On September 5, 1995, Judi and Jean Taeuffer, along with their husbands, Michael Scott and Ron Hoopes, left their hotel in the small hamlet of la Petite Pierre in the French Department of Bas-Rhin. They drove out to the West and turned North onto a small paved road towards the village of Frohmuhl which Ernest Taeuffer had left over 120 years earlier on his way to America. The road was marked by the Alsatian hiking club as 1 hour 45 minutes to Frohmuhl (walking, of course). They did not know what they would find there. This is the first person account of that day as remembered by Jean.
The narrow country road wound through a beautiful woods. It was so pastoral and deserted that I expected the road to turn to a dirt path at any moment. We came upon a placid lake that reflected the surrounding woods as perfectly as any mirror. We stopped to soak up some of the tranquility and try to capture the scene on film. A large, deserted building, white with the typical pink sandstone window sills and door frames whispered of another era. I began to wonder why in the world Ernest Taeuffer had ever left this beautiful place.
Soon we were on our way again, and presently drove into the tiny village of Frohmuhl nestled at the foot of a small hill. One block later, we drove out of the tiny village of Frohmuhl. In this part of France, each small town has signs on each approach with the town name on them, and Frohmuhl was no exception. We stopped to take pictures of Judi and me under the Frohmuhl sign.
As with all the small towns in this area, the church spire was clearly visible on the hill. Investigation revealed that the sandstone church was built in the early 20th century, and included a war memorial listing the Frohmuhl citizens who had lost their lives in World Wars I and II. However, no old cemetery was is evidence. Conveniently, there was a town map posted on Rue Principal, which indicated the location of the current cemetery. We drove the two blocks, past the tiny train station, to the cemetery.
The small cemetery consisted of closely spaced, well maintained graves covered with elaborate marble slabs. All graves held fresh flowers. There were numerous Taeuffers, as well as spouses and their families. However, the graves did not date back beyond Ernest’s generation. After photographing the various plots, we returned to the map in the center of town to consider our next move.
The mayor’s office, located above the one car garage fire department, indicated that office hours were 6 pm to 9 pm on Tuesdays. Happily, September 5 was a Tuesday. I was slightly disappointed to learn that the mayor’s name was Gaston Dann, apparently no longer a Taeuffer, as it had been throughout the nineteenth century.
Unwilling to simply wait until evening, our foursome continued to wander the village. People working in their yards or walking down the street had begun to notice us and we felt certain that the word was out that strangers were in town. Frohmuhl was not a place where tourists could blend in. Finally, we decided to inquire with a gentleman we had seen working in his open garage. Happily, he spoke some English and some German, as well as French. Michael was able to communicate that we were looking for people with the name Taeuffer. The gentleman indicated that he had only lived in Frohmuhl for the past two months, but that the mayor’s house was two doors down and perhaps he would be able to help us. We thanked him and wandered on.
While Judi and I were debating whether or not we should simply knock on the door, Michael did exactly that. A tall, blonde, young man answered the door and Michael asked if he spoke English. The youth reluctantly admitted that he spoke a little bit. Michael explained that the great grandfather of Judi and I had come from Frohmuhl and that we had come from California looking for family. The young man said “California, ooh,” and looked very impressed. Michael asked him if there were any people still living in the town with the name Taeuffer. He replied, “no…. but my grandmother was born with this name.” And we realized that, indeed, a Taeuffer descendant was mayor of Frohmuhl.
Michael told him that we would like to see town records and he indicated that the school teacher was also the Secretary to the Mayor and asked if we would like him to take us up to the school to speak with him. We agreed enthusiastically and the five of us proceeded up the hill. On our way, we learned our eighteen year old guide’s name was Michel Dann.
The school building consisted of a small, one room school house with living quarters for the teacher and his family above. Once there, Michel went in and brought out the teacher’s nineteen year old son, Eric. Eric spoke English quite well and was very interested in we Americans. He indicated that his father would speak with us when the children went to lunch in about 15 minutes.
We discussed what we did for a living, and they were quite interested to discover that I manufactured Coca Cola. Eric and Michel asked what we had seen in the area and recommended several points of historical interest.
They explained that this school was for the young children of the area and that older children went to school in similar buildings in other towns. Presently, a small bus arrived to take the out-of-town children home for lunch. The children came running out of the school, just as they would in any other country in the world, and the teacher invited us inside.
Unfortunately, although Richard did not speak a word of English, like any other teacher, he had a lot to say. Poor Eric did his best to keep up the translation. We were told that the original school and church had been located a little further down the hill, but that the railroad company had torn them down so that the tracks could run through. The railroad had then built the existing school in return for the right-of-way. Richard indicated that he would have more time to go over the records with us after school was out at 4 that afternoon. So we agreed to meet him then.
Michel asked us if we would like to meet his grandmother, and we, obviously, replied that we would. So we walked back into town and approached a small house. Michel walked into the back yard where a small white haired lady was working. They spoke a few minutes, and then came out to where we were standing. Michel introduced us and his grandmother, Lucie, invited us into the house.
We gathered around the dining room table and Lucie brought us Port wine and cookies. I tried to write down the family relationship on a scrap of paper, as I had thoughtlessly left the computer print-outs at the hotel. She had not been aware that she had had a great uncle Ernest who had gone to America, but was indeed familiar with the name Sophie Winter (Ernest’s mother). She also corrected me in the name of Catherine Taeuffer’s husband August Noelinger. The name was actually Noetinger and Lucie had a whole photo album of that branch of the family. She brought it out and went through great explanations that Michel tried valiantly to translate. The Noetinger family had moved to Strasbourg, where one of the daughters entered a convent, one married a count, and the third went crazy after the war and was always yelling that Hitler was coming. The son had joined the service and had left France for Indochin (Viet Nam).
Lucie regaled us of stories of the G.I.s that came to liberate Frohmuhl in 1944. We ascertained that some of the soldiers that came through were black men who tried to get the local girls to accompany them back to America. One of the soldiers continued to write his Alsatian sweetheart for two years, and the girl had only been 16 years old! I was very disappointed in myself that I had not brought my tape recorder. I asked Michel to ask his grandmother if she would write me the stories she remembered so that I could translate them. They did not seem to understand why I would be interested in such stories.
We also learned that Frohmuhl translated to “happy mill” and had been named such by a convent of Catholic nuns who had lived in the building by the lake which we had seen earlier that day. Lucie told us that when she was a girl, unmarried young women would work making straw hats that were exported to Indochin.
Presently, we began to feel we had stayed long enough and we took our leave. We agreed to meet Michel back at his home that afternoon at 4 pm to go over the town records. And we left Frohmuhl to return to la Petite Pierre.
After enjoying lunch in la Petite Pierre, we returned to Frohmuhl, this time armed with genealogical print-outs and tape recorder. We met Michel at his home and proceeded to the school house. After releasing the children for the day, Richard asked that we meet him at the mayor’s office. Once there, he pulled the original town records (the micro-film of which I had gone through in Salt Lake City) out of the cupboard. He began going through them and photo-copying the birth records of various Taeuffers, all the time speaking in rapid French. I had the presence of mind to start the recorder, with the idea that one day I would learn enough French to understand what he had been saying.
Eric made a valiant effort at keeping up the translation. I told him that I had seen microfilms of the records we were holding. He could not believe what I was saying, and thought he must have misunderstood my English. But I explained again, that these records had been microfilmed in 1979 by the Mormon Church and were available to the public in Utah. They were amazed that anyone should be interested in the records of their little town.
Richard explained apologetically, that the records from several years in the late 1800’s were missing because they had been burned. He went on to say that in 1944, when the American G. I.s came through to liberate the town, they had made camp in the school house. It was very cold and they had no fire wood, so they had pulled up the floorboards of the school and used the records as tinder. I was horrified that our soldiers would have come in and torn up the floor, acting like so many barbarians. I reacted very strongly and with obvious dismay. Richard explained that the people in the town had been very happy to have the Americans destroy the school house floor, because they had chased the Nazis out.
As we went through the records, several people came into the office on various errands. Eric explained that when the office was officially open, no one ever showed up, but when they saw Richard’s car parked in front they all came around. I suspect they had just wanted to come in to take a look at the Mayor’s American relatives and see what we were up to.
After we had looked through the records we thanked Richard profusely and walked down stairs. Michel asked if we wanted to meet his uncle, Charles who lived across the street from the Mayor’s office. We approached a lovely home with beautiful window boxes spilling over with red blossoms. Michel spoke with the man in the garage and dragged him over to us. Charles did not speak English and was very shy with us. He was the reincarnation of our own Ed Taeuffer. We complimented him on his garden and, realizing we were making him uncomfortable, we took our leave.
As we walked down the street towards our car, a young girl approached. Michel told us this was Charles’ daughter and he grabbed her. He began to tell her who we were when she looked at him and said something in French which obviously translated to “yeah, I already know about them.” This Frohmuhl was beginning to feel more and more like Healdsburg.
As we walked past Lucie’s home, she came outside and began speaking to Judi and me enthusiastically. We looked to Michel helplessly and asked for a translation. He informed us that she had a present for us. She took us into her home and presented us with decorative plates depicting typical Alsatian scenes. She also gave us an old postcard with an aerial photo of Frohmuhl. We were speechless and could only thank her again and again. Michel explained that Lucie owned the local restaurant and showed us the location on the postcard. He then told us she wanted to show us something.
We walked outside toward the restaurant where Lucie pointed out to us the keystone above the door. Upon inspection we found it was carved with the date 1804 and the names Nicolas Taeuffer and Anna Marie Macart. Again, we were speechless with delight.
About this time, Michel spotted a small red car approaching and flagged it down. He spoke to the driver for a moment, who then parked the car and approached us. It was Michel’s father, Gaston Dann, the mayor. He invited us to their home where his wife, Bernadette had just arrived. We all trooped into the dining room where we were served wine and cookies. Gaston told us that when Michel had come up to the car and told him that relatives from California were here he had though Michel was crazy.
We found out that Gaston and Bernadette were both teachers in local towns. In addition to being mayor of Frohmuhl, Gaston was president of the Alsatian society which was in charge of restoration of the numerous historical sites of the region. Gaston indicated that Bernadette had the next day’s afternoon free and that, if we liked, she would take us around to the various points of interest. We didn’t know whether or not we were supposed to decline out of politeness, and after a few rounds of Bernadette insisting it was not an imposition, we agreed. She told Michel and Eric that they would come along, as well, and it was agreed we would meet at the hotel the next afternoon.
They were very interested in finding out how we had known where to look for our family. I explained that we had found the slip of paper that said “Ernest Taeuffer came from the village of Frohmuhl in the canton de la Petite Pierre.” They nodded at the reference to the canton and laughed as I explained that, while I had found la Petite Pierre on the first map I looked at, it took several maps until I had actually found Frohmuhl. Gaston considered our theories as to why Ernest had left France, He verified that Ernest would have been required to serve in the German army, and agreed that he had probably fled to avoid that.
We stayed until we felt we should go, and gave many thanks to one and all. We drove back to our hotel with our heads spinning.
The next morning we drove to one of the recommended points of interest, the houses under the rocks in Graufthal. After lunch we went to await our guides at the tables in front of our hotel. Bernadette, Michel, and Eric arrived promptly at the appointed hour. Before we were on our way, however, Bernadette stopped to speak with some people she knew. Now all of la Petite Pierre would be aware of our mission.
Eric rode in the rental car with Ron and Michael, and Judi and I went with Michel and Bernadette in their car. We drove to the chateau at Lichtenburg. Bernadette knew the ladies working in the ticket booth. We received a detailed tour from our guides. The young men impressed us with their knowledge of and interest in the history of the area.
In addition to the chateau, we were guided to several “typical Alsatian villages” complete with half-timbered houses loaded down with flowers, flowers, flowers cascading from window boxes, as well as lining the yards. We were then whisked out to the areas famous for ceramic ware. It seemed they were determined to show us as many points of interest as was humanly possible in the time allotted.
Finally, it was time to drop us back at the hotel. We thanked our new-found family again and again. Promises to write were made and hand-shakes were exchanged all around. And then they were gone and we were left with our heads spinning again.
A more perfect visit to Ernest’s home land could not have been imagined nor hoped for.