Gallery: Christmas on a German-American, Depression Era Farm

 12/12/2014 - 18:16

Isabelle and Robby Cross enjoy Christmas carols played by Agnes Dikeman in the parlor at the Rentschler Farm Museum in Saline.

A visit to the Rentschler farm museum is a treat at any time, but during Christmas season it is especially appealing. The Saline Historical Society decorates the whole house in a way that is appropriate for a German-American family in the 1930s and extra members are on hand to show guests around. The farmhouse opened for visitors on Saturday, Dec. 6. Unlike past years when the 1930s Christmas on the Farm was only one weekend in December, this year it will be held on three successive Saturdays. All are invited to come December 13 and 20 between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

In the parlor Agnes Dikeman of the historical society played Christmas carols on the Rentschlers piano to entertain visitors. In the dining room, the table was laid out with paper Christmas decorations and traditional German Christmas treats including pretzels, fruitcake, springerle cookies, lebkuchen cookies, marzipan and schnitzbrot.

In a downstairs bedroom, Lois Lane demonstrated spinning on an old spinning wheel. When she bought it, the wheel was missing many of its parts including, “the mother of all, the maidens, the bobbin and the flyer.” She painstakingly reconstructed these parts on a lathe and assembled them to create a functional wheel.

“This is an antique wheel,” Lane said. “It was made probably in Joel Farnham’s workshop, and he was one of the Cadillacs of wheel makers.”

She was spinning sheep’s wool, but in her basket she also had alpaca wool and silk. Like the other historical society members she was happy to answer questions about the house as well as the art of spinning.

The 1930s were lean years economically so the decorations were simple and gifts were few. Though the family had heirloom glass ornaments, they also decorated the tree with strings of popcorn. Household decorations included a basket of fruit and nuts that served as a short-term display and an eventual source of sustenance.

Upstairs the family had an artificial Christmas tree made of wire and goose feathers. According to Jackie Hale, German housewives in the 19th century invented these trees at a time when deforestation and blight cause the government to outlaw the cutting of evergreen trees. Feather trees became popular among German-Americans and could even be purchased through the Sears Roebuck catalog.

The upstairs bedrooms were used to display some of the children’s toys, including an American Flyer train set. Toy trains were a Christmas tradition and were only brought out during the holiday season. Stockings were hung from the banister, in hope that Saint Nicholas would fill them.

Downstairs in the kitchen, cookies, candy, coffee and hot cider were available for visitors. Miss Saline (Kera Yang) was on hand to greet guests.

Agnes Dikeman demonstrated the art of making pomander balls by inserting cloves into oranges. This was a colonial American tradition. The balls exude a pleasant fragrance over a long period of time and were used as air fresheners. They were often included in Christmas decorations.

The farm is located at 1265 E. Michigan Ave. in Saline. The sights and smells of an old-time Christmas will welcome visitors. Various other early American crafts will be displayed and musicians are expected to drop in.            

Robert Conradi
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.