My great-great grandfather, Wilhelm Schmidt (1862-1925) was a “Zimmergesell” [a Journeyman Carpenter] in Germany before he came to the US in 1885. This means he was fortunate enough to be a participant in a fascinating, complex, traditional ritual that was meant to allow you to grow as a human being and as a craftsman while you plied your trade across the countryside. You would travel, work, and learn your craft in each town you’d visit. At the end of your journey, you would return home a master craftsman.
The Zimmergesell was first required to be unmarried, childless, and debt-free so that he could truly give himself to the experience without avoiding social obligations. He would leave home with 5 deutsch marks on his person, and was expected to return home with exactly that sum so that he would neither acquire nor waste money during his journey. He was not allowed within 50 km of his home town during the journey except if someone in the immediate family died. He wore a special costume with broad-rimmed hat, waistcoat, and black bell-bottom pants, and carried a special, curled walking stick. This allowed the journeyman to be recognized as a Zimmergesell, which would potentially help him get work and also encourage people along the way to be kind and charitable toward him. He wore gold earrings and bracelets that could be sold in a pinch, or could be used to pay the gravedigger if worse came to worst.
The Zimmergesell had a little passport booklet that he carried, and he got it stamped in each town where he worked. This book would be checked at each stop to verify his credentials, and would be checked at the end of his journey to verify that he completed it successfully.
The journey would last either 2 years and 1 day or 3 years and 1 day.
It’s thrilling to think about my grandfather, at the age of 20 or 21, wandering the German countryside in his black bellbottoms doing carpentry here and there, learning to become the best craftsman he could be. Unfortunately, we only have record of three of the towns where Wilhelm was working as a carpenter: Ahlum, Germany in May, 1884, Salzdahlum, Germany in June, 1884, and Wofenbüttel, Germany in August, 1884. It must have been the end of his journeyman experience, because he was back home to his family in Gornitz, Posen, Prussia by November of 1884. Still, we have a glimpse of that last bit of his youth when he was still single, young, and relatively carefree.
His biggest adventure lay just ahead; he would leave behind everything he had ever known to emigrate to the US in the Summer of 1885.