Altena, a Small German Town Wired in History

While we suspect that you may never have heard of Altena, a small town in the Sauerland region of Germany, we assure you that it is well worth a visit. If you are in this part of Germany, stop for its two main attractions: the German Museum of Wire and the castle, Burg Altena. Both tell interesting stories of Altena’s long history, and its role in Germany’s past and present.

The small town of Altena in Germany deserves a visit for its two main attractions: the “German Museum of Wire” and the “Burg Altena” castle.

The small town of Altena in Germany deserves a visit for its two main attractions: the “German Museum of Wire” and the “Burg Altena” castle.


The German Museum of Wire

Why would anyone bother to create a museum dedicated to something as ordinary and commonplace as wire? Well, first of all, wire has formed the economic basis for this region for centuries. The first wire was drawn here in the early 14th century, and the town calls itself the “Birthplace of Wire”. The local product was traded as far as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

And wire is a very important base material for a whole range of other products – to the present day! Can you name at least 10 products made from wire? Apart from the obvious fencing wire… (I will name and show some examples further down, which you may not have considered, so please read on.)

A reconstructed (and functioning) wire drawing workshop in the German Museum of Wire in Altena.

A reconstructed (and functioning) wire drawing workshop in the German Museum of Wire in Altena.

I was born less than 20 kilometres from Altena and, of course, we learned the significance of our local industry at school. And the industry of my birth town, Lüdenscheid, is also strongly connected to wire – although it lacked the river to supply the essential water for wire production. Lüdenscheid was one of the first places to produce electric cables, and still does in large quantities. This spawned other related manufacturing, including power points, light switches, light fittings, and so on…

But it was always the valley of the river Lenne, a tributary of the Ruhr, where iron was produced. The mountains provided the iron ore and coal, the river the power to process the ore. And the final step of wire extrusion revolutionised many parts of daily life in Central Europe.

You see, nails are one important product made from wire! Simple, ordinary nails. Before mass-produced nails were available, every wooden joint had to be pegged with wooden pegs, which were carved by hand. Suddenly, construction of all sorts of things became less complicated and more economical. Later screws and bolts were also manufactured from wire.

Needles are another product made from wire. Actually some of the first steel sewing needles were produced in Altena; Johann Gerdes, a citizen of the town, is credited with developing the first hardened steel wire. Tailoring isn’t the only trade, which uses needles. Think of knitting, crochet, modern day surgery, dentistry, acupuncture, and the first gramophone!

The wire museum doesn’t stop here. Apart from the actual process of extruding wire, it displays a plethora of old and new products made from the “oh so ordinary wire”.

For example: no telephone, not even your modern day smart phone, can exist without wire. Until recently, when glass fibre and wireless transmission [note the word!] became more significant, all telephone connections were made through wire. Electricity, to run everything from household appliances to big factories to the robots therein, still travels through wires.

Big steel cables, which hold up suspension bridges or your ski lift, are nothing but stranded wires or assemblies of several stranded wire cables. From an ordinary kitchen sieve to large industrial filters, most are made from woven wire.

Music would be so much poorer without all the instruments, which create sound from strung wires: steel guitar, piano, harp, and many more. Jewellery became much more versatile and affordable after long lengths of wire became available at low costs.

This display at the German Museum of Wire shows only a few of the products made with/from wire.

This display at the German Museum of Wire shows only a few of the products made with/from wire.

I was surprised to learn that even the small iron balls in all ball bearings are turned from wire (instead of being cast) – obviously for their superior strength and durability. The same applies to coil springs – they are made from wire too; think inner spring mattress on your bed, ball point pen, suspension in your car, return springs in machinery, door latches, and hundreds of other uses.

Then there are all the electric machines and things, which have a motor coiled from wire, like your household mixer, vacuum cleaner, drill, large industrial machines, the alternator in your car, and, and, and – don’t forget your toaster, where the wire is so thin that electrical current makes it red hot and thus browns your bread nice and crisp.

This display at the German Museum of Wire shows some typical adornments (or dust catchers) from the 1950s and 60s.

This display at the German Museum of Wire shows some typical adornments (or dust catchers) from the 1950s and 60s.

So how many of the above mentioned wire products did you include in your list?
Don’t be shy, tell us in the comments below!

I hope that by now you can see why wire is so important, and why wire was and is so important for the industry in Altena – and why they have a museum dedicated to wire. It’s actually an interesting place to explore. Yasha would have wished for English signage to understand more, although many of the displays speak for themselves.

An interesting figure I found whilst checking facts for this post:
Around a third of the world’s steel production is made into wire and wire products!

This display at the German Museum of Wire shows a couple of old toasters. I'm old enough to remember this style of toaster...

This display at the German Museum of Wire shows a couple of old toasters. I’m old enough to remember this style of toaster…

Well, this toilet seat at the German Museum of Wire shows a sense of humour and a connection with wire.

Well, this toilet seat at the German Museum of Wire shows a sense of humour and a connection with wire.

 

The wire museum is located in an old school building on the way up to Burg Altena, the town’s second attraction.


Burg Altena

The Burg Altena is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful castles in Germany. It sits high above the town, visible from far away. Its origins are over 900 years old. Around 1108, Kaiser Heinrich V gave the knights, Adolf and Everhard von Berg, a piece of land and the right to erect a castle on the mount Wulfseck, for their exceptional service.

This castle was initially known as “Wulfeshagen”, and its role was to protect the valuable iron trade of the region. Legend has it that the owners of the neighbouring castle complained that Wulfeshagen was “all to nah” (all too close to theirs) – thus the name “Altena” came into being.

An aerial view of Burg Altena

An aerial view of Burg Altena [image credit: WikiCommons ]

Over the years the owners of Wulfeshagen gained importance well beyond the region of Altena. In 1220 they moved their main residence to the new castle Mark in Hamm and adopted the title “Earls of Mark”. They kept Burg Altena as a seat for their representative in the prospering town, a town they granted full freedom (and the right to collect taxes) in 1367.

The following centuries saw the influence of the earls of Mark grow well beyond its initial borders. To this day, this can be seen in dozens of coats of arms of various towns throughout Westphalia: wherever you see a red and white checkered fess in a coat of arms, the town used to be part of the county of Mark.

From 1521 to 1609 the power of the earls of Mark was so far reaching that it covered almost all of today’s state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and hence they wore the title “Dukes of Jülich, Cleves and Berg, Counts of the Mark and Ravensberg” – a mouthful of a title.

The coat of arms of the Earls of the Mark

The coat of arms of the Earls of the Mark

 

Unfortunately, the last of the family, Johann Wilhelm, was born with health issues and mental defects, never married, and died childless. Thus the lands of the “Dukes of Jülich, Cleves and Berg, Counts of the Mark und Ravensberg” fell to the kingdom of Brandenburg, later absorbed into Prussia.

But by then there wasn’t much left of the formerly splendid castle in Altena; the burg had burned down in 1455 and was never completely restored. There simply wasn’t a need for these fortifications any longer. Over the following centuries, the remaining structures were used to house a military garrison, courts and a small prison, a shelter for the poor, and finally a hospital (from 1856 to 1906).

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Change came during the days of the great kingdom of Prussia and their last Emperor Wilhelm II. For generations, the citizens of Altena had advocated plans to restore the town’s castle to its former glory – an initiative, which gained national attention during his reign and won the Emperor’s endorsement.

So the entire complex was rebuilt, not always following the original historic plans, but more to ideas of the people of the time as to how a proper castle should look. So nowadays, you have a mix of original buildings with some turrets and towers, which wouldn’t have been part of the original structures. It all makes for pretty pictures!

A vista across parts of town from Burg Altena.

A vista across parts of town from Burg Altena.

But Burg Altena’s real claim fame is the fact that here, right inside the castle’s walls, the first ever youth hostel of the world was opened in 1914, the same year the rebuilding of the castle was finished. Richard Schirrmann, the founder of the movement, was out on a walk with a group of school kids in 1906 when they were caught in a fierce rainstorm. After a long search they found refuge in a school building. This sparked the idea to establish places where young people could find shelter when out and about.

The original hostel is still preserved on the lower floor of the former hospital section. The simple bunk rooms are now a museum. A “new” hostel was founded inside the walls of Burg Altena in 1934 and it operates to this day; it’s located in the lower courtyard of the castle.

Burg Altena: inside the old bunk room of the first youth hostel in the world.

Burg Altena: inside the old bunk room of the first youth hostel in the world.

We visited on a Sunday in mid-May and, despite the lovely weather, the Burg wasn’t too crowded. We joined the free guided tour, which was excellent. The German speaking volunteer guide was a studied historian and thus able to tell us all sorts of interesting and informative tidbits about the former life in this castle.

Since the castle is in part reconstructed, there aren’t many original furnishings left. This opens the spaces for various thematic expositions. The rooms above the chapel, for example, hold a nice collection of period weapons – well presented.

Two coats of arms showing the red-and-white checkered fess of the "Earls of Mark".

Two coats of arms showing the red-and-white checkered fess of the “Earls of Mark”.

Some of the richly decorated old weapons on display at Burg Altena.

Some of the richly decorated old weapons on display at Burg Altena.

 

Other rooms are dedicated to the history of the Earls of Mark and their castle, with 2 models showing the castle’s transformation. You can easily spend 2-3 hours wandering around and exploring.


Erlebnisaufzug (‘infotainment’ elevator)

This new lift saves a tiring climb up the hill to the castle, leaving you with more energy to roam around inside the castle walls. It’s a shaft driven deep into the mountain, where a lift brings you in seconds up into the upper yard of the Burg.

Along the walk to the elevator, numerous interactive stations concentrate on local history, stories, and myths – all related to the early inhabitants of the Burg Altena. Many seem to be geared moreso towards children, but they make for an entertaining walk in the frigid air of the tunnel.

 

The Lenne Board Walk and Altena’s Wire Trees

Part of the shore of the river Lenne has been transformed into a board walk, lined with trees shaped from wire – quite suitable for the “Birthplace of Wire”. Benches invite you to rest, a local café has tables and chairs out (seasonal) to have a drink, cake, or some ice cream.

The banks of the river Lenne in Altena, with the distinctive wire trees.

The banks of the river Lenne in Altena, with the distinctive wire trees.


In Conclusion

I bet that even many people from nearby (for example, those from the industrial Ruhr valley to the north) haven’t considered Altena as a weekend get-away. Yet this small town has just enough interesting things to offer, to make it a worthwhile visit. It’s a family friendly destination, where young and old can learn new things about the country’s past.

You can buy a combined ticket for €9 per adult, €5 per child, or €20 for a family pass [2018]; this combined ticket also covers the entrance to the wire museum, the new lift to the Burg, as well as the entrance to the Burg.

For us, it was the closest “green destination” to take our new truck ‘Bertita’ on her first test drive. For Yasha, it was a nice surprise to find that there was “something new and interesting” to discover along the way. So I chose well.

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The small town of Altena in Germany deserves a visit. Its “German Museum of Wire” displays the importance of such a mundane product very well. The “Burg Altena” is considered one of the most beautiful castles in Germany. And the region, with its endless forests, invites for short or longer walks through nature. See our post for more about this small town, which isn't yet on the international tourist radar!

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Further Reading:

Encyclopaedia Britanica on “Wire”
The European Route of Industrial Heritage about the German Museum of Wire [an interesting site, also for other destinations!]
The Tourism Portal of Altena (latest information in English)
Wikipedia about the County of Mark
The annual Middle Ages Festival of Altena , held every August (page in German)
The history of wire “Drahtziehen ist eine alte Kunst” (an interesting read, but unfortunately in German)


Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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2 Responses

  1. Dieter says:

    Hi Jürgen
    sehr gut, der Bericht über Altena, hätte ich in einer Overlander-web-site nicht erwartet. Ich wußte auch nicht, daß Du Lüdenscheider bist. Super.
    Grüße aus Schwerte

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