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Category Archives: Re-tracing Steps

Following in Onkel Hayn’s footsteps – Antwerp

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Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 6.54.45 AMOn my husband’s most recent business trip to Brussels we devoted our Sunday to a walk around Antwerp, the city that represented the second rung of the corporate ladder in Onkel Hayn’s career. He was just 21 years old when he arrived, but had already spent almost three years in Rotterdam working for his cousin Ludwig Wilhelm Schoeffer, son of one of his father’s sisters. His employer in Antwerp was the son of another sister, Heinrich Eysenbach, who had started his business in 1853 and by January 1866 owned it outright. Unfortunately, he was not bound to enjoy his success for very long, as an unnamed illness (possibly tuberculosis) put an end to his life at age 39, only a year after Onkel Hayn’s arrival.

Although his time in Antwerp was short, Onkel Hayn seemed to be favorably impressed with the city and its residents, especially in comparison to Rotterdam:

Antwerpen war schon durch seine glorreichen geschichtlichen Erinnerungen an und für sich ein viel interessanterer Aufenthalt als Rotterdam. Auch das Äußere bot mit seinen stattlichen und vornehmen Gebäuden einen schöneren Anblick, als die einfachen und eintönigen Backsteinbauten von Rotterdam.  Das bemerkenswerteste Gebäude ist die Kathedrale mit dem schönen spät gotischen Turm. Aus der spanischen Zeit stammen noch viele interessante Gebäude, wie der „Stehen“, ein Teil der alten Burg und Sitz der spanischen Inquisition, das Rathaus etc.
Ebenso verschieden wie die beiden Städte im Äußeren, sind deren Bewohner in ihrer Lebensweise, Sitten und Gewohnheiten. Der Holländer hat einen ernsten, zurückhaltenden, sparsamen Charakter, der Flamländer ist ungebunden, lebenslustiger, freigebiger und oberflächlich. Das öffentliche Leben ist in Belgien freier und ungebundener; man hält da nicht so streng auf die Etiquette.

Antwerp Stock Exchange Building

One of the buildings he didn’t mention in detail was the Commodities Exchange, where he spent every working day. This surprised me on first read, because the (unfortunately now condemned and barricaded) building is a magnificent structure, and its predecessor presumably also famed for its architecture, with a roof which resembled the Crystal Palace in London.

What I failed to take note of, is that the building burned down in 1853 and was not rebuilt until 1872, meaning this was not the building that Onkel Hayn would have conducted business in. No wonder he was so silent on the subject!

Still, it seemed like a visit to the building was in order, so armed with an address taken from someone’s blog post we set out. Little did we realize how difficult it would be to find. I knew it set was back from the main streets, so would not have an easily recognizable facade. But the directions from the blog proved to be completely misleading and our international smart phones refused to open any further web pages. So round and round we went. In hindsight I realize I should have looked it up on an old map, like this one:


Here it is marked clearly with the word “Bourse”, (trivia tidbit – Van der Beurse was the surname of an influential family from Bruges. You can read more about them and the history of the stock market  here).  As you can see on the map, the building is indeed hidden away, almost like a roofed atrium. Luckily, we did finally stumble upon it:



Alas, one can’t even peek inside since all doors and windows are boarded up. However, professional photographers have been allowed access and their photos are magnificent.


There has been talk of renovating the building and turning it into a hotel, but unfortunately the project does not seem to be moving forward at this point.

Antwerp today

In closing, I think if Onkel Hayn were to visit Antwerp today, he would find it in many ways similar to what he knew. The historic district looks much the same, the street and most likely the house where his employer lived still exist, and the people are still open, friendly, and “lebenslustig.” In fact, I always get the impression that the locals are on permanent holiday in their own city. In any case, we had no problem spending three hours at an outside table of a 300-year-old restaurant, enjoying the “ambience” of the city, and feasting on mussels and frites (of course washing it down with some very fine “grape juice” as my husband likes to call it). Cheers to you, Onkel Hayn!


Following in Onkel Hayn’s Footsteps – Gelnhausen, Part II

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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).

Langgasse Gelnhausen


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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.


Historische Bilddokumente

Schmidtgasse 1881, Historische Bilddokumente











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.

Ansicht von Gelnhausen von Süden, um 1865

Blick auf Gelnhausen, undatiert. Historische Bilddokumente

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.”

Barbarossa’s palace

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.

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Grabungs- und Sicherungsarbeiten an der Kaiserpfalz zu Gelnhause

Grabungs- und Sicherungsarbeiten an der Kaiserpfalz zu Gelnhausen, um 1930“, in: Historische Bilddokumente



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!

Following in Onkel Hayn’s footsteps – Gelnhausen, Part I

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Of Casinos, Villas, and Mayors Past and Present

Since Gelnhausen is where Onkel Hayn’s narrative begins, it seemed only fitting that it should also be the first place we visited in our quest to re-trace some of his footsteps. Of course the opportunity to connect with distant relatives and attend a concert in the villa built by Onkel Hayn’s cousin C.H. Schöffer was an added incentive. And so it was that we made our initial acquaintance with Gelnhausen this summer during the annual “Sommersalon”. And I must say our first impression of the town was extremely positive.

The erstwhile “Casino”

We arrived on a blustery July day just past noon, weary from traveling, and having done very little in the way of prior planning. The first surprise was discovering that the hotel reception was closed between 11am and 4pm, the second was realizing that our choice of restaurant was on the street where Onkel Hayn’s aunt Schöffer (his father’s sister) once lived. A short stroll after lunch took us to house 17, still very much as it was (as are many of the buildings in Gelnhausen), except for its freshly painted façade and modern windows. As a comparison, an historical photo of the building from around 1900 when it was named “Hotel König von Preussen”.




The initials of the original owner, Hans Bernhard Schmidt (a Schöffer ancestor), and the date 1746 are visible above the doorway, along with a symbol which identified him as a cooper by trade.


Another interesting tidbit about the house is that in Onkel Hayn’s day one of the upper floors was a kind of private club for town officials and dignitaries (referred to as a “Casino”). The average folk, including Onkel Hayn’s two aunts, often gathered on the ground floor to play cards:

“After dinner the even more spry aunt Eysenbach typically arrived to take her place with her older sister and other partners in crime at the card table. They played the popular game “solo” and at times there were lively discussions, particularly when there was a blunder to be admonished. At ten o’clock “the book of kings” was laid aside; aunt Eysenbach’s manservant had appeared in the entryway right on time in order to escort his ladyship safely home. The huge lantern he had brought was lit, since the street lighting and cobblestones left much to be much desired.”


The “Weisse Villa”

Our next goal was what is now referred to as the Weisse Villa, built in 1865 by Conrad Heinrich Schöffer, son of the above-mentioned aunt. From old photos we had seen, which showed the building surrounded by a vast vineyard, we expected to have to drive to get there. So it was quite surprising and incongruous to find it only five minutes on foot from the center of town. Now integrated into the street system, with no grapevines in sight, the villa is rather out of proportion with its surroundings, but has lost none of its grandeur and elegance.


With a slight feeling of trespassing, we climbed the steps to the house, by-passing the front door and heading for the side of the house with its manicured lawn and fountain. This is where we had arranged to meet my husband’s distant cousin, Dr. Kristina Michaelis, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Conrad Heinrich Schöffer, and author of the book “Die Gelnhäuser Grossbürgerfamilie Becker und Schöffer”. She is also the organizer of the summer concert series which takes place each July at the villa. We had been in touch by e-mail, but never met in person, so we were very much looking forward to making her acquaintance. How often do you get the chance to connect with a relative whose common ancestors were born more than 200 years ago?

Not finding Ms. Michaelis on the grounds, we ventured inside, and received our first impression both of the opulence the villa had once enjoyed, and the neglect it had suffered. Sold by the family in the 1920s, it fell into a state of disrepair, and in the 1970s was in danger of being razed (a fate that unfortunately befell the smaller villa built by C.H.’s brother Wilhelm on an adjacent property). Thankfully the current owner is now in the process of restoring the house to its former glory, bit by bit. Hence, the main entrance and staircase have the air of an abandoned haunted house, but as soon as one reaches the upper landing, it becomes immediately apparent what a magnificent home it must have been. Although the rooms are no longer furnished in Victorian style, and one of them has been transformed into a modern kitchen, much of the original architectural detail has been preserved or restored, and the general sense of what it must have been like in the 19th century retained. Being situated on a hill, the second floor has access to the grounds from three sides of the house, with the windows on the south side offering magnificent views across the Kinzig valley toward the Spessart hills. It is truly the perfect setting for concerts and lectures – spacious rooms, polished wooden floors, high ceilings, and the chance to wander outside with drink in hand prior to the concert and at intermission. (For more information about the Sommersalon, including photos of the villa, see their Facebook page). We definitely plan to return again next summer!


Mayors past and present

As it turned out, we didn’t have a chance to chat with Ms. Michaelis until after the concert, when she was able to step out of her organizer role and unwind over a glass of wine. In fact, she was late joining us, so we first had a few glasses with her father Jürgen, who was mayor of Gelnhausen for 30 years. There is certainly no better way to learn about a town than hearing stories from someone like him. I also got a kick out of knowing that I was sitting with a present-day mayor, and a descendant of an 18th century mayor (my husband) – so why didn’t I take a photo????

To be continued…..