By PETER HOEHNLE
This week’s column focuses on another Amana landmark, although one that is located far outside Iowa County: the Ronneburg Castle in the state of Hessen, a short drive from the Frankfurt, Germany, airport.
The Ronneburg castle is the best known of the four estates that were inhabited by the Inspirationists (members of the religious sect that later founded Amana) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Ronneburg sits on a steep hill (or cone) of basalt rock at the point where three small principalities met in the 13th century, and it was built to protect these districts. The original castle was probably built of tree trunks (Ronne). The first record of the castle in historical records is in 1231.The castle was expanded several times over the ensuing centuries, and assumed most of its present appearance in the 17th century.
In 1313 the castle was sold to the Archbishop of Mainz. A chronic lack of money led the archbishops to repeatedly pledge the castle to different knights and nobles who occupied the buildings. Finally, on June 4, 1476, the castle passed to Ludwig II, the Earl of Ysenburg-Budingen. The castle remained under the ownership of different branches of this family until 2004. During the Thirty Years War, the castle was stormed repeatedly.
In 1708, Prince Ernst Casimir I of the house of Ysenburg issued a proclamation inviting religious refugees from other places to settle in the castle. As a result, the Ronneburg became a place for refuge for Jews, Moravians, Inspirationists and other small religious groups.
The Inspirationists first began to inhabit the Ronneburg around 1715, the year after the sect was organized. During the early 1720s the Ronneburg housed a small Inspirationist congregation. The Inspirationists briefly had to vacate the castle in 1725, but were able to return a few years later.
In June of 1736, Count Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravian Church, led a group of his followers, “the Pilgrim Band,” to the castle. Although the Inspirationists and the Moravians coexisted for a time and even considered merging, hard feelings soon developed. These feelings persisted well into the 20th century. One early Moravian history referring to the other inhabitants of the castle (including the Inspirationists) as “a mongrel throng of the lowest class” and a “degraded rabble that lived in filth and poverty …”
In 1742, after the Moravians had rented the entire property, the Inspirationists were forced to vacate the castle. Many of them moved to the nearby city of Gelnhausen, where they formed a small congregation “an der Burg” (an island in the middle of Kinzig River that contained the ruins of a castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa). It was while living there that the sect’s co-founder, J. F. Rock, died in 1749.
In 1753 the Inspirationists returned to the Ronneburg and, by 1775, the Ronneburg was home to 104 Inspirationists. The total population of the castle at that time was between 200 – 300 people including Jews, Catholics and Moravians.
In the late 18th and early 19th century many important events in Inspirationist history happened at the castle. Christian Metz, whose grandfather had lived there in the early 18th century, came to live in the castle, with his family, in about 1801 when he was 7 years old and the Ronneburg remained his home until 1831. Metz later led the Inspirationists to the United States and, ultimately, to Amana.
In the years preceding the revival of the Inspirationist faith in 1817, a small group of young people, including Metz, began to meet for worship in the castle and it was to this small revival group that Michael Krausert turned for support when he came to the community as an inspired Werkzeug in 1817.
In 1821, the Grand Dutchy of Hessen granted the castle status as an independent “parish,” with its own Burgermeister, Phillip Moershel. Moershel was an influential member of the Inspirationist community and also a wool manufacturer, whose family had lived in the castle since 1752. In the 1820s, he operated a spinning factory in the Ritter Saal, the room in which the Ronneburg knights had used for gatherings centuries before. Later, his family wool business, together with the wool manufacturing of some other Inspirationist families, merged into what became the Amana Woolen Mill.
The status of the Ronneburg as a separate community lasted until 1828, when it was combined with the parish of Altwiedermus.
In 1831 disagreements over rental property led the Inspirationists to plan relocation. Ultimately, the Ronneburg congregation managed to lease space at the abandoned Arnsburg monastery by Lich, and they relocated there in 1832.
There are several anecdotes associated with the castle, including the story of an elderly woman who, literally, slept through the ransacking of the property by Napoleon’s troops in the early 19th century. It seems that she was forgotten and left behind when everyone went to hide in the surrounding countryside. After the troops had departed, and the members had returned to the castle, she hobbled downstairs complaining of the noise that everyone had made during the night.
After the Inspirationists left, other people continued to inhabit the castle until 1886. By 1900, it had decayed to the point where it was closed to visitors. In 1904 restoration work began at the castle and, a century later, still continues.
Because of recent restoration efforts, much of the exterior of the castle is again covered in the smooth white stucco that it had in the 17th century. Many rooms within the castle have painted walls, restored from faded fragments of pigment left on the walls through the centuries. The 275 foot deep castle well continues to fascinate visitors: water poured through the grate at the top will not splash at the bottom for 11 seconds. Today, most of the castle is now open to the public, as is a nice restaurant located in the building that once housed the castle stables.
Although it can be seen for miles, the castle itself is relatively small, almost cozy, if one can use that word to describe a castle. The Ronneburg’s central tower can still be climbed, provided you don’t mind the nearly endless winding stone staircase, built in the 1400s, followed by two ladder-like wooden stairs that lead to the balcony surrounding the tower. The view from the tower is worth the climb. This tower was crowned by a stone dome, designed in 1581 by a Welsh mason, Jakob Boldonino.
Walking through the rooms of the castle today, it is clear how crowded the space must have been when the Inspirationists and other groups lived there in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is said that the groups residing in the castle, although respecting each other’s religious beliefs, quarreled constantly, which is easy to understand when you realize that well over 200 – 300 people were crowded into these drafty stone buildings. In those days, of course, there was no indoor plumbing, livestock ran around the castle yard, and cooking smells (and other odors best left unmentioned) hung thick in the courtyard air.
In the 1960s the small villages of Huttengesass (population 2,200), Altwiedermus (population 750) and Neuwiedermuss (population 650), all located within a few kilometers of each other at the base of the castle hill combined into a single municipal entity called the Ronneburg Community, with its own city government, mayor (Burgermeister) and services. The municipal banner is a yellow and red stripped pennant with a logo depicting the castle tower and walls centered on it.
The Ronneburg has always been a pivotal symbol for the Amana community. Ubiquitous references to the castle, as well as many, many paintings and photographs to be found in the Amanas today, have seared the image of the domed tower and high stone castle walls into the community’s collective memory.
Residents of the Ronneburg community today include families who have relatives in Amana, and these distant cousins have visited back and forth on many occasions. An Amana visitor to the Ronneburg is practically required to pay a call at a particular house in the village for a “kafee” featuring several cakes, lively conversation, and more than a handful of neighbors and other relatives called in for the occasion.
A special recognition of the Amana connection to the Ronneburg came in 2011 when, quite unexpectedly, the Ronneburg community decided to rename the narrow road leading from the village of Altweidermuss up the hill to the Ronneburg Castle “Amanaer Strasse.” That June, a tour group from the Amana Heritage Society participated in an unofficial dedication of the roadside, which received its formal dedication on Sept. 11, 2011, with a small delegation from Amana present. One member of that group, church Elder Jon Childers wrote and presented a special church service in German to a gathering of Amana people and Ronneburg residents in the old castle chapel.
The Amana Church Society reciprocated this naming, by officially designating the church owned alley that passes in front of the church building in Amana as Ronneburger Weg (Ronneburg Way).