Reminiscent: Bluffton’s Unique Tradition of New Year’s Songs

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One Friday afternoon in February 1853, David Rothen fell ill while teaching at a school in the Swiss colony area between Bluffton and Pandora, dismissed his students early and headed for his neighboring house.

The following Monday, according to a December 1995 article in the Bluffton News, his daughter, Jane, went to school on white horse to announce that there would be no more classes until further notice because her father was severely ill with typhoid fever, which was raging in the colony at the time.

Rothen, his wife and three of his children all suffered from the disease which the Bluffton News said wiped out a third of the colony.

“Two of the girls who didn’t get sick took care of them,” the newspaper writes. “Everything was restored, except the father, David, who, after being afflicted for six weeks, died on March 23, 1853.”

And maybe that was it. Rothen, 47, may have been forgotten by all but a few, with his time on Earth marked only by a gravestone at Clymer Cemetery near Mount Cory, except that in the late 19th century century, some of Rothen’s alumni from half a century earlier recalled two New Year’s songs he had composed while he was their teacher, according to the newspaper.

These two songs – “New Year’s Welcome” and “Tune in Song” – have become a central part of a unique New Year’s caroling tradition in the Bluffton / Pandora area.

Rothen was born in Switzerland in 1805.

“As a young shepherd, he tended the flocks of his father and his neighbors, going up to the mountains in the spring of the year with flocks and staying there until the approaching snows of winter them. lead to the foothills and home, “according to a June 1945 article written by CD Steiner for the Putnam County Historical Society.

After learning the tailoring trade and “saving everything he could,” he was able to go to school, where he learned to read, write and speak in German, English and French, Steiner wrote, adding that ‘he eventually became an instructor in a Swiss school.

However, after hearing “glowing accounts” of life in America “where there was freedom of worship and a great need for teachers and preachers,” Rothen decided to emigrate. Before leaving, he married Barbara Hartmetz, originally from Germany. In 1832 Rothen and his wife left for America.

“On boarding in Hamburg from where a large number of Swiss and Germans made their passage to America,” writes Steiner, “he landed in New York. From there he traveled to Buffalo and from there to Richland County, Ohio.

After living there for a few years, he and his family, which then included two daughters, returned to Buffalo and then to Perrysburg, Ohio.

“There he hired a man to take the whole family through the Black Swamp to Riley Township in Putnam County, Ohio” around 1835, according to Steiner.

Rothen claimed 160 acres of land in Riley Township “on which he built a log cabin largely with his own hands, using a quilt as a door the first winter,” Steiner wrote. “For a few years they lived in the deep woods, but little by little he continued to clear the land and was thus able to cultivate crops, especially corn and a garden. “

Soon Rothen interested neighboring settlers in building a school, where he taught for several years.

“His next adventure in teaching,” Steiner wrote, “was in a building about a mile south of what was known in Riley Township as the ‘Beech Tree School’. It was truly a school and a church combined.

Steiner described Rothen as “much more of an idealist than a realist”, who engaged in agriculture “more for the purpose of providing food for his family and a home than a source of income.” He made “numerous trips to the American Leaflet Society, distributing and selling Christian literature and Bibles” as far south as Cincinnati, Steiner noted.

“Perhaps what he loved most was writing religious poetry and composing tunes to suit his poems,” Steiner wrote.

It was two of those tunes his former students remembered. Although none of the former students remember the melodies they wrote, they remember Rothen teaching them the songs “and accompanying them to various houses in the Swiss colony to delight them by singing these and other hymns.” on New Year’s Eve ”, according to the story.

Eventually, the students recreated the two songs from memory, which were then printed on “heavyweight card stock,” the Bluffton News wrote. “It quickly became a popular thing for the young people of each of the churches of Swiss origin to spend New Years Eve singing in each house,” the newspaper writes.

A January 1946 story in the Bluffton News described the tradition.

“Although the singing of Christmas carols is almost universal, the custom of announcing the New Year with songs is rare. Bluffton’s New Year’s Serenade is a holdover of an ancient Swiss custom introduced here by the first settlers of that nationality almost a century ago and is one of the few pioneering traditions to have withstood the encroachments of life. modern. The songs – there are only two – are the same ones that have been sung over the years, as young people, and older ones too, have hailed the passage of the year in song, ”wrote the newspaper.

“Singing these quaint old world songs, groups of singers since that time, every New Year’s Eve, have roamed the city streets and country highways. However, their tours are not aimless, ”the newspaper wrote. “The route is well defined and carefully planned in advance. A light in the window is the signal that beckons the singers, and after the singing, a warm welcome is given inside the house. Biscuits, cakes and other goodies are piled high on the table to reward the singers.

According to the 1946 story, older serenades remembered an old Swiss shoemaker who lived alone and cherished the singers’ annual visit.

“Without female hands in his kitchen to provide the usual expense of baked goods, he substituted a large bowl filled with nickel as a contribution to the singers,” the Bluffton News wrote.

The tradition “declined and almost died out during the 1940s,” wrote Fred Steiner in an article published on the Blufftonicon.com website in December 2020.

“Today, he noted, the Historical Society of the Swiss Community is the singing guardian.”

Like many events, however, New Years carols were canceled last year and again this year due to concerns over COVID-19.

Caroling is such a tradition in the Bluffton area that there are cutouts depicting her as part of the annual Blaze of Lights exhibit.

Contact Greg Hoersten at [email protected]

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