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Artur Trapszyc

Ethnographic Museum, Toruń

Olęder themes in regional boatbuilding in the Lower Vistula region

The Olęder colonization in Poland, the history and culture brought by the settlers colonizing the Vistula floodplain and delta, have been of enduring interest to Polish scientists. The Olęders' social, cultural, and economic system, which originated in Frisia, northern Netherlands and northern Germany, incorporates a number of interconnected elements[1] . Many of these elements, such as religion, territorial organization, settlement network, architecture, land reclamation technology, and agriculture, have been the subject of numerous studies.

Water communication issues and the basic means of water transport (boat) in Olęder settlements, until now, have not been treated with adequate attention. Furthermore, with the exception of a few notable examples[2] , this subject has not been covered in the Polish scientific literature.

Considering the fundamental features of the economy and culture of societies coping with flooding and reclaiming land for cultivation and colonization, it is hard to overlook the important role of the means of water transport, which is necessary for such a farming model to function. The close relationship between the Olęder colonization and the natural and geographic environment, which is characterized by flowing and standing water, certainly confirms the importance of this role.

The lowlands were often subject to recurring floods and this land was more than once submerged beneath the river. When the water covered not only the ploughland and pastures, but also roads and entire farms, a planked boat (a rowboat or a rowboat with a sail) was the only available means of transport and communication.

One of the smallest and most popular types of boats that sailed on the Vistula River held an important place in the life of an Olęder farm, both during flooding and flood-free periods. This boat became one of the primary subjects of the investigations conducted by the Fisheries and Aquatic Activities Department of the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń.

Field research on regional boatbuilding in the Lower Vistula Region has been conducted on behalf of the Toruń Museum since the 1960s. The surveying resumed with particular enthusiasm in the 1990s[3] . The entire lower section of the river, from the Vistula tributary, the Bug river, to the Vistula outlet into the Baltic, was included in the research program. The survey covered waterside villages and towns. It was assumed that the most important tasks were inventorying relatively few operating boatyards[4] and acquiring information about the old boatbuilding centers that functioned in the first half of the 20th century, that is, in the period when the ancestors of the original Olęders still lived on the Vistula river.

Despite the difficulties related to the time of the survey, the links between Polish regional boatbuilding on the Vistula and activities of the primarily German immigrants[5] inhabiting this area, mentioned in the literature, were basically confirmed.

Currently, there are relatively few village boat builders and the majority of them are in advanced age. The quality of services differs from boatyard to boatyard and it has been on decline for many years the same as actual number of services offered. Old masters are retiring and the traditional fishing on Vistula is declining. Also, the number of people professionally involved in river activities, who until recently were the customers of the plank boat builders has also been decreasing[6] . Few members of the young generation of boat builders keep up the level of craftsmanship and maintain traditional building techniques of the boatyards that still operated 15 or 20 years ago. It is also difficult to find people who remember the pre-war period when the boatbuilding art was represented by innumerable boatyards producing boats also for the ancestors of the original Olęder settlers.

Despite the mentioned limitations, we were able to obtain a considerable amount of valuable information, which allowed us to see certain questions in a different light. As a result our knowledge about certain subjects, including boatbuilding related to the Olęder colonization, was broadened[7] .

Our informers, boat builders from the older generation, or their customers (mostly fishermen) use a very specific boat-related terminology, which abounds in Germanisms. An analysis of this professional language, which describes both specific elements of boats and also types of vessels, confirms its German and possibly Dutch etymology. In this case, this terminology should be associated with the Vistula Olęders.

The name of the fishing boat used on the Mazowiecki section of the Vistula, lejtak (from the German leiten - to steer, lead) provides an example of this peculiar terminology. This type of boat is designed to drag a fishing net in the river current and is equipped with a pointed block (sztaba) placed high on the bow and stern.

In the vicinity of Czerwińsk nad Wisłą (between Czerwińsk and Wyszogród), another boat name was reported, olęderka (or holenderka), which referred to an utility boat[8]. This type of boat was juxtaposed with a fishing lejtak and differed from it slightly in construction and certain technical aspects. The stern of the olęderka was closed with a wide transom. The stern of the olęderka was lower than that of the lejtak. Many of the fishing boats were equipped with an internal box (kasta), which was not included on the utility boat. The lengths of these types of boats were also slightly different. The length of the fishing boat sometimes exceeded 7 m, while the olęderka was longer. Also, there were cases when the farmers' boat was not propelled by sail[9].

Apart from the described differences, the boats had similar construction. The bottom was made of two butt joined planks, while the sides comprised two overlapping planks. They were topped with wide slats called opaski or klamburty. The hulls were reinforced with a pair of wooden frame ribs (wręgi) cut from crooked trees.

It is possible that the name of the communication-utility boat, which was recorded at the end of the last century on a short section of the Vistula, earlier occurred on a larger area included in the Olęder colonization[10].

While name olęderka rightly can be associated with residents of Vistula waterside villages founded under the Olęder law, the name łódź niemiecka (German boat), which was recorded in Gniewno, indicates rather a specific ethnic origin. The second term refers to a boat type used in the Pomeranian section of the Vistula; however, it does not directly describe a utility boat, but rather is a local name of the Pomeranian boat type. However, we should not discard the possibility that earlier this term also described a utility boat similar to the olęderka.

Assuming that both names functioned in the last phase of the Olęder colonization on the Vistula, their ethnical undertones are almost tantamount to German nationality[11].

From this perspective, a German boat is a boat used by Germans. If they were Germans then the majority of them were farmers and the boat was used for farming-related purposes. Considering that Vistula Germans settled in the area under the Olęder law, names łódź niemiecka and olęderka describe the same boats that should be treated as utility boats.

A boat called zyg (zig) or zyga (ziga) is a different type of boat that occurs in the Pomeranian section of the Vistula[12]. This boat is a fishing vessel, whose characteristic feature is a fish bin, which was located in the central section of the hull, between two bulkheads. Holes were drilled in the bin facilitating the flow of water. The bin was used for storing live fish. The name of the boat used in Polish folk terminology was also adopted from the Vistula colonists, who used boats of this type and called it Sicken[13]. These boats were also used for transporting fish[14].

All this information confirms the traditional divisions of labor of the Vistula waterside population, in which Germans, Olęders, that is, Lutherans, were usually involved in farming and animal husbandry, while landless or smallholding peasants, Catholic Poles, held professions associated with the river, primarily in fishing and rafting.

In the Kujawski-Dobrzyński section of the Vistula, the names that would indicate different applications of boats were not recorded, even though both applications were in use. Therefore, it is possible that a nieszawski boat type, which was characteristic for that region, was suitable for both fishing and domestic purposes.

At this point, I would like to add that fishermen from Pomerania used a different type of a boat in which both the stern and bow had the form of a transom and was crowned by a pointed block, the nieszawka. This type of boat was called szpicki or szpycki. It appears that this name also derived from the German boatbuilding terminology, in which boats with a characteristic pointed and high bow were called Spitzkahn[15].

During the field work, the investigators conducted a survey that included questions related to learning the craft. In the case of the regional boatbuilding craft, the majority of builders acquired the skills through experience. The apprentices learned their craft initially by assisting in the construction and then through active participation. If the father was a boat builder, the son had an opportunity for unrestricted observation and learning. Therefore, he rapidly became an independent boat builder.

Self-taught boat builders were also common. Those, however, had to learn their craft by watching experienced boat builders, sometimes even using deceit. Eventually, through a trial and error method, they achieved a skill level that allowed them to open their own business.

There were also cases when boats were built by craftsmen who ran woodworking, wheelwright, or carpentry workshops. In this case, boat building was one of the services offered by the shop. Many apprentices who were learning their profession in a master's workshop before the war, in addition to acquiring skills in the main trade, also learned the rudiments of boatbuilding.

The case of Aleksander Uzarski from Bobrownik (Ziemia Dobrzyńska) is an example of such a career. He is one of the best boat builders and normally runs a wheelwright shop. He learned both trades from a local wheelwright who was German[16].

The questions about boat building services hidden under the aegis of different workshops led the researchers to traces of a workshop in Silno near Toruń. Germans Ernst Stoyke and his son Albert, who lived in the village until the end of WWII were the best boat builders in the region. Their boats were used not only in the immediate vicinity but also on the long stretch of the Pomeranian Vistula all the way to Chełmno and Świecie[17]. It is interesting that the archival sources related to the Olęder village of Silno, which was founded as early as 1562, do not mention a boat builder named Stoyke but only a carpenter with that name[18]. This is clear evidence for the importance of field work, which in this case allowed us to discover living source material, which was not fully confirmed or was not included at all even in the best archive.

The boat builder from Silno was highly regarded by the Vistula riverside population and was known to the majority of the interviewees as a remarkable boat builder. The residents remember him as "an excellent craftsman, a good man, and a friendly German".

As a result of the archival research, it became apparent that this family of boat builders had Olęder ancestors, who had lived in Silno and neighboring Brzoza since the early 19th century.

In light of the above information, we can assume craftsmen who offer boat building services can also be found among other professions associated with woodworking. Thus, it is possible that the German (Olęder) boat builders discovered in Śladów in Mazowsze, Dąb Wielki in Kujawy, Ciepłe in Pomerania, or Drewnica in Żuławy are currently known as members of other trades.

To conclude, I would like to quote several examples of boat applications in Olęder farms. The interviewees agreed that a boat was essential in almost every farm situated on the Vistula river bank. Some farms had more than one boat.

Most frequently, a planked rowboat was used for transporting people between the banks. The Vistula played the invaluable role of a convenient waterway, also for local transport.

Boats were used to visit Vistula islets in order to scythe lush grass and then bring in hay. Furthermore, the locals traveled by boat to the other riverbank to collect firewood or bedding for livestock. During the periods with higher water level, boats were used to transport cattle and crops from fields that were temporarily cut off from homesteads by water that was flooding lower areas.

In the case of farms located on the Vistula islets, the boat was the main means of transport and communication and was an essential device in the residents' everyday life[19].

In addition to transport and communication functions, the boat was also associated with the social and religious life of the waterside community and functioned as a "water cab" used for pleasure activities, such as, visiting family or neighbors living on the other side of the river. The boat was often the only way to get to the church and participate in masses and other religious ceremonies associated with family events or church holidays.

One of our informers, Aleksander Krening from Brzoza near Toruń shared with us the history of his family, whose ancestors came to Poland from the Netherlands[20]. According to him, fishing was a common activity among the local farmers. It was rather inshore fishing done occasionally with stationary gear, which mostly included fyke and gill nets fastened to poles driven to the bottom in the shallow water. The nets were handled from boats[21].

The information that fishing was common among Germans (Olęders) inhabiting the Vistula riverbanks was also confirmed by other interviewees, who had contact with them before WWII. Fishermen-farmers from Pomerania probably used both types of boats, the utility boat (niemiecka = German) and a fishing boat (Zig).

The emergency function of a Vistula river boat is associated with floods. In those periods, the boat was the only means of transport and communication. Its importance in rescue missions during water cataclysms is confirmed by a name szalupa (lifeboat) used in the Toruń area.

To summarize the surveys completed by the researchers from the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń, I would like to say that their results confirm the numerous links of Polish regional boatbuilding with the Olęder colonization in the Lower Vistula region. Based on the collected materials we suppose that occurrence of the planked boat on the Vistula, its form, types, and building techniques originated in workshops owned by the Olęder colonists. These craftsmen operated in both craft- and agriculture-based settlements. It is also probable that the types and forms of certain boats could have been imported to the Vistula region from the homeland of individual craftsmen who arrived in the region during the last colonization period, that is, the 19th century.

The process of Olęder colonization of the Lower Vistula region significantly accelerated the spread of planked boats on the Vistula waters and was responsible for rapid acquisition of boatbuilding skills by the local Poles.

However, it is interesting that at the beginning of the 20th century dugout boats were still commonly used in the areas neighboring the Vistula valley[22]. In contrast, the planked boat was the prevailing type of small vessel on the Vistula as early as the 19th century, gradually supplanting the dugout boats[23].

[1] W. Marchlewski, Przyczynek do dziejów osadnictwa olęderskiego w środkowym biegu Wisły w XIX-XX w. (do 1945 r.), "Kwartalnik Historii Kultury Materialnej", 1988, Y. 36, p. 501.
[2] J. Litwin, Polskie szkutnictwo ludowe XX wieku, Gdańsk 1995, p. 157.
[3] The research conducted in the last decade of the 20th century were carried out by Irena Wronkowska, the manager of the Fisheries and Aquatic Activities Department and Artur Trapszyc.
[4] Reports from these investigations, which were also conducted as part the ministerial Program Ginące zawody (vanishing professions), are in the Archives of the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń (A. Trapszyc, Ginące zawody, research 1997, manuscript; cf, Ginące zawody, research 1998/1999, manuscript).
[5] J. Litwin, Nadwiślańskie szkutnictwo ludowe, "Nautologia", 1992, Y. 26, no. 3-4, p. 28; cf, Polskie szkutnictwo ludowe..., p. 157.
[6] A. Trapszyc, Z badań nad ludowym szkutnictwem wiślanym w wieku XX, "Nautologia", 1999, Y. 34, no 3-4, p. 83.
[7] Cf., Warsztat szkutniczy z Silna pod Toruniem, uwagi do typologii ludowych łodzi używanych na dolnej Wiśle, "Rocznik Muzeum Etnograficznego w Toruniu", 1999, vol. 2, p. 53-75.
[8] M. Buniak, Łodzie rybackie w okolicach Czerwińska, maszynopis, Katedra Etnografii Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, p. 22-23.
[9] Op. cit., p. 23.
[10] The researchers conducting the field research on behalf of the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń recorded this name only in Czerwińsk and the neighboring area. Jerzy Litwin who surveyed the Mazowiecki section of the Vistula 20 years earlier recorded that this name occurred between Czerwińsk and Wyszogród (J. Litwin, Polskie szkutnictwo ludowe..., p. 172).
[11] W. Marchlewski, Przyczynek do dziejów osadnictwa olęderskiego..., p. 503.
[12] J. Błachnio, Notatki etnograficzne powiatu chełmińskiego, Grudziądz 1951, p. 8; J. Litwin, Polskie szkutnictwo ludowe..., p. 157, 346; A. Seligo, Die Seefischerei von Danzig, Stutgart 1931, p. 29; A. Trapszyc, Warsztat szkutniczy z Silna..., p. 71.
[13] A. Seligo, Die Seefischerei..., p. 29.
[14] A. Trapszyc, Warsztat szkutniczy z Silna..., p. 71.
[15] W. Rudolph, Handbuch der volkstümlichen Boote in östlichen Niederdeutschland, Berlin 1966, p. 36.
[16] A. Trapszyc, I, Wronkowska, Opracowanie wywiadu z A. Uzarskim, Archives of the Fisheries and Water Activities Department of the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń, no. cat. 1/90.
[17] A. Trapszyc, Warsztat szkutniczy z Silna..., p. 63, 70.
[18] National Archives in Toruń, Rural Districts of the Toruń county, Silno district, introduction to documents
[19] Many of the described boat applications are still present in some of the Vistula riverbank farms.
[20] The author of this article found archival materials in the National Archives in Toruń that confirm the fact that the Krenings have lived in the Olęder settlement of Brzoza since at least 1819 (Archiwum Państwowe w Toruniu, Aktenheft der Dorfgemeinde Brzoza 1819-1846).
[21] Until WWII, the locals acquired their boats from the mentioned boat builder from Silno (A. Trapszyc, Warsztat szkutniczy z Silna...).
[22] J. Litwin, Polskie szkutnictwo ludowe..., p. 61, 109, 126, 233, 260.
[23] Cf., p. 152-153; B. Ślaski, Spław i spławnicy na Wiśle, Warszawa 1916, p. 19.

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