A Look Back in History: Harsh winters and immigrant survival in the New World - Part II

Submitted Photo 
The Bertolet-Schneider log cabin
Submitted Photo The Bertolet-Schneider log cabin
Submitted Photo 
Unique to the Bertolet-Schneider log cabin, but not exclusive, is its "Seelen Fenster" or soul window, found in the rear wall of the cabin. An opening in the downstairs Kammer or sleeping room, the Swiss folk custom practiced by the builders of this 18th Century home was when someone died, positioned on the bed downstairs a wooden log plug was removed from this hole already made in the wall, thereby, the soul of the deceased could leave his or her body and depart the home and exit towards heaven.
Submitted Photo Unique to the Bertolet-Schneider log cabin, but not exclusive, is its "Seelen Fenster" or soul window, found in the rear wall of the cabin. An opening in the downstairs Kammer or sleeping room, the Swiss folk custom practiced by the builders of this 18th Century home was when someone died, positioned on the bed downstairs a wooden log plug was removed from this hole already made in the wall, thereby, the soul of the deceased could leave his or her body and depart the home and exit towards heaven.

Among PA Dutch historians who have researched homes of our Palatine immigrants, the late, astute Brethren sect members, Robert Bucher and Clarence Kulp, were some of the first to call attention to the concept of central heating developed by our PA Dutch pioneers. Unlike log cabins and stone structures built by English and Scotch-Irish frontier settlers, they put fireplaces on the gable-end walls of their houses, as well as the first Swedish log cabin builders who also built and used gable-end corner fireplaces. However, our Palatine German ancestors followed their native tradition of building their fireplaces in the middle of their log cabins, thereby taking maximum advantage of central heating.

The typical three-room floor plan used by pioneer PA Dutch consisted of (1) a narrow kitchen in front of the central walk-in fireplace, (2) a Great Room located behind the central fireplace-heated by an additional German five-plate jamb stove (the Stube) and (3) the small “Kammer” or downstairs bedroom that was adjacent to the Stube room. But, in their extensive research, it was in the downstairs pioneer “Kammer” (bedroom) where Bucher and Kulp discovered the Germanic “Seelen Fenster” or soul window, in which an elderly pioneer’s soul departed. Upon death, a surviving member of the newly departed would unplug this rare square block or plug from the log wall, roughly seven by nine inches, although measurements slightly vary, so the spirit or soul of the departed could escape to Heaven.

This Swiss PA Dutch tradition of having a soul window in an 18th century pioneer log cabin was more popular though among the Swiss immigrants of the Pennsylvania Dutch than any other Rhine Valley group! But of course today, if a person dies within a home or hospital, the folklore tradition among those descendants still practicing is to open a window so the departed’s soul can leave. In examining a number of early log cabins throughout Lehigh County and Oley Valley, the 1737 Bertolet cabin is an extraordinary example of a Germanic three-room layout with a central fireplace and a Seelen Fenster. Featured in the 1962 Volume 12 Number 4 issue of the Pennsylvania Folklife magazine (written by “Bob” Bucher), it was moved the following decade by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Daniel Boone Homestead, and is a prime early example of this PA Dutch prototype.

Its Seelen Fenster, along with the 1740 Zeisloff log cabin’s, relocated to Ontelaunee Park by the late Carl Snyder and his Lynn-Heidelberg Township Society, can still be seen in the downstairs Kammer or sleeping room. A feature nowadays even rarer, due to interior renovations, etc., the children raised within these primitive 18th century dwellings slept upstairs in the attic, which was warmed by the central chimney masonry as the heat from the kitchen hearth left the cabin. Such a popular three-room layout, this Continental floor plan was used throughout southeastern Pennsylvania by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

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But until Robert Bucher’s aforementioned article was published in 1962, hardly anyone had heard of a Seelen Fenster, although some may have practiced a variation of the folk custom. However, this once popular practice of opening a window in the room of the departed has been handed down generation after generation among the PA Dutch, some of whom have passionately demanded this practice be carried out even in a hospital setting. My wife, being PA Dutch and knowledgeable of this, has witnessed it as a registered nurse and thankfully aided those practicing this folk custom that has been lost with antiquity except for senior citizens and colleagues who were familiar with Dutch folkways.

Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.