A Very, Very, Very Fine House

Five generations of Chastains lived in this house in Schwabendorf, Germany from 1724-1851.

From 1724-1851, five generations of the Chastain family lived in this house in Schwabendorf, Germany.1

In 1724, Pierre Chastain is the first recorded owner of house number 15 on Sommerseite (Summerside) Street in Schwabendorf. Including Pierre, the house stayed in the Chastain family for 5 generations (Pierre, Alexandre, Jean Pierre, Christian, and Peter). In 1851, Peter Chastain, having become responsible for the debt obligations of his siblings, was no longer able to afford living there.

He sold it to a merchant named Salomon Salzenstein, and, in turn, it was quickly purchased by a relative and neighbor, Conrad Aillaud, for 800 thalers. The property was described as such, “residential house with cultivated farm land along with a barn, stables and a yard opposite the house”2.

Peter and family moved into a smaller, more affordable house, number 9 on Sommerseite, just down the street. Here the Chastains lived until 1860 when, because of an increasingly difficult economic situation, they left for America.

1 Badouin, Gerhard. Vom Val Cluson nach Schwabendorf : die Waldenserfamilien Aillaud und Vinçon. Rauschenberg-Schwabendorf: Arbeitskreis für die Geschichte der Hugenotten und Waldenser Schwabendorf e.V., 1996.
2 ibid.

The Mayors of Schwabendorf

Dürer, Albrecht. The Adoration of the Magi. Oil on Panel. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. 1504.
The mayor of Schwabendorf was elected annually on the Festival of Epiphany. This holy day is on the sixth of January, the first day after Christmastide, and celebrates the adoration of Christ by the Magi.

The following, an excerpt from Die Hugenotten in Hessen-Kassel1 by Franz-Anton Kadell, translated by Ann Sherwin2, is a fascinating slice of Schwabendorf’s history circa 1750, involving, among others, Alexandre Chastain, my six times great-grandfather.

An unusual dispute arose in Schwabendorf in the year 1750 over the office of Grebe1, in the course of which the Germans and French split into two factions. In earlier times, the colony had elected or reconfirmed the Greben annually on Epiphany. Around 1734, the Rauschenberg district appointed Georg Wilhelm Keseler as permanent Grebe, with no resistance from the colony. Beginning in 1740, the Grebe of Schwabendorf was provided an annual payment of 3 Viertel2 of grain. Then tensions arose between the community, on the one hand, and the Grebe, the treasurer, and Mayor Stiglitz of Rauschenberg on the other. Pastor Riccardi, above all, spoke out in criticism of both sides. The government in Marburg finally ordered an investigation by councilman and advocatus fisci3 Hamel, which resulted in a formal declaration, on July 23, 1742, of the colony’s right to elect its Grebe annually. It stipulated that the office could also be awarded to a German and that the officeholder should receive a key to the church, for access to the clock, but that he had to see that the fire rake was stored elsewhere. Despite the government directive, Keseler did not give up, and in August 1742 he produced a character reference from the Rauschenberg mayor. It took a formal decree of dismissal dated June 28, 1743, and reconfirmation of the colonists’ right to elect their Grebe before he would step down.

In 1750 the matter was resurrected. Keseler applied to the government in Kassel for the office of Grebe once again. In his opinion, the residents had dismissed him earlier out of jealousy. In the period that followed, they had repeatedly elected merchants and businessmen as Grebe, who were always on the road and left the affairs of their office in disarray [it’s very likely Alexandre Chastain, a hatmaker, was one of the mayors facing this criticism]. Keseler therefore asked to be appointed Grebe for life, pointing out that he was bilingual and had served the office well for years. Again Keseler found support for his efforts in Mayor Stiglitz of Rauschenberg, who endorsed the life appointment. In the latter’s view, the performance of the French Greben had been unsatisfactory because of their “negligence” and frequent absence. Furthermore, they ignored sovereign decrees, failed to report revelry in fields and elsewhere, and, finally, did not collect the seigneurial taxes properly.

At the behest of the government, Frankenberg mayor J. H. Crause went into the colony, interrogated the head of every family individually, and recorded the opinions of the 16 French and 8 German men. The French unanimously favored an annual election of the Grebe. That way, they said, a Grebe could not become too autocratic and the colony would be able to reconfirm a good one. They made harsh accusations against the applicant Keseler from the time he held office. What bothered them most was his domineering nature and that “the colony had to do whatever he said.” In all community and church matters, he insisted on his own way and tried to force them to abstain from work on Lutheran holidays, even though most of them were Reformed. He oppressed the French, strove to increase the German population, and “no colonist dared open his mouth against him.” The French seemed especially incensed that Keseler had brought the fire rakes into the church, contrary to consistorial regulations, thus incurring a fine of 60 Reichstaler for the colony. In general the French were of the opinion that everything in the colony had been “much more calm and peaceful” before Keseler had come to office and that the colony had also paid less in taxes. But then quarrels often arose with the pastor, elders, schoolmaster and the other residents, because Keseler wanted to punish the poor and especially the French residents for every trifle.

The Germans were less unified. A few declared that they didn’t care whether the Grebe changed or remained permanently in office, nor whether Keseler or someone else held the office. In addition to these, there were staunch Keseler supporters. In their view, a permanent appointment would better ensure the safeguarding of sovereign interests, especially since annual election would allow people to gain office who cared little about sovereign rules. For example, they said, Alexandre Chastain and Pierre Daniel Aillaud had violated forest rules by signing over 4 cords of wood to residents who had come from elsewhere and not taken the oath of loyalty “like other manufacturers.” They said that during Keseler’s time in office taxes had been collected on time, whereas François Joubert had collected the monies but not turned them in, thus failing in the execution. An annual change would diminish the “true welfare” of the colony and facilitate embezzlement. The French would scheme anyway and reach agreement long before the election. The Germans would be outvoted every time, since the French, because of friendship and kinship, would play into each other’s hands. Keseler, on the other hand, is “a very honest man” and, because of his knowledge of German, can follow orders precisely, unlike the French. As a man of means, he has no need to “see to his sustenance more than to his office,” and therefore during his time in office, things “things went very well” in the community. According to the Germans’ view, Keseler would have more support if he were not a Lutheran and “were not accurate to a fault in the performance of his duties.”

The French reacted to the interrogation by the Frankenberg mayor with a petition to the government, in which they appeared to have been alienated by the sending of the mayor and spoke out against Keseler once again. On Sept. 1, 1750, the government put an end to the dispute by barring Keseler from the office of Grebe and confirming the right of free election.

1 mayor of a rural Hessian village (plural: Greben)
2 old unit of measure; as a dry measure in Hesse, it may have been close to a peck. It was ¼ of a Scheffel, which is usually translated “bushel” but is not an exact equivalent.
3 state attorney for financial matters

Notes and Sources:
1Kadell, Franz-Anton. Die Hugenotten in Hessen-Kassel. Darmstadt und Marburg, 1980, pgs 627-630.
2Provides translations of German text and transcriptions of old German script. http://asherwin.com/

Tears and Toil

A few years ago, as I was walking by a cemetery, I saw a backhoe digging a grave. This is a sight I’d seen plenty of times before. Normally, besides momentary pity for the grieving family, I had never thought much about what I was seeing. This time, however, I frowned. Continuing my walk, I was unable to name the cause of this consternation. Finally, after several minutes, I hit upon the matter. We should be buried, not by unknowing, unloving, cold machines, but by the tears and toil of our grieving loved ones.

Machines and technology are both a blessing and a curse. They improve our lives with comforts undreamed of by our ancestors, but, as they liberate us from our responsibilities to each other, they also increase the distance between ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.

This was back in those heady days when I fancied myself a writer. The incident so moved me, I did what anyone would do, I composed a few verses. The first two stanzas are enough to convey what I was going for. (Since I’m currently in a merciful mood, I’ll spare you the rest.)

The tree lifts its arms high in praise
Shading the hushed and shrouded graves
The mournful music swells and sways
Through cracking branch and rustling waves

We bury our dead now with machines
Progress—that two-faced, craven thief
The dignity of man, to me, it seems
Deserves loving toil and heroic grief

Not just any grief but heroic grief. I pictured myself with shovel in hand, digging for hours in a downpour, numbed by my loss and the cold, barely able, by the end, to lift the shovel higher than my knees. Perhaps, in this daydream, I wanted to contrast this simple shovel in the hands of a caring, feeling human against the mechanical complexity and cold indifference of the backhoe. Because it wasn’t just any shovel. It was an old, sturdy shovel, in the family for generations, hallowed by decades of good, honest work, caked with soil from home. You get the idea. I was quite transported.

Not long after, I was reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. In it, the main character, a seminary dropout and barber, also doubles as the gravedigger for his small community. He knew each and every one he buried and condemned the use of machines for burials as “not at all the right way to do it.” Hear, hear! Berry’s fiction always emphasizes communal bonds. Those bonds don’t end with death.

It was with these romantic notions of grave digging firmly implanted that I approached a new development in my family history research. Upon receiving The Schwabendorf Book of Families by Gerhard Badouin1, a publication that details all families in the church records between 1687, when the village was established by Huguenot refugees (among them Pierre Chastain), and 1925, I paged through to examine the Chastain family. Along with dates of birth, death, marriage, and the names of spouses and children, the book also lists occupations. Next to Alexandre Chastain’s name (second son of Pierre born 1727) were the occupations ackermann and hutmacher. These were easy enough—farmer and hatmaker. But then there was a more mysterious word. One that I couldn’t translate satisfactorily—grebe.

Grab translates to grave and greben to dig. These were the closest words I could find. On these shaky grounds, I concocted the theory that Alexandre Chastain was a gravedigger and that his fellow villagers had, like Wendell Berry, a high view of this office. Clearly our ancestors, living pre-Industrial Revolution, understood the importance of such work. As time passed, I forgot how weak my translation actually was, and I became very proud of my gravedigging ancestor.

Eventually, I found a German dictionary compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm2. Yes, the Brothers Grimm. Along with collecting fairy tales, they did extensive linguistic work. This dictionary is filled with the language of the common country folk, much of it not found in typical dictionaries. The word grebe is included. It does not mean gravedigger but mayor! Alexandre Chastain was the mayor of Schwabendorf. Somehow, I was disappointed.

1Badouin, Gerhard. Familienbuch von Schwabendorf und Wolfskaute. Marburg: Görich & Weiershäuser, 2002.
2Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Deutsches Wörterbuch, 32 Vols. Leipzig, 1854-1961.