Tag Archives: Alsace

A Visit to an Alsatian Village

I can never forget the moment when I knocked at the door of a home in a small French village, a copy of my family tree chart in my hands as I stammered the phrase, “Bonjour. L’histoire de ma famille! to the startled teenage girl who answered. Thankfully, before long, with our fathers by our side—her father just so happened to be the mayor of Sondersdorf, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France—we managed to reach a mutual understanding of the fact that my father and I had ancestral roots in this village and would love to take a peek at the old records.

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Sondersdorf, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France photograph, 2006; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2016.

This was ten years ago, when I first traveled to Europe. Along with a few days spent in Paris and the ancestral village of my mother’s German grandfather, we also paid a visit to the charming Alsace region of northeastern France where my father’s great-great-grandfather had lived and served in the Franco-Prussian War.

Joseph Lutz, the son of Francois Joseph Lutz and Switzerland-native Marguerite Meister, was born 31 May 1844 in Sondersdorf, Haut Rhin, Alsace, France.1 In his mid-twenties when the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 broke out, family lore states that Joseph served and was injured.2 Following the war and its German victory, the residents of the newly annexed region of Alsace were informed that they could remain French citizens by removing to France by the fall of 1872, or they could stay in their homes and default to German citizenship.3 Joseph’s parents, who were over seventy by this time, apparently opted to stay in Sondersdorf; a move to French territory may well have proven to have been a great hardship, no matter if they would have preferred to remain French.4 In any case, it was said that Joseph did not wish to live under German rule.5 Thus, at the age of twenty-eight, he left Sondersdorf for America, where he settled in Faribault County, Minnesota, near other relatives.6

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Sondersdorf, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France photograph, 2006; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2016.

It was a treat to see Sondersdorf, although it was not quite the rugged and rocky village that my father had long envisioned. Although in a mountainous area with the snow-capped Alps within view, Sondersdorf boasted a tidy village situated among rolling green fields. We enjoyed exploring a beautiful old cemetery, where the Lutz surname was prominent, and paid a visit to the village church. If I recall correctly, it was a local who called down an inquisitive greeting from a shutter-framed window who directed us to the mayor’s home for our genealogical questions. After becoming acquainted with the mayor and his daughter in a mix of broken English, French, and German, we made plans to meet the next day to see the old vital records held in the local school building.

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Ferrette, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France photograph, 2006; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2016.

We were treated equally well by the people of Ferrette, a larger village nearby, where we stayed the night. Hearty Alsatian meals and investigating the crumbling castle ruins on its picturesque hillside kept us well entertained until it was time to return to Sondersdorf. There, we met again with the mayor, who allowed us to page through the centuries-old record books, brown ink faded on the pages. Although we didn’t conduct in-depth research, not wanting to take advantage of the mayor’s time, it was incredible to see so many family names recorded in their original form. Upon our departure, the mayor kindly presented me with a book about the history of the churches of the region, in which he inscribed the date and the place—much as Joseph Lutz had inscribed his prayerbook upon his departure from Sondersdorf, long ago.

Copyright © 2016 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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A Prayer Book from Home

Before Joseph Lutz left his home village, he carefully inscribed his name inside a leather-bound prayer book, small enough to be tucked inside a coat pocket. “This book belongs to me, Joseph Lutz of Sondersdorf,” he penned in French. The book, however, was printed in German; Joseph spoke both languages, having grown up in an area that was the subject of dispute between France and Germany.1

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Joseph Lutz prayer book, Adam Family Collection; privately held by Brian Adam (personal information withheld), 2014.

Joseph Lutz of Sondersdorf, Haut Rhin, Alsace, France, the son of François Joseph and Marguerite (Meister) Lutz, was baptized on 31 May 1844.2 He left his homeland following  the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. It was said that he had been injured during his time of service, which may have limited his opportunities for occupation, and, furthermore, he did not wish to live under Prussian rule.3 Thus, like many of his relatives, he set his sights on Minnesota.

Once settled, Joseph may have read from his prayer book with his wife, a Polish immigrant who also spoke German, as they began their life together.4 Perhaps it inspired his generosity during his career as a butcher, when he was said to have provided gifts of meat to struggling immigrants. When he later became a saloon keeper, it may have given him the strength to avoid the temptation of alcohol, a quality appreciated by his wife.5 Perhaps the prayer book brought him peace as he suffered from tuberculosis, an illness that claimed his life on 3 May 1887 when he was forty-two years old.6

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Joseph Lutz prayer book, Adam Family Collection; privately held by Brian Adam (personal information withheld), 2014.

Joseph was said to have been buried in Danville, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, and though a wooden cross once marked his grave, it is no more.7 His well-worn prayer book was passed down to his daughters, who kept his tintype – his only known photograph – tucked inside to ensure its safety. These items may have been their sole mementos of their father, a slim man with a handlebar mustache, a Catholic, a veteran, and a businessman who hailed from the border of France and Switzerland.

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