A silk worm farm, the leaning tower of Gelnhausen, and Barbarossa’s palace
As recounted in my previous post about our trip to Gelnhausen this summer, the first half day of our whirlwind 24-hour tour was spent visiting the homes once owned by the family of Onkel Hayn’s Aunt Schöffer (one of his father’s sisters), attending a concert in one of the homes, and meeting two of her descendants. Our second half day started out with an early morning stroll around town, admiring the half-timbered houses, the cathedral, and the two picturesque town squares (Obermarkt and Untermarkt).
It just happened to be the day of the annual flea market, so all cars were banned from their usual parking spots to make way for the vendors and their stands (in fact we got a call from the hotel reception at 6am telling us to move our car – luckily we had read the signs and taken care of that the previous day!).
The silk worm factory
After breakfast we became more goal-oriented, and headed out to attempt to find the house in the Schmidtgasse where Onkel Hayn’s father had grown up, and which had been passed on to another of his sisters, Susanna Maria Eysenbach. Onkel Hayn didn’t give us a house number, but enough of a description that we think we may have found the site, but our guess is that the house no longer exists and has been replaced by a more modern one.
We were particularly interested in this house because of the very unique home businesses that Aunt Eysenbach’s husband had operated.
“In the adjacent garden he kept bee hives for honey, and in the back of the house, which exited onto the side street, he operated a small chocolate factory. Instead of steam power he had a cow, which, by turning a large wooden disc on slate ground, set the whole mechanism in motion. On the third floor of the house, a large bright room was dedicated to silkworm breeding. Open boxes were placed in long rows on narrow tables, each of which contained countless silkworms industriously consuming chopped mulberry leaves. Entering the room, one could hear the crackling sound created by the gnawing jaws of thousands of caterpillars. Their care was extremely tedious; the room had to stay evenly heated day and night and the leaves kept dry, otherwise the sensitive little worms would die off by the thousands. The Kurhessen government had granted Uncle permission to plant white mulberry trees on the roadside, and it was his hope that silkworm breeding would become a popular activity in Hessen. On market days he dragged the landsmen upstairs to show them his installation, and explained to them how, with patience and time, a mulberry leaf could become a silk dress. Downstairs the more practical aunt was waiting, and advised the farmers against engaging in this far too risky experiment.”
Unfortunately we will never know if Uncle Eysenbach’s silk worm project would have succeeded; he died at an early age and his wife had no interest in continuing the experiment. She did however keep the chocolate factory going, which we know from letters written by her sister’s grandchildren, who were there for visits. She herself had no grandchildren. She outlived all nine of her children, losing the last when he died at age 40, making her a rich woman. She became a patroness of the city’s first kindergarten, which was built in 1873 to give the children of lower-income families a place to go while the mothers were working in the factories. The interest from her endowment sufficed to pay for the upkeep of the kindergarten for many years, until the money was lost in the two World Wars. The kindergarten is now supported by the town of Gelnhausen.
The “leaning” tower of Gelnhausen
Another example of money earned abroad flowing back to Gelnhausen was the restoration of the Marienkirche between 1877 -79. One of the four spires had become twisted over the centuries and by the middle of the 19th century was in danger of collapsing. A large part of the funds raised for the renovation came from the Schöffer/Becker family.
However, necessary as the renovation was, many of the townspeople were loathe to see their unique tower disappear, including Onkel Hayn:
“One of the two larger towers with its slim, lofty slate roof was the landmark of the town, and dubbed the Leaning Tower of Gelnhausen. It was hailed by the inhabitants of the city as a miracle of architecture and compared to the leaning towers of Pisa and Bologna. Unfortunately, it turned out that the high, twisted spire was not intentional, and owed its strange form to faulty construction or the poor quality of the materials used. Several decades ago the original straight shape of the tower—as it appears in the works by Merian published shortly after the Thirty Years’ War—was restored; and so, an interesting landmark of Gelnhausen has disappeared.”
The leaning tower may gone, but the ruins of the “Barbarossaburg” are still there and well worth a visit. We had just enough time before getting back on the highway to take a tour of the museum and climb what is left of the tower. Built between 1170 -1180 for Frederick the First (Holy Roman Emperor from 1155-1190), the palace lies just south of the city gates on what was once an island in the Kinzig river. I don’t usually find castles and palaces very interesting, and ruins even less so, but I suppose my interest in Gelnhausen spilled over and gave me an appreciation I might not otherwise have had. Apparently Barbarossa (so named because of his red beard) also liked this particular palace, as is proven by the number of times he stayed here (more often than not he was either on a crusade or checking up on the rest of his kingdom). Since there is a lot written elsewhere about both the emperor and the palace (for those with a real interest in art history, check this out), I will not go into detail, but simply share a few photos.
Entrance; the chapel is directly above.
So that completes the recap of our first visit to Gelnhausen, following in Onkel Hayn’s footsteps. We are already planning our second trip!