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Category Archives: Introduction

The Story

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The narrative left to us by Heinrich Wilhelm Hayn, (brother of my husband’s great- great-grandmother Caroline Hayn Hellfeld), tells a fascinating story of life in upper middle class Europe in the 19th century. It has all the earmarks of a good historical novel – a rags to riches story line, humorous anecdotes, a family dynasty, successful careers, exciting travels, wars and pestilence, cultural and technological achievements, joys and heartbreak.

Born into a prominent coffee import family based in Frankfurt, Onkel Hayn’s career took him to Rotterdam, Antwerp, London, and Le Havre, before WWI robbed him of house and fortune.  Although his wife died young, he never remarried, and filled his leisure time with social activities, cultural pursuits, and travels, including several to the Swiss mountains.  His narrative begins with his grandfather’s youth, and ends around 1918, with countless events described and more than 100 people named in the course of the 276 pages. His elegant writing style, keen sense of observation, and attention to detail makes it a worthwhile read for anyone interested in learning about how past generations lived.

The Book

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Onkel Hayn wrote his memoirs in a lockable, leather-bound book 1926 while living with his sister in Basel, Switzerland, in a house still owned by her descendents.  In the 1980’s, his grand-niece-in-law took on the task of typing the 276-page manuscript on her small manual typewriter, making several carbon copies. She was the only one in the family that could still read the old German handwriting. Thanks to her, and to text-recognition scanning software, his story is now available in digital format.

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The Gelnhausen Connection

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Gelnhausen

Gelnhausen (about 45 km east of Frankfurt) was the birthplace of Onkel Hayn’s father, Johann Georg Hayn, as well as of several of the male cousins that were Onkel Hayn’s mentors and employers as he climbed the “corporate ladder.”  J.G. Hayn was the first to seek his fortune in Frankfurt with J.H. Hofmann, Jr., and once established, opened the doors for his sister’s sons to do the same. One of these cousins – Conrad Heinrich Schöffer – had a double connection to the Hayns. His mother was J.G. Hayn’s sister, and his wife was J.G. Hayn’s wife’s sister, making him both a cousin and an uncle to Onkel Hayn. Heinrich’s younger brother Wilhelm was closer in age to Onkel Hayn, and the two of them remained close their whole lives. Both of the Schöffer brothers returned to Gelnhausen after making their fortunes in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, built villas (one of which still stands), and contributed either as patrons or through business ventures, to the well-being of the town. This has been  documented in the recently-published book “Die Gelnhäuser Grossbürgerfamilien Becker und Schöffer“. The first chapters of the book contain similar information to Onkel Hayn’s memoirs and fills in a few gaps.

Although Onkel Hayn never lived in Gelnhausen, his older brother Christoph spent many summers there as a child, and was the source of much of the information and amusing anecdotes found in the opening chapters of the memoirs, which recounts events as far back as the early 1800’s.

For more about the town, see “Following in Onkel Hayn’s Footsteps – Gelnhausen

The Grandfather – Founder of a Dynasty

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Through a strategic marriage with his patroness’s daughter, and further strategic marriages of his own daughters, Onkel Hayn’s grandfather, Johann Heinrich Hofmann, Jr.,  secured the success of of his firm and its many offshoots. For several generations the families tended to marry within a small sphere, leading to complicated kinships, but a strong loyalty among business partners. Their metier was the import business – primarily coffee, but also cotton and other commodities available through trade with the Dutch and British colonies.

By the time Onkel Hayn was born, his grandfather had passed away, and his father Johann Georg Hayn was a partner in the firm J.H. Hofmann Jr., along with two of his wife’s (half)-sister’s husbands, and her brother. They are pictured in this plaque celebrating the 50th anniversary of their partnership.

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The Frankfurt Connection

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This painting from 1738 shows the “Hühnermarkt”, the square in Frankfurt, Germany where Wilhelm Hayn was born and raised, in the house of his grandfather Johann Heinrich Hofmann, Jr. The house doubled as a store, and was the beginning of the coffee import dynasty that would branch off to include several independent companies in five countries, and would employ a whole host of Hofmann/Hayn relatives. The house was known as the “Grüne Linde” and is on the right of the picture with the white facade. By the time Wilhelm Hayn was born, it had been slightly re-constructed, with a gable added to the roof.  There is currently a restoration project in progress to re-build some of the houses on this square (all of which were destroyed in WWII), including the Grüne Linde.