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A “Heidenhaus” in Mühlebach: One Family’s Treasure Chest

Don’t you meet people under the strangest of circumstances? Last Saturday, I took part in a moonlit-walk between Ernen and Mühlebach that ended at “Amy’s Schafstube,” a delightful restaurant and terrace just this side of Mühlebach’s hanging bridge. Even late as it was, Amy herself was there to greet our group with homemade savories and sweets, and we all settled in to enjoy them over drinks at wooden picnic tables. My table neighbors included the gifted Andreas Weissen, the specialist in local legends who’d led the hike; a sociable and good-humored couple from nearby Naters; and a rather quiet woman, Paula, who was sitting alone at the far end my bench. She and I only struck up a conversation around midnight, when a fat old full moon first showed its silvery light over the opposite hill, then slowly rose in all its glory − a spectacle of the first order.

Turned out that Paula lived in Mühlebach, and was almost a neighbor to Leander Locher, the artist I interviewed for this blog last year. I knew her neighborhood, and we also shared a couple of other friends, but her generous invitation to come visit her and her husband, Roland, at home was more than I expected. As was the house, and the welcome they both gave me.

Theirs is one of the so-called wooden “Heidenhäuser” (heathen houses), a designation often given to houses so old and unusually constructed that they were thought to be built before the spread of Christianity. Typically fairly low to the ground, they often feature a small loft and a wooden cross that supports a gabled façade, but is integrated into the outside wall. And this particular house enjoys a beautiful position; it backs up to the brook from which the town took its name, but with room for a lush garden and sitting area in between.

The house had belonged to Paula’s Grandfather Seiler, whose portrait engraving hung in a prominent place in the living room. The long history of the house, however, goes back far beyond him; indeed, the houses like this one in Mühlebach are the oldest intact wooden structures in all of Switzerland. Built in 1497, renovated in 1767, the Seiler house cellar is a massive block base that supports the 2-floor wooden residence. The rooms are small and almost warren-like; and each one has a number of doors, likely for good circulation. As a child, Paula remembers, a whole gaggle of children slept in bunks in what today is the upper drawing room. Reamarkably, the house’s age-old small-paned windows look out over the meadow to Ernen, and the spire of its landmark church, St. Georg, which looks like a like a little flag signaling back to its nearest village. 

The Seiler house has undergone changes over the centuries, though. A small roof was placed over the steep entrance stairs to make a gathering place between main house and an ancillary building that was once a separate structure. Interior improvements for convenience, of course, were also made in the kitchen and washroom. But one thing that remains for its its historical value is the double “Plumps-Klo” the wooden, double toilet seat at the far end of the adjacent pantry. Somebody, apparently, had to clean the refuse beneath it away about every three months, or all hell broke loose.

Roland is an architectural historian, Paula, a graphic artist and painter, perhaps the finest combination of talents to insure the house’s integrity. She shared some of her recent paintings with me, and he brought out books he had published about Switzerland’s historic hotels, of whose prestigious expert association he is a board member. But one detail I loved about the house was hardly academic: Hanging over a day bed in a tiny room off the upstairs kitchen was a caution stitched in simple embroidery: “Geh nie im Zorn von deines Hauses Herd; Gar mancher ging der nie zurückgekehrt.” That loosely translates: “Never leave your house and home angry; Some have left and never returned.” So be it!

Ernen, Saturday, 15 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet