What Life on a Tirol Farm Was Really Like

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Slowly I step into the hall of a historic farmhouse. It feels like stepping back into the rural life of yesteryear, and it sure was hard living there. Everything here is kind of distressing and grinding – I wonder if it is the old timber or the smell? At the same time, I am kind of fascinated by this authentic simplicity, this reduction to the essentials.

Christina

With passion for the detail—and with a twinkle in her eye,... View author

I am visiting Hacklerhof Farmhouse from Alpbach that dates back to the year 1675. It is one of the relocated heritage buildings, authentic farmhouses from all corners, mountainsides and valleys of Tirol that have been meticulously preserved and restored for future generations to enjoy at the Tirol Farmstead Museum. These wonderful examples of traditional rural buildings adorn the museum site, all filled with interesting artefacts recreating a bygone era. Equipped with the “Tirol Farmstead Museum” Audio Guide App I walk through the houses and learn interesting facts about life as it really was “back then”, not what I assumed.

“All farmhouses are the same.”

No. Tirol’s farmsteads are all quite different if you look at them. Different areas of Tirol can be characterised by the types of farm buildings to be found there. A rural farm building usually serves four purposes, for each of which there is a separate building or part of building varying in size: living, animal husbandry, storage of supplies and storage of machinery. Farm buildings correspond to traditional structures and can generally be distinguished by their layout. “Paarhof” and “Teilhof” are farm types that are particularly characteristic of Tirol’s Oberland Region in the west of the country. The “Haufenhof” type can be found in East Tirol: The separation of the various functions requires a relatively large number of buildings of different sizes that are arranged in a layout corresponding to the surrounding terrain. Tirol’s Unterland Region has mainly the “Einhof” farm type, large square-shaped structures embracing both animal stalls and living quarters. All the required units are contained in a single building under one roof and are connected with each other by passages. Access is either via the front or the sides of the building. Generally, these buildings have two floors. The ground floor is often built of stone, the upper floor of wood. There are as well farmhouses that are entirely made of wood. In practice, numerous mixed and transitional forms of these types of farm buildings exist, resulting from general historical developments and from the individual histories of the buildings, due to alterations and extensions.

 

Gwiggen Hof from the year 1625, is a “Einhof” farm type from Wildschönau; both floors are entirely made of wood.

“Alter Segger”, built between 1370 and 1420, from Kartitsch. A “Haufenhof” farm type typical for East Tirol where the various functions are separated in different buildings.

“The oldest son inherits everything.”

Not everywhere. Partible inheritance has been common in the Tirol Oberland Region, for example. This inheritance pattern is a system where the land was divided equally among heirs. These farmhouses were large, as several families had to live there together. The land was divided, eventually resulting in narrow strips of tillable acres that provided too little harvest to make a living. The farmers were reduced to poverty. The villages in the Tirol Oberland Region are clustered with close rows of farmhouses. As there is a great risk of fire breaking out when homes are situated next to each other, most homes were built of stone. In Unterland Region, to the contrary, houses were almost exclusively built of wood. There, separate farmsteads are scattered throughout the area and the danger of fire destroying a whole village was significantly lower. These dispersed settlements are the result of a completely different law of inheritance, primogeniture. This law requires that the whole of the inheritance passes to the firstborn son, in preference to daughters, elder illegitimate sons, younger sons and collateral relatives. The siblings often stayed on the farm to work there or went into a monastery. The rule of primogeniture was probably more profitable and efficient than the principle of partible inheritance. At least for the firstborn son.

“Women had nothing to say.”

That is true, unfortunately. It was a patriarchal society. By law, women were ruled over by men, be it their fathers, brothers or husbands. The only avenue of achievement open to them was in raising children, managing households and getting married. Their chores came before their own self-realization and education. Marriages were based on expediency rather than on love. A woman only had the right to appeal if her husband severely misconducted or badly neglected his responsibilities regarding the economic success of the farm, e. g. in case of alcoholism or mental disease.

Old kitchen at Gwiggen Hof, Wildschönau, dating back to the year 1625.

“They married for love.”

Well, that is an ideal that is fed by regional romance films of the 1950s that has nothing to do with reality. These days, people married for status, for the sake of just being settled. It was not about love and about living happily ever after, people stayed together to simply live functional marriages as there was no such thing as divorce (legislation introducing divorce came into effect only in the 20th century). Loveless marriages were often part of the tragedies in their lives. They had to maintain their vow to “live together until death” in the true sense of the word. If the farmer’s wife died, it was common for the widower to marry her sister soon after. For the sake of just being settled, of course.

“The farmers were rich.”

Hardly. Early farmers were self-sufficient as the farms provided all the necessities of life. They were eating what they grew and wearing what they wove and span, such as flax. However, their families were dependent on the harvest to live on during the year. They faced many questions about their levels of productivity every year, including climate and weather conditions. Bad harvests meant that that their own basic food supplies would not last for the winter and as a result, famine was common and widespread. It was the nobility that was rich these days, they farmed out their arable lands to the farmers and demanded their share of the harvest, no matter if there was a harvest failure or not. Noblemen paid no heed to the farmers and their families.

Bedroom at the home of Tierstaller Farm, Pfalzen, dating back to the year 1557.

“One more hungry mouth to feed was not a problem.”

I always thought that one child more or less was no problem on a large farm. Unfortunately it was. In the poorest areas of Tirol, the farmers had not enough food supplies to feed their children at times. This is a sad chapter of child labour in Tirol known as the “Swabian Children” (“Schwabenkinder” in German). These were peasant children aged between 6 and 14 who were taken from poor families in Tirol to work on farms in Germany’s Swabia Region. They were not paid for their work; they were only provided board and lodging. Swabian children did not have to go to school. When compulsory school education was introduced, the use of Swabian children as workers ceased. Anyway, children did not attend school all year long these days. Whenever they were needed on the fields or in the stables, they were kept at home. If there was not that much work to do on the farm, children were sent to school to learn only what was absolutely necessary.

“The farmers were always wearing lederhosen.”

I really thought that but it is not true. Lederhosen were very valuable as leather was very expensive. Until more skin friendly fabrics such as cotton were imported from America, farmers used to wear clothes made of flax. Flax was grown on their fields and spun by the farmers’ wives and made into clothes. Especially in the Tirol Unterland Region, where it is less mountainous, flax used to be grown a lot. When I imagine wearing a shirt made of flax, my whole body is itching. Those days people were not that sensitive I guess.

“Each farm had its outhouse.”

I remember the humble outhouses made of lumber that were still used in some places when I was a child. They are by definition outside the dwelling, and are not connected to plumbing or sewer. Outhouses were in use on farms from the 18th century onwards. Before, people did their business in the cowshed or used the balcony as a night time emergency loo to relieve themselves. Outhouses are still common in ancient shelters and on-mountain log cabins today. Taking a bath those early days was not even a habit, they would wash their face or hands every now and then; the same applied to their clothes. Personal hygiene was hardly an issue until the middle of the 18th century. Hairdressers and beauty salons were not needed back then. Today we place high value on personal hygiene but back in the day people could go from cradle to grave without ever immersing themselves in water. Well, as long as everyone was overly smelly it might have worked out well.

Panelled parlour with God’s Corner at Gwiggenhof Farm, Wildschönau, 1625.

“Farmers were healthy people.”

No chemicals, no additives, no emulsifying agents. Instead, organic farm-to-table dining by its very nature and lots of exercise and fresh air out on the fields and pastures—sounds as if farmers lived a healthy life, doesn’t it? Well, if there weren’t signs of wear and tear because of the hard work. And as the connection between uncleanliness and the spread of diseases was not properly understood, many people died of infections that were simply the result of poor hygiene. Medical knowledge was very basic during this period and there were no physicians practicing at remote farms. Food supplies were often mouldy and rotten, nevertheless they still had to be eaten—concrete proof of rural frugality practiced in an age gone by. Living conditions were heavy on the organism and far from healthy.

“The parlours were particularly warm and inviting in the wintertime.”

Hardly. The ‘Stube’ (or ‘parlour’) was the only part of a traditional farmhouse that was heated by a tiled stove and thus it used to be crowded and overheated in the winter. It comprises a surrounding bench, tables and space in the middle—where, in the winter for example the spinning wheel stood. Winter was the time to do seasonal tasks such as sewing, knitting, repairing tools and spinning flax. Chores that could not be done in the summer due to lack of time. As the parlour was very seldom aired to keep the heat inside, respiratory problems such as shortness of breath were a common affliction, especially for the women on the spinning wheel. There is even a saying in German referring to that: “Die spinnt” (from spinning; meaning ‘she’s off her rocker’) actually describes the symptoms of low oxygen, such as confusion, dizziness, light-headedness and fainting spells.

Workshop at “Alter Segger” Farm, Kartitsch, built between 1370 and 1420.

 

Step into the past and experience life in Tirol as it was “back then” at the Tirol Farmstead Museum. You can also download the free Audio Guide App there.

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