It’s been about 345 years since my ancestors on my mother’s side were driven out of Switzerland. Records show that about 450 Anabaptists (later Mennonites) left their farms and most of their possessions in the Emmental Valley and relocated to Germany around 1671. It was another 30 years before they sailed to the New World where they first settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and almost a century later in York County, Ontario. But don’t get the impression these people were nomads. It’s actually quite the opposite as at least six generations of Stuaffers were born on the same farm, located in the Canton of Bern, halfway between the communities of Rothenbach and Eggiwil. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries the property was known as Luchsmatt Farm.
Several years ago when I started planning this trip I called up an online map of Switzerland and easily found the communities of Eggiwil and Rothenbach. When Google Earth first added images of rural Switzerland, I had a look at images of the small community of Eggiwil and was pleased to see that it’s still surrounded by farmland. There’s very little urban sprawl in this part of the world. At 2427, the population of Eggiwil is probably about the same as it was in the 1670s.
For a while I wondered if it would be possible to determine the exact location of what was once known as Luchsmatt Farm. Would the land registration office have maps from that era? Was there a written description such as ‘Lot Number’ or some other way to track down which farm my ancestors once occupied? I didn’t do much advance planning but knew that I had a week in the area and I’d see where that led me. Then a few weeks ago I was checking the area on Google Maps and noticed that many of the properties on the road between Eggiwil and Rothenbach are now named. Was it possible that Luchsmatt Farm could still be called Luchsmatt Farm? A long shot to be sure, but I poured over the maps and sure enough, there it was: Luchsmatt Farm!
I thought about contacting the current residents and asking if I could stop by. This seemed a bit too much like a plan and I wouldn’t want them to go to any preparations in case something came up and I didn’t make it. I decided to just wing it. So on the morning of Wednesday, April 6 I set out to find the farm that my ancestors left 345 years ago. Here’s a pictorial account of my day.
The ticketing procedure at Bern’s Central Station is fully automated and very straightforward. There was a train leaving for Signau in 8 minutes and from Signau I could connect with an hourly bus that travels the road to Rothenbach. I bought a ticket and hurried to Platform 3.
When I got to the platform I found a young guy with a hockey stick and his equipment. You don’t see that everyday in the places I’ve been traveling so I struck up a conversation. I wondered if he might be a semi-pro player who had just been called up by another team. It turned out that his name is Tim, he works the night shift at a bakery in the suburbs and plays rec hockey on Wednesday mornings in Bern. So much for meeting a future NHL’er.
While we talked, a train made a one minute stop at Platform 3. I don’t think its destination signage said Signau so I didn’t pay much attention.
“That was the train to Signau,” said Tim as the doors closed and it pulled away.
Oh well, there’s another train in 30 minutes. That’s the beauty of European train travel!
This dude could be a relative. I wasn’t quick enough to get a nice shot of his impressive beard but he looked a lot like my maternal Great Grandfather, Samuel Hoover (below) whose daughter Frances (my mom’s mom) married a Stouffer. The Hoovers also came from this area.
Samuel Barkey Hoover was born in Markham, Ontario, Canada on 4 Jun 1840 to Christian Hoover and Anna Berkey. Samuel married Susannah Wideman and had 9 children. He passed away on 11 Oct 1917 in Markham, Ontario, Canada.
I rode the bus for about 15 minutes before hearing an announcement that sounded like “Eggiwil.” As I stood on the shoulder of the road and watched the bus disappear into the distance I realized that I was at Eggiwil Ski Hill and still about 5km from the actual town of Eggiwil. I’ll be walking about 30 kilometres a day beginning next week so I decided to just walk the rest of the way. The only other option would be hitchhiking and somehow that seemed like cheating. (You certainly don’t hitchhike on the Camino.)
Eventually I came to Eggiwil Dorf. You know this is a big centre when they have a sawmill, small factory (Zaugg snow blowers), a farm implement dealer (New Holland), AND a lot of very friendly farm animals.
The factory was closed on a Wednesday afternoon, as were most of the business, but three hair salons were open and doing a booming business. There are a lot of businesses in this world that I could walk into and pretend to be a potential customer but a hair salon ain’t one of them.
After crossing my third covered bridge in an hour, I entering the town proper and immediately came upon Fritz Stettler’s welding shop. I opened the door and walked in. A brass bell signalled my arrival but nobody appeared to be working there. I wanted to take some photos of the old-time blacksmith equipment but it didn’t feel right when nobody was home. I went back outside, closed the door, and took some shots through the window.
After a few minutes an older gentleman in overalls came hobbling down the road. He just looked like a Fritz Stettler. I introduced myself as Mike Hamilton and asked if he was Frtiz. “Yeah,” he said. That’s about as far as we got in that discussion. He was very friendly and clearly wanted to show me around his shop so I took the royal tour.
I showed Fritz the Wikipedia page for Christian Stauffer. He seemed to understand that I was from Canada and Christian was my ancestor. I think we bonded. With a name like Stettler, we might even be related.
Fritz gave me a 10 minute lesson in the art of making wagon wheels. He fashions the wooden hubs and spokes on two separate machines and a third machine is used to bend the steel rims. I think he was very happy that someone would show an interest in wagon wheels in 2016.
After a while Fritz and I were able to converse pretty well. When I mentioned “Luchsmatt Farm,” he pointed down the road. I indicated that I would walk there. He indicated that I would not walk there. “Nay, nay, nay,” was all he said as he walked out the door and left me standing in the shop.
A few minutes later Fritz pulled up in his car and motioned for me to get in. A woman appeared and seemed to have a problem with some work that he had done for her husband. She wanted Fritz to come and look at the trailer hitch or whatever it was. “Nay, nay nay,” was his reply. He got in the car and we drove off with the woman left standing by the side of the road.
About 4km down the road toward Rothenbach we pulled into a laneway. “Luchsmatt,” said Fritz. We drove up a gently sloping drive and parked near the barn.
We were soon met by a man whose named turned out to be Burki. He didn’t speak English either but it was clear that he owned the place, his name was Burki, and his son and grandson also live on the farm.
Fritz mentioned Christian Stauffer, the date 1671, and that I was from Canada (so he had understood the gist of what I had said) and Mr. Burki told him to take me up the hill to the main house.
Cattle occupy the lower level of most rural Swiss houses while the people live up above. Even though this house appeared to be fairly new (maybe 20 years at most) it was still built in the traditional style. As the property is quite small, I’m sure it was built on the same site as the house the Stauffer’s would have occupied until 1671. I can see why you might want to “freshen up” a house every 345 years if you have cows living on the main floor.
I have Burkis in my family tree as well, although I believe they worked their way in through marriage so I doubt that we’re directly related. But we could be, you never know. These people spend a lot of time standing around and staring at their rubber boots, just like some of my country cousins!
Fritz drove me back to his shop and fired up the saw that he uses to make spokes. I was interested in his woodworking but also found it interesting that he appeared to have quite a little hydroponic operation going on in the back room.
I have been pretty good about limiting my souvenir shopping to embroidered patches (of which there were none in Eggiwil) so I asked Fritz if he sold the bells that he had sitting around. He did. I bought the smallest one he had. What’s another 300 grams?