The topic for this edition of the Carnival of Genealogy is The Good Earth, and we are invited to tell about our ancestors’ ties to the land. When I first saw the topic, I doubted I’d have much to say. My immediate ancestors – and myself – are from a very large city, so there are no farmers among us. Even some of my immigrant ancestors came from large cities like Warsaw or Munich, or from industrialized towns like Żyrardów. Even those from smaller towns seemed to have occupations that dealt more with crafts, building, or mercantile goods rather than “the earth”. But, I soon realized that unless you are descended from royalty, you don’t have to go back many generations to find an ancestor who was truly tied to the land in some way. As I looked through my records, I found farmers on all sides of my family. Here is their brief story.
In Poland, the cycles and seasons of family life were deeply rooted in the seasons of the earth and the harvest. Because Poland was a Catholic nation, the harvest and all of the work required for it to happen were also deeply connected to the Church. Harvesting almost always began on July 25, the feast of St. Jacob and would begin with the celebration of the Mass and special prayers. Following tradition, the first stalks of grain that were cut were placed in the sign of the cross, and those first stalks were often cut by the farmer’s daughter.
The days of a farmer were long – from first light to sundown. The day would end with another prayer. After the harvest was over, the final stalks harvested were also of great importance with one area always left unharvested no matter how small the plot of land. Great celebrations were held after the harvest was over in thanksgiving, often involving the entire community. Most of the harvesters were not land-owners, but peasants who worked for them. It is difficult to tell from vital records if the term “farmer” implies that the man owned land or merely worked on another’s. but many farmers worked as day laborers on other’s lands.
Among my Polish ancestors, I have found several farmers or day laborers including my 3rd great-grandfather Józef Ślesiński (c.1821 – 30 Nov 1866), my 2nd great-grandfather Wawrzyniec Zawodny (c.1853 – 13 Dec 1917), and my 4th great-grandfather Karol Zakrzewski (c.1800 – c.1858).
The Bavarian countryside near Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany. Photo taken by the author, 1998.
The agricultural life in Bavaria, Germany, was very similar to Poland in both the religious connection as well as the fact that there were different classes of farmers. Even after the Protestant Reformation swept through Germany, Bavaria remained devoutly Catholic. The religious customs related to the harvest are remarkably similar to Poland’s customs and included prayers and festivals. The harvest was a community event even in large towns where the majority of residents were not involved in agricultural labor. After all, the farmer’s successful harvest meant that the shoemaker could buy food at the market to feed his family. Even today Germans take special pride in their farmers. The photo below is not from Bavaria, but the Tirol section of Austria. Both regions have similar traditions and celebrate the harvest with parades and traditional costumes.
Even the cows in Tirol (and Bavaria) take farming seriously! This is a farmer's parade in Innsbruck, Austria. Photo taken by the author, 1998.
Bavaria had more class distinctions for farmers than in Poland where you were either a land-owner or you worked for someone else. In Bavaria, the different designations were mainly for tax purposes. A bauer owned a whole farm, a halbbauer owned half, and a viertelbauer owned a quarter. Then there was the söldner, who owned either 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 of a farm. That may sound small, but there is even a lower designation – a poor häusler owned a house, but not the land on which it sat.
I first came across these farmer names when I discovered my 4th great-grandfather, Wolfgang Fischer (1775 – 1820) from the small town of Agelsberg. In the birth record for his son Franz Xaver, who was born in 1813, Wolfgang’s occupation was listed as söldner. It was an unfamiliar term, and according to my German dictionary it meant mercenary. Mercenary? As in a soldier of fortune, perhaps hired out to neighboring countries? I quickly discovered the Bavarian meaning of the word in addition to its other definition. A sölde is a small house with a garden, and as I indicated above a söldner owned either 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 of a farm. My mercenary was a poor farmer!
Wolfgang is the only farmer I have found in my Bavarian ancestry so far, but there is another family that made a living off of the “good earth” – the Bergmeister family of millers. As owners of a mill in the town of Puch, the family would have had a higher economic and social standing than the poor famer; however, his entire operation was dependent upon the success of the farmers’ harvest. The earliest record of the family’s ownership of the mill is around 1700. Ownership was passed to the oldest son for many generations. I lost track of who owned the mill in the mid-1800’s because I am descended from that generation’s second son, but the second and third sons continued in related businesses – one was a flour merchant, the other a baker.
Farming is back-breaking work – work that is often taken for granted today. In my ancestors’ times it was likely even harder work without the assistance of machinery and motorized tools. The closest I come to such labor of the earth is mowing my lawn – and though I do use machinery to assist me, I still complain about the manual labor. Next time, I’ll try to remember all of my farmer and miller ancestors who worked long days tilling the earth and growing food for their lords, families, and neighbors.
Sources used in this article:
Dieter Joos, “A Brief Description of a Typical Southern German Village in Past Centuries”, (Ueberlingen, Germany, 1999). Available online at http://geisheimer.org/info/germ/village.htm
Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, Polish Customs, Traditions, & Folklore, (New York, Hippocrene Books, 1993), 145-157.
John Pinkerton, A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World, (London, 1809), 30-33. Google Book Search. Retrieved on May 27, 2009.
[Written for the 73rd Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: The Good Earth]