The Trades as Practiced in the Homeland: Part I

By Alfred Opp, Vancouver , British Columbia

Edited by Connie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington

Von der Stirne heiss                                 From the forehead hot
Rinnen muss der Schweiss                       The sweat must run;
Soll das Werk den Meister loben             So shall your work the Master praise -
Doch der Segen Kommt von oben.          From heaven the blessing will descend.   


The first settlers in Teplitz were mainly farmers, with a few tradesmen. It was not unusual that people held dual positions: farming and a trade or vice versa. Thirty years after the founding of Teplitz, statistics from 1847 show that Teplitz had about 70 farmers and 30 tradesmen. The trade-occupations included weavers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, millers, coopers, wagoners, tailors and butchers. The skills of these tradesmen were essential for the building of decent homes and producing the tools and equipment needed to move forward. These tradesmen passed on their knowledge and skills generation to generation. From the beginning of Teplitz until 1940 all trades were practiced withonly manual labor – there was no power equipment available. Only minor changes occurred in available materials and techniques as time went on. In this piece I will discuss various items that pertained to how the trades functioned in Teplitz: the shops, tools used, products made, and practices in general.

Farming remained the main activity to support life. But over time, the land was divided by the inheritance mode which led to less land and less income for most families. Some families owned no land at all. The trades became a popular way for people to support their life and existence. From the beginning of Teplitz, villagers placed a high priority on improving their lives. They wanted and needed progress! The pioneers worked hard to tame the wild land. Housing improved and living conditions progressed at a steady pace. As soon as people had achieved the fundamentals needed for a decent life, they began thinking about obtaining objects that would contribute to a better, more comfortable standard of living. The tradesmen who supplied such items got a lift.

The Blacksmith Shop

My grandpa Simon Zacher owned a blacksmith shop. While some shops looked like a black hole, his was bright and had windows. But to the end we did not have electricity or power motors of any kind. Stepping into grandpa’s shop, on the right was a drill press with a big wheel that was turned by hand. Further to the right were the anvil and the hearth with a raised water bath. A bellows forced air into the hearth to provide a hot fire to heat the irons for forging. Along the back wall of the shop was a long workbench with vices and tools that had a variety of uses. Suspended from the ceiling was the chain that held the iron stock pieces as they were forged into axles for wagons. The bellows was activated by a handle that the smithy could push up and down to force air into the hearth. Outside the shop was a rig to press rims onto the wagon wheels. Every nut and bolt needed in the trades was made from scratch in the blacksmith shops. The sleeves needed to fit an axle were made in these shops as well. At times, Grandpa purchased wooden parts for wagons and then sold them. At other times he had jobs where he built and completed entire wagons. Because the trade work was so competitive, only the ones who worked hardest had any chance to stay in the trade and succeed. But especially for wheelwrights who made the frames for wagon wheels, success came at a price. Many overworked in unhealthy conditions and became ill. Many died from tuberculolsis.

Wagoners and Wheelwrights

My dad owned a wagon-making shop that made all the wood pieces needed for a wagon. The trade had been passed down from his forefathers and this earned the name “Wagoner Opp” for the family. This was also a very competitive trade and hard work was required to make it financially. My dad’s shop was well-lit and bright, and positioned next to the winter kitchen of our house. Going into the shop, to the right was the lathe.We had no power source to activate the equipment – everything had to be run by human power. Along that wall to the right was a big wheel with a handle and a strap on it to push and pull to activate the wheel. The big wheel transmitted turning power to a pulley on the lathe via a ropebelt. This lathe was mainly used to make hubs for the wagon wheels. All along the other walls of the shop were work benches with woodworking tools. As in all the shops, there was no light from any community utility source. These shops operated from dawn to dusk.

In the very beginning, our ancestors only had available the two-wheeled wooden-axle cart of the Moldavians. Our ancestors had seen better wagon sin Germany and set about to make improvements. Over the years, Teplitz developed a light-weight iron-axle wagon suitable to handle the varietyof jobs needed to be done by the colonists. From the very beginning, our trade people worked their way up the ladder of success, making wheelbarrows, pitchforks, wooden harrows and rakes, to mention some of their products.

Until my dad was forced to retire in 1936 because of illness, he sliced his logs into boards with a long-saw. The log was placed with one end on the workbench and the other on a stand. One man on top of the log and one lying down underneath worked the saw to cut the log into lumber. All wood pieces then had to be shaped from the rough wood, first with a shave ax and then the finer details were finished with a pull-knife. Spokes got their shape with a pull-knife and a plane. All drilling was done with a hand-drill. Dad sharpened all of his own tools using a sandstone grinder that was submerged halfway into water. To save time, many men had their wives turn the grinder while they sharpened the tools. Mother said that Dad called on her often to hold a work piece that he was shaping. Hubs and spokes, made out of wood, had to be completely dry before assembly to avoid splitting. For that reason we had our bake oven in the barn. When Mother baked bread, she gave the fire extra attention so that it could be used for drying wood after the bread was out of the oven. We did not have carpenters that only built buildings – all carpentry work was done by the wheel wrights.  Dad sold wood scraps and shavings generated by the shop work, and gave the money to Mom.


Alfred Opp is the author of "Pawns on the World Stage" - the memoirs of his childhood in Teplitz, Bessarabia and the experiences of his family in war-torn Europe (Poland during 1941-1945 before they fled to East Germany in 1945, then the reconstruction of West Germany 1945-1955) - available from the NDSU website.


Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller