Heritage Travel: Visiting Herschberg: A kind of homecoming

Heritage travel is booming. In this article, I feature my own experience.

I leapt at the chance when my sister suggested we visit one of the places associated with our 7x great grandfather, Peter Scheffe. My sister’s international travel has increasingly included places we’re linked to through our genealogy. The ancient town of Herschberg, a municipality in the Südwestpfalz district of Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany, was one of those places.

You can read more about Peter Scheffe via the article Peter Scheffe update (Herschberg, Germany):

Initial plans for the trip included finding a local genealogist and/or historian who could escort my sister and I around Herschberg and the surrounding area with a view toward showing us places associated with our Scheffe family. While that sounds straightforward, it was anything but. Just when I was on the verge of giving up finding anyone, a Virginia cousin suggested I research any LDS (Latter Day Saints) Family History Centers in Germany. That suggestion caught me on the hop. It never occurred to me that the LDS Church would have family history centers outside of the United States. It turns out they have research centers all over the world. Even better – there was an LDS Family History Center that was 30 kilometers from Herschberg! It was like kismet.

The LDS Center at Kaiserslautern is perfectly placed for Scheffe ancestral research. Herschberg, Horbach, Wallhalben, Pirmasens, and Thaleischweiler are all towns with deep links to the Scheffe family.

I have to give the LDS Center full props. They suggested local historian Roland Paul. Roland, as it turns out, is the historian who wrote the first article about Donald Trump’s grandfather, Fredrich Drumpf, which received worldwide coverage. Roland went above and beyond in arranging key aspects of our day.

Just outside Herschberg.

We couldn’t have asked for a more superb day in terms of weather. It was a day made for walking and exploring. The reality of our trip truly sank in when we were a few miles outside of Herschberg. The realization that my sister and I would be the first American Sheffeys to step foot in our family’s ancestral town in over 400 years truly hit me I was excited. I couldn’t wait to get there. The landscape outside of town was stunning. It’s not for everyone. Urbanites would probably freak out over the complete lack of tall buildings and concrete. This is farming country. And if we had any doubts about that, the southwesterly wind reminded us with the scent of, well, cow poop. I don’t know what my sister made of it. For me, it reminded me of over a decade of living in a small Cornish village in England. To be fair, whatever else our Herschberg ancestors did – shoe making, milling, or acting as justices of the peace – they were farmers.

Our visit to Herschberg was during the Easter weekend. The signs of Easter excitement were literally everywhere.

My excitement grew the moment I saw the “Welcome to Herschberg” sign. This was it. We were really there.

We had arranged to meet Roland at the old church in the center of town. The original church – the church our 17th Century Herschberg ancestors would have worshiped, married, christened their children, and had their final rites – had burned down long ago. Our immediate family had moved to neighbouring towns by the time this early 19th-century church was built. I knew, however, extended members had, and still did, worship in this newer church.

While we were waiting for Roland, a very friendly woman walked up to us. A comedy of communication ensued. Thankfully, Mohammed, our driver for the day, was able to translate. She was there to let us know that the church was open, and that we were free to go inside and explore. Little did we know at the time that this had all been arranged for our benefit.

This old church was priceless. Words won’t suffice to convey the sense of history it held. It was truly a remarkable place.

Walking around the church’s interior, I couldn’t help but notice two plaques that had pride of place within the church. These plaques were for the war dead of Herschberg for WWI and WWII. As I scanned the names of the dead, ancestral surnames leapt out. These were distant cousins.

While faded with time, I was just able to make out the names of German cousins who died in WWI. Family names like Hoh, Kiefer, Kettering, Agne, and Furhmann were among them.
The WWII plaque. Again, it is filed with the names of families allied to the Scheffe family.

Roland arrived in due course and we made our way to meet up with his friend, and Herschberg resident, Leilu, a former opera singer. Leilu was an absolute font of town knowledge.

An old watering trough for horses that was quite close to the church.

The four of us spent some time walking around the town. Our guide pointed out interesting things about the town and showed us the few buildings that remained that were linked to our family. It turned out that none of the buildings my family would have known in the 17th and 18th Centuries remained. The reason was pretty straightforward. The older houses had become unfashionable by the 19th Century and were subsequently pulled down and replaced with newer houses.

However…there were some absolute gems dating from the early to mid-19th Century, as you can see below:

The Kettering-Hoh House, circa 1848.
The Kettering-Kiefer House, c. 1870. Roland and Leilu are in the bottom left of the image.

The really wonderful part of this tour was the people who came out to chat with us. We actually met distant Kettering cousins who still owned the Kettering-Kiefer house. If they were in any way surprised to learn the two brown-skinned people they were speaking to were cousins, they hid it well. What I can say is that it was awesome to learn more about the family from these newfound cousins. One of the priceless and unexpected factoids they dropped was that the Kettering in Maryland was named after a mutual cousin. Wait until I tell cousins who live in Kettering, MD that little fact!

We also made our way to the town cemetery, where we learned something new. Some of our Scheffe family were interred there. However, there was one major wrinkle. Germany has a custom of charging a fee to families every 30 years for burial plots. If the fee isn’t paid, the grave markers are removed and the plots are re-used. So, considering the last of the Scheffes left Herschberg in the mid-1700s…there were no grave markers to see. Still, we knew some of our ancestors were there…somewhere. That was a profound moment for me.

left to right: Roland Paul, Leilu, and me. Leilu’s father built this fountain. He also made the “Welcome to Herschberg” sign. She also treated us to a lovely German version of a British High Tea.

As we walked, and then over a very enjoyable classic German lunch, Roland and Leilu continued to fill in the blanks about Peter Scheffe. Peter is a centuries-old mystery. No one is entirely sure where he came from. All we know is that he wasn’t German-born. There was some superficial evidence that he may have been a Huguenot refugee. Half of his children married into prominent Huguenot families, like the Agneys, and seemingly arrived in Hershberg at the same time these families did. However, Roland and Leilu shared that Peter was most likely Swiss. He chose to settle in this fertile part of Germany after the 30 Years War, which had decimated the population of the Rhineland.

They also gave me more surname variations to research. In addition to the Schoffe, Scherpf, Schoeff, and Schöffen variations – I now needed to add Scheffi and Scheffires to my research. I made a promise to myself long ago that I would crack the mystery of Peter’s origins, and push his family’s story back a few more generations. I am hoping these new clues will do just that.

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4 thoughts on “Heritage Travel: Visiting Herschberg: A kind of homecoming

  1. Brian, you and Celeste maybe should recap this info on a cd. Chronologically, with dates and a narrative. I’m sure, I for one, would be interested in paying for one. i.e. 1600 to 1700, chapter 1….1700 to 1800, chapter 2

    In any event thanks for sharing….

    I’m also wondering what your beverages of choice were?

    FJ Sheffey Jr

    1. Oh it’s always a matter of finding time. This is a great suggestion though. Lol now drinks is an interesting question. I’d order one thing and would something completely different, and unknown. I ordered a sparkling non-Alcoholic apple spritzer for dinner once. Instead, I was given this lethal drink with apple schnapps in it. So I can’t really answer the question about drinks. It was all good though

  2. So interesting. I too have Herschberg ancestry. You have me wondering about the Huguenot possibility…I must go back at look at my own line. Thanks

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