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A “Windfege” Tells Stories

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Wind sweep – S. Gassenheimer & Sohn Hildburghausen

The harvested and threshed grain must be separated from litter, weed seeds, ear parts and dust so that the grain can be milled. The principle of grain sorting is based on the elements of air flow and gravity. By hand, it works like this: the threshed grain is thrown upwards with a special basket (Werfel basket), preferably when there is sufficient wind. While the heavy grains falling back are caught again by the basket, lighter straw and dust particles are carried away by the wind. The mechanization of this process originated in China. This is also where the first types of grain cleaning machines originated, which came to Europe and were already widespread and in use under various names in the 18th century: Wind Sweep, Throw Mill, Grain Sweep, etc. If you try a wind sweep today, you’ll experience a small part of what today’s big combine does. Watch out, it can rattle and clatter nicely and it blows out a good amount. From the point of view that people had to use it to sort the harvest of an entire village, the use of the wind sweep was a great relief – in contrast to the manual work described above – but still remained a laborious task. This in turn gave rise to further developments. Our wind sweep already had an electric motor connection. Thus, driving the machine no longer had to be done exclusively by hand.

The wind sweep came into our collection in 1985 (Fig.1). At that time, the wood of the windage housing was still painted light blue. To protect the wood, it was treated with half oil (a kind of primer oil). However, this caused the wood to turn dark green. Remnants of the earlier (perhaps original) paint can be seen today at the top of the edge of the feed hopper (Fig.2), i.e. at the opening for the grain feed. As for the formal characteristic, our wind sweep corresponds to a type known in Germany. The body is a wooden box standing on four legs with a cylindrical wooden wind housing. Inside the drum there are wooden boards mounted on an impeller axle. By operating the iron hand crank, one triggers two types of motion in the machine. On the one hand, the wind wheel is made to rotate. The air flow thus generated blows the chaff out of the machine. On the other hand, a horizontal movement is generated, which is transmitted to sieves. Since grain and stones have more weight than straw and dust, they fall down and are caught by several sieves. The shaking and their weight allow them to be conveyed downward and further sorted. Thus, grain and other residues leave the machine through various openings (sorting compartments).

This wind sweep fits into our exhibition “Wie die Saat so die Ernte” (Like the seed, like the harvest) as an exhibit for the representation of the (even electro-mechanized) development of grain processing. The name of the manufacturer can be inferred from the printed inscription on the wind turbine housing: “S. Gassenheimer & Sohn Hildburghausen”.

Just as the wind sweep became a permanent part of agriculture at the end of the 19th century, the products of the “S. Gassenheimer & Sohn Hildburghausen” factory became widely known in southern Thuringia. Even today, you can still find equipment from either “S. Gasseinheimer & Sohn Hildburghausen” or “E. Gasseinheimer & Co Themar” in barns in southern Thuringia.

However, our wind sweep is not only a witness to agricultural progress. This object offers us access to Jewish entrepreneurship in southern Thuringia, which was focused on manufacturing. The Gassenheimer family, which originated in Bibra, was already engaged in hardware trading in the 18th century. Several family members expanded the business model and went into their own manufacturing in urban contexts. The brothers Samuel and Salomon Gassenheimer moved to Themar and Hildburghausen, respectively, and established their new agricultural machinery companies with rather similar products such as forage cutters, plows, harrows, etc. The company name “S. Gassenheimer & Sohn Hildburghausen” refers to the merchant Salomon Gassenheimer, who moved from Bibra to Hildburghausen and founded a company for trade and repair of agricultural machinery in 1892. If you stand behind the municipal theater in Hildburghausen today and look across Coburger Straße to the other side of the street, all you see is a parking lot and trees. This is where Salomon Gassenheimer’s first office and workshop stood at that time. After the death of Salomon in 1898, the company was managed by his sons and soon made a considerable upswing towards its own production. In 1908, a new company site was built on the Wiesenmühle in Hildburghausen. At this location they built their own factory for agricultural machinery with a steam sawmill and contract tailoring. The range of products expanded also in the field of light installations and transmission devices. Our wind sweep with electric motor connection must date from this period.

The area of the former meadow mill is now located in a housing estate in the city and is private land. The site is neither accessible nor visible because of the heavy grass overgrowth. We can nevertheless locate it via the Holocaust memorial on what is now Gerberstraße. This monument, erected in 2005 (Fig. 3), refers to the second synagogue of Hildburghausen that stood there. It was built by Louis Gassenheimer. He rebuilt his garden house for this purpose. This monument points to the synagogue, which was desecrated in 1938, but also to the fate of the family and the factory.

In 1937 Louis Gassenheimer had to sell the factory below value to the company “Paul Kätsch Sömmerda”, which was loyal to the line. Louis Gassenheimer was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered. The new orientation of his former factory initially served the Wehrmacht. This date also marks the end of the production of agricultural machinery, but by no means the end of its importance for the metal industry in Hildburghausen. For about 60 years, the site built by the Gassenheimer family was an important metalworking and woodworking operation in the town.

Erika Mosonyi

For article in German, please see the website.

Literature and sources:

Meen, Sharon: E-Mail from 09.08.2023 (Documentation Museum Kloster Veßra).

Meiners, Uwe: Die Kornfege in Mitteleuropa. Word and factual studies on the history of an early agricultural machine, Münster 1983.

Schraube & Co. 150 Jahre Metallindustrie in Hildburghausen. History Tradition Future. Accompanying volume to the special exhibition, Leipzig and Hildburghausen 2009. (accessed Aug. 10, 2023). (accessed 10.08.2023).


IW 1 – Telephone interview with Sharon Meen. 08.08.2023, Kloster Veßra.

IW 2 – Informal interview with Bernd Ahnicke. 08/14/2023, Hildburghausen.