where over 15,000 grandfathers, fathers, sons, and grandsons gather on a hillside every year to discuss all matters affecting their community, and rededicate their lives. The women of Eichsfeld have a similar annual gathering at a chapel on the west side of DinglestÂ‰dt.
A few kindnesses I must acknowledge: Father Raimund Fahrig, of Mackenrode, and Father Josef SchrÂˆter, of Heuthen, provided access to church registers which go back to about 1650. I found BÂˆhme, Brodmann, Gabel, GÂˆebel, Gassdorf, Gassmann, Hagedorn, Hartlieb, Heinneman, Hey, Kruse, KÂ¸hn, MÂ¸ller, Rehbein, Schuchardt, Schnemann, Steinmetz, Thiem and Wollf ancestors in the parish records.
My first host, Gerhard Kruse, is a guide at the border tower museum near Allendorf, where as recently as 1982 a farmer was shot trying to escape East Germany by driving a tractor through the eight foot double fence. Gerhard is also an experienced heating and electrical contractor. We discovered that we have a common Kruse ancestor Ã¬Hans the Baker,Ã® who died in 1828. GerhardÃs children are fluent in English, and I will never forget their kindness.
My second host, Heinz Funke, is an attorney who has returned to his homeland, where one of his ancestors was abbess for over 50 years, and many others served in the church. Heinz is a Renaissance Man of wide interests and deep understanding. He has modernized his house in a way that is respectful of older traditions, but takes full advantage of modern technology and spaciousness.
Peter Anhalt, an amateur historian and technician, gave me an evening of his time. He has written an excellent history of the village of Steinbach. Heinz Nolte and others have written histories of the villages of Westhausen and Heuthen.
Thomas Hartleb teaches physics and math at a beautiful old school in Dingelstadt, and his wife is a doctor.
Tino Reithmuller and Heike Rheinlander showed me Hanstein and Gleichenstein castles, and I got my best meal in Germany at the Clausenhoff, at the foot of the former castle. More importantly, they showed me how a strong faith has held the Eichsfelder community together through so much adversity.
If anyone would like more information about their Eichsfeld ancestors, first find the village where they were born, and then write to the Katholische Pharramt there. The zip code for villages near Heiligenstadt is 37308, Germany.
There is no set fee for church records, but a minimum donation would be $10.00 and a self-addressed envelope for each record searched. The Bishop's office in Erfurt has duplicate copies of many records. The area is poor, and the priest's time is very much in demand. Postage for a one-page letter to America is 3 Deutschmarks, or about $1.80. It is inconvenient, but possible, for Dollars to be exchanged for Deutschmarks in some Eichsfeld banks.
If you intend to visit your ancestral villages, do your homework in advance. Before I went to Germany I placed an ad in the Heiligenstadt newspaper, listing my ancestral families and their villages, and asking for information about both. Eight people responded, and offered me places to stay. This personal contact was far more pleasant and informative than booking a hotel. In one case I could only offer my host family a few books, in return for their hospitality, but with another host family I was able to do more, indirectly. I now would recommend using the internet now to contact potential hosts, as many speak English. Bon Voyage!
Please send any additions or corrections to me directly.
Peter Kruse Wilson