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The Community and Its History

Betschdorf is a community of about 3500 inhabitants in northern Alsace, France.  In appearance, it is a typical rural village of the Alsatian lowlands, with many 18th century half-timbered houses.

The nation of France is divided into 22 Regions (there are four additinal regions overseas).  The regions are subdivided into arrondissements, which are further subdivided into cantons.  The smallest administrative unit is the commune, or community, which is governed by a mayor (Maire) and a municipal council (Conseil Municipal).  The commune of Betschdorf is in the Canton of Soultz-sous-Forêts, in the Arrondissement of Wissembourg, within the Department of Bas-Rhin, in the Alsace Region.

Alsace is a narrow strip of land boardered on the east by the Rhine River and on the west by the Vosges Mountains.  Historically (prior to 1871), Alsace also included the area of Belfort in France.  Alsace was first conquered by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC and remained a part of the Roman empire the next six centuries.  It was later conquered successively by the Alemanni, a Germanic tribe, and the Franks. 

Alsace became part of the Empire of Charlemagne in the ninth century, but this empire was soon divided among Charlemagne's heirs.  The region was disputed between Fench and German rulers until 870, when it become part of the Holy Roman Empire.  It remained a German possesion until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 when it was put under French control.  The region reverted back to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and back again to France after World War I, only to be reoccupied by Nazi Germany in World War II.

There remains a strong German influence on both the culture and language of Alsace.  At times, autonomy movements have been initiated, directed against Germany between 1871 and World War I, and against France after World War I.  However, it has been said that the region was considerably pro-French during both world wars.  (Author's note:  Our impression is that there is a strong desire for self-determination, as well as a reluctance to submit to an "outside" authority.)  

Local History

The Parish of Betschdorf is the result of two successive coalitions.  The first, in 1971, united the two adjoining localities of Ober- and Niederbetschdorf.  The second in July 1972 joined Betschdorf with Kuhlendorf, Reimerswiller and Schwabwiller.

Curiously, this reunification of parishes has deep historical roots.  Up until the 14th century, historical texts mention but a single locality.  Starting from 1332, there is talk of the "two Bettensdorf" and finally in 1363, there appeared the prefixes of Ober and Nieder.  The coalition with Kuhlendorf, Reimerswiller and Schwabwiller attempted to reestablish the entity of Hattgau or at least the western part of this leasehold of which Betschdorf and Hatten constitute the two principal centers.

As of 733, there appeared a locality named "Batenondovilla" which has now been identified as Betschdorf.  The "Traditiones" of Wissemburg inform us of a certain Helphant of "Batanesheim", grandson of Battacho, who granted some of his lands to a Benedictine abbey established on an island on the Lauter.  Nevertheless, the origin of Betschdorf seems to be more ancient, as witnessed by the Roman artifacts discovered near the locality, notably a very beautiful icon dedicated to Diana, goddess of hunting, which is on view today at the Museum of Wissemburg.

In the Middle Ages, the two villages of Ober and Niederbetschdorf with nine other localities:
Hatten, Westheim, Rittershoffen, Kuhlendorf, Reimerswiller, Schwabwiller, Leiterswiller, Ostemdorf and Rentershofen (two villages that have since disappeared) formed a territorial entity coveted by the feudal lords.  In 1332, Prince Ulrich de Werd ceded part of his rights over Hattgau to the brothers Hannemann and Louis de Lichtenberg.  Meanwhile, the Fleckensteins and the Puller de Hohenbourgs also claimed to hold some rights.  On February 20, 1356, a compromise was reached between the lords. The Lichtenbergs remained the primary masters.  They reserved for themselves jurisdiction over laws and the right to rents, but allowed the community to obtain other sources of revenue.  Fleckenstein and Puller each received a third of the "Landgericht" of Betschdorf, which is located where today's mayoralty-house is, and a third of the "Hochgericht" of Hatten.  Additionally, the Pullers still retain today the two mills in Betschdorf.

Major changes occurred at the end of the 15th century.  By way of inheritance, the rights of the Lichtenbergs to the Hattgau passed to the counts of Hanau in 1480.  Coincidentally, with the liquidation of the Pullers of Hohenbourg in 1482, their rights reverted to the Thalheim nobles.  As for the Fleckensteins, they sold their shares to Philippe II, count of Hanau-Lichtenberg, who eventually became the sole master of the Hattgau.
The inhabitants of this leasehold benefited during this period from special privileges derived from great freedom.  In 1525, they participated in the War of the Peasants and submitted to the suppression that followed.  The chronicler Bernard Herzog noted in 1592 that the Hattgau was populated by cunning, unyielding and sly peasants who hardly had any respect for their legitimate lords, the princes of Hanau, and who allowed themselves to stubbornly sustain their individual freedoms, sometimes misguidedly.

The Thirty-Years War at the start of the following century profoundly affected the region, and the prosperity of the peasants was not reestablished until the beginning of the 18th century, as is still evident by the wooden fronts of certain houses.

Nevertheless, Betschdorf remains and will always be universally known for its pottery houses. Since the 17th century, the artist in sandstone has held an important position in the activities of the village and is actually very much flourishing, in spite of many periods of crisis.

Since the coalition, the municipality has accomplished important public works: health center, sewage system, public lighting that is harmonious with the location, indoor swimming pool, multi-sport stadium, construction of two elementary schools, renovation of the inter-denominational church and of City Hall, shooting range, tennis courts, a Center for Sports and Leisure, and the Pottery Museum.

This remarkable development in a rural setting was rewarded by the National First Prize "Coq d'Or" at the third "Villages that I Love" competition in 1980.

The Pottery Houses

There have always been pottery houses in Alsace. Since the era of polished stone, sculptures were made of clay from the Rhine Plain and, in 1850, thirty locations in the Lower Rhine were devoted to this activity.  But today, only two important centers survive: Betschdorf and Soufflenheim. 

Soft pottery has existed in Betschdorf since time immemorial, but sandstone paottery is of relatively recent origin.  In 1717, a sole potter from the Taunus region made the first attempts at hard pottery with sandstone from Betschdorf by using a process of varnishing with salt and baking at 1300ºC. Seventeen years later, his workshop was taken over by two brothers-in-law, Wingerter and Krummeich, natives of Westerwald who, after having gone through Krughülte in Sarre, settled down in the locality. They were soon joined by other artisans from the Bade Country, Taunus, and Sarre such that Betschdorf had ten or so pottery houses by the end of the 18th century.

Then came the French Revolution. Almost all the potters emigrated to the Bade Country
During the First Empire, the pottery business soared: emigrants returned, new families arrived from the Palatinate, the region of Treves, the Ardennes, such as the Remmy family, while others came to the craft by way of marriage (Schmitter and Burger). This development reached its apex around 1865 when Betschdorf counted 60 pottery houses employing 400 persons.

After the annexation of Alsace by Germany in 1870, some potters left the village while others abandoned the trade for lack of markets, and no more than 15 or so remained.

A revival was seen after World War I when, along with traditionally fabricated objects (pots, jugs, pans), certain potters successfully directed themselves toward making finely grained and richly decorated ceramics (vases, ornaments, dinner ware) the production of which grew from year to year, thanks to the development of tourism.
Even today, Betschdorf has several shops and kilns that operate on a regular basis to produce what essentially is artistic pottery in the characteristic blue and gray colors.  As recent as 1999, there were eleven artisan workshops in Betschdorf.

References
  1. The local history and information on the pottery industry was obtained by Gary Martzolf from M. Marcel Schmitter, a retired potter and local amatuer genealogist in Betschdorf, and was used here almost in its entirety.
  2. "The Communities of Alsace A-Z" website
  3. "German Genealogy: Alsace/Elsass website
  4. Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia (1983) 

This page is from the Regis Zagrocki and Doris Martsolf Leek Zagrocki family history website.