Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cloppenburg, Lower Saxony, Germany 10.7.09: Sharecroppers and Saying Thanks

Yesterday to Vechta to the diocesan archives, where we did research on Steve’s ancestors, with the helpful Mr. M. along. Steve was able to confirm his own discoveries from microfilmed copies of the church books, though I believe the diocesan copies have information the ones he had used didn’t. He can now trace his Rolfes and Endemann ancestors back to around 1700, and with more work, may push the lines a bit further back.

I helped by reading through local histories and taking notes. It’s clear from the church records (and the histories confirm this) that the Rolfes family were in Werwe already by the 1600s and the Endemanns in Ehren by the same period.

An old Endemann farmhouse dating to the late 1600s or early 1700s is still occupied in Ehren, and it is beside that house that the small prayer chapel I wrote about yesterday stands.

The story that unfolded as I did research seems to be as follows: into the early modern period, villages in this area held land in common between the villages, for agricultural use. By the early modern period, a push occurred similar to the abolition of common land in England, and the land was marked: i.e., boundaries of ownership were marked.

An order was given in 1806 by the Herzog of Oldenburg to divide land and establish clear boundary lines in the various marks of the parish of Löningen, to which Ehren and Evenkamp belonged. We met Herr M.’s mother, who’s 86 yesterday. She grew up in Ehren and told us her family had to walk to the parish church in Löningen each Sunday, several miles and a hard job when snow was on the ground.

When the land was marked, the farmers began to have great power in the marks, and those living on the farms and working for the farmers—Heuermänner and their families—were reduced to a kind of servitude, though they were often the brothers and other close relatives of the farmer. Many of these Heuermann families had previously owned land, but as their families grew and one branch held the family hof, other lines fell to Heuermann status.

For their services, farmers gave the Heuermann family a small, poor house, a bit of land, and a few farm animals. The Heuermann and his family were required to work on the farmer’s land several days a week, and were on call for the farmer at any time.

As a result, the children of such families often could not attend school. The only way they could earn money was to hire out as servants, or to work in shops and factories.

Living conditions were harsh. Evening meals consisted normally of buttermilk and bread, and the main meal might add to that potatoes, vegetables from the Heuermann’s garden, and beans. One worked simply to obtain the wherewithal to live, to eat. There was no future, no way out of the system.

As a result, a mass exodus of these folks in this region began in the 1840s. They headed to American knowing they could buy land and become farmers there.

And Steve’s Gerhard Wilhelm Rolfes was among them. The marriage record of his parents in 1806 notes that they married at the Rolfes Heuerhaus in Werwe, where a list of farmers in 1700 shows them with a farm. The father of Gerhard Wilhelm, Gerd. Meinrad, reported to government officials in the 1830s that something had to be done to address the needs of those in the area, which were growing acute.

The ship’s list for Gerhard Wilhelm lists him as a tailor, and for several decades on the federal census, his occupation is given as tailor, though the same censuses make it clear he was farming, as well. And finally the census shows him as a farmer.

He had clearly left as a young unmarried man of a Heuermann’s family, who had taken up the trade of tailoring to provide money as he labored on the farm. The promise to have his own farm lured him to America, and there, he realized his dream.

I don’t understand all the ins and outs of it, but it seems the church did not have the same strong hand of ownership in this region that it had in south Germany, perhaps because this is a small Catholic island in a Protestant sea. And that allowed farmers to develop strong economic and political power.

You don’t see in this area the big abbeys that dominate Catholic life (and which once controlled economic life) in places like the Eifel or along the German-Swiss border. What you do see is large, imposing farm places with large, comfortable farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings, dispersed on the land between small villages—very much like the pattern of the American Midwest, to which so many people went from here.

Steve said today that it’s curious that towns in the Midwest which are the size of ones here have so little culture and so little sense of history. But it occurs to me, Whose culture and whose history? When those pouring into an area were Norwegian and German and Polish, how to choose?

And when the Germans were themselves Badish and Bohemian and Prussian and from every region of Germany, with different dialects, religious views, and cultures, which to pick as dominant? So much of the American experiment has been about negotiating difference and learning to live together. That hasn’t left time and energy to build a common culture or cultural artifacts expressing that shared consensus.

Dreary here, the past two days. It has rained each day we’ve been in the north, and is raining heavily now as I (try to) write this while we drive to Braunschweig. Miserably cold and windy, too, so much so that folks in Cloppenburg were wearing winter coats today.

I wonder if this kind of weather is part of what makes people so gloomy seeming here, so reserved and frigid and sometimes downright oafish. Herr M. scolded Steve yesterday when Steve thanked him for his generous assistance, saying one thanks is enough and the difference between Germans and Americans is we thank and thank again.

Well, why not? One should express thanks, and it seems to me merely civilized to do so each time thanks are due.

Nor is this stolid reserve characteristic of all of Germany. Everywhere we ate in the Black Forest region, anyone passing our table would smile, say good day or evening, and wish us a hearty appetite.

Here, they just pass, gloom on their faces. It’s unattractive. And the food reflects the anal-retentive manners—horrible beyond belief.

People in north Germany say the friendliness and hospitality in the south are put-on, as insincere as our friendliness and hospitality in the American South. And that may well be true, and as an outsider, I may just not see through it all.

Still, was Quentin Crisp (or was it Wilde?) wrong when he said that the lie is the foundation of all polite society? What do we have to oil the wheels and make the engine run smoothly, if we can’t smile and pretend?

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