Sulzau – ancestral Kotz home

A trip to Germany, and back in time, to discover our family heritage.

Franz_KotzOn a late-winter day more than 180 years ago my great-great-great grandfather walked out of the Main Office of the Kingdom of Württemberg carrying his Heimath-Schein (Certificate of Residence) inside his Wander-Buch (“wandering book”). On that day, March 8, 1830, he was just fifteen years old. This ‘passport’ allowed Franz Kotz to travel beyond his home village of Sulzau – now part of southern Germany.  Sulzau, still a tiny village tucked alongside the Neckar river, is just a two-hour drive from Zürich, so we decided to make a quick visit.  Read on as we wander the quiet streets of Sulzau, dine in a castle, and dig into our family history.

We only recently learned about Franz Kotz, when my father visited West Virginia to tend to some paperwork related to a tiny plot of land inherited from a long-ago relative.  It turned out that his distant Kotz cousin still lives there, and indeed, lives in the home built by Franz Kotz soon after he arrived from Germany as a young man.  In February 2016 we spent a lovely day visiting them, and their home, and reconnecting with a branch of the family we’d long forgotten.  The home is now a National Historic Landmark. In the process we were shown the original Wanderbuch and other documents from Franz Kotz.

Wandering book cover.jpg

The above cover notes his name “Franz Kotz” and, written in English (presumably much later) a handwritten note from Franz saying “Do not change this name, (to myself and heirs) – Franz Kotz.”  It is marked as being from Sulzau, Horb.  (Horb is, still, a larger town nearby and presumably a sort of county seat.)

The associated document – which I think was folded and stored inside the Wanderbuch – is the Heimath-Schein. It is difficult to read; it is dated 8 March 1830 and indicates he is 15 years old and 4′ 8″ tall.  It was later updated twice more, in March and August 1843. The first page is shown below.


When we arrived around noon today, it was a chilly but sunny winter’s day with frost hidden in every shadow.  The town was very quiet – we saw only two or three people as we wandered the village’s few streets, and visited its charming cathedral.  Unfortunately, the town office, and the district records office, were closed due to the holidays.  I may come back some other day, to see if I can dig up old records about Franz and the Kotz family.


It was lunchtime, so we drove up to the Schloss Weitenburg, a hilltop castle in the town of Sulzau.Schloss Weitenburg, in Sulzau, Germany, original home of Franz Kotz.

The castle is now a swanky hotel, where we enjoyed a fine German meal with a grand view across the Neckar river valley.


Great fun.  There are still many mysteries to resolve; notably, I have no scans of the interior pages of the Wanderbuch, and the one translation of the Heimath-Schein is sketchy and includes several errors.  I hope to study these documents more closely, and bring them to Sulzau (and Horb) to see if more records can be found.  Stay tuned!

Someone put together many of the pieces when preparing the proposal to denote the Kotz home in West Virginia a National Historic Landmark.  I quote that text at the bottom of this post.

Check out the full gallery of photos from our visit.  If you want to follow our adventures, by email or RSS, click “Follow” at right.

Location of Sulzau, Germany


About Franz Kotz

In the proposal to denote the Kotz home in West Virginia a National Historic Landmark, it provides a lot of information about Franz Kotz (refer to the pdf for footnotes):

“In 1849 Francis Kotz (also spelled Franz and Kootz) emigrated from Wurttemberg, Germany. He was in his mid-twenties and first settled in the Moorefield area working as a cabinetmaker’s assistant. He married Lydia Barbe (1827-1911), a native of the Thorn Bottom area near Trout Pond in Hardy County. The Barb(e) family had been in the area since the turn of the century, having moved along with others of German and Swiss ancestry from western Shenandoah County. On May 29, 1854, Kotz bought approximately 13 acres from John and Sarah Huffman along the south bank of the Capon River near Wardensville. They first constructed and lived in the three-story workshop and constructed the brick house soon after. Later, Kotz, his wife and their heirs (including seven children born between 1853 and 1870) purchased additional acres that make up the Francis Kotz Farm today. Francis Kotz died in 1887 but the property remained owned by the Kotz family. …

“For over thirty years, from his arrival at the banks of the Capon River in 1854 to his death in 1887, Francis Kotz was an active participant in the economic life of the community of Wardensville. During those decades, he engaged in a number of commercial activities including builder, cabinetmaker, farmer, miller, and distiller. These enterprises were important to the isolated rural economy in which residents were largely dependent upon local businesses to supply the goods and services they could not provide for themselves. Of Kotz’s commercial endeavors, the least is known regarding his distillery business. A branding iron to label wooden casks for distilled spirits has been handed down through the generations. The wording on the iron indicates that Francis Kotz sold apple brandy, a spirit commonly produced by German immigrants.

“During immigration, Kotz carried journeyman’s papers (a passport) showing that he was a cabinetmaker who had traveled in the Black Forest region of Germany before leaving for the United States. He arrived in Hardy County at the end of the wave of mostly German and Swiss immigrants who came through Pennsylvania or western Maryland to settle in western Virginia (now West Virginia) in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Richard McMaster, in his History of Hardy County: 1786-1986, notes that Francis Koote (sic) from Germany was in Moorefield in the late 1840s to early 1850s where he was an assistant to Frederick Bierkamp, one of two German cabinetmakers working in Moorefield. According to McMaster, ‘…they made furniture from poplar, pine, walnut, mahogany, and cherry….’

“Francis Kotz served the growing population in the county through his services as a builder and cabinetmaker. At that time “Wardensville was a town and trading center for about half of Capon Valley.” He built the Kotz House and several outbuildings, three of which remain on the Kotz Farm today (now known as the Kotz Place): barn, shop, and smokehouse. In addition, he constructed a building in Wardensville that housed the International Order of Odd Fellows Hall, a general store, and school. The building still stands on Main Street to this day.

“Furthermore, the furniture crafted by Francis Kotz is still prized in the Capon Valley and surrounding areas. He built and carved beds, chairs, washstands, secretaries, chests, wardrobes, and pie safes primarily from walnut, poplar, and pine. Distinctive features of his work were a particular “turn” in carving softwoods and the use of burl walnut. Many of his original furniture pieces remain today in the Kotz House. Francis Kotz operated his wood-working business out of the shop, as described below by Kenna McKeever in his History of Wardensville:

Francis Kotz was a cabinet maker and his shop a few steps from his some is still standing, but as far as the writer knows, the equipment has been removed except the workbench. It is useless to try to describe this bench, it weighs perhaps a thousand pounds, and can do almost anything except⎯think. Such work benches were common in the past, but are out of date today. Such things as window shutters, doors, furniture are no longer made by hand so these many purpose hand tools are not needed.

Mr. Kotz was a cabinet maker, and much of this old furniture can still be found in nearby homes. Furniture with square posts, arms or legs were worked out with hand saws or planes, while round posts were made on turning lathes.

The lathe used in this shop had a large wheel six or more feet in diameter and its boxed in rim was loaded with a half ton of brick. A belt from this wheel turned a smaller one on the lathe, giving it a high speed, while the operator shaped the post, spindle or whatnot by holding a chisel against the revolving piece of wood. The weight and size of this wheel gave the lathe steady power and speed, the power was supplied by a man or big husky boy who turned a crank. If more power was needed, these lathes were made with a long foot pedal five or six feet long which was tramped by three or four men at the same time. Sure this was crude work, but it did the trick. In the old days cabinet makers, being expert carpenters, made other things besides furniture. One of these things were coffins and caskets. While used for the same purpose, they were not the same in all details.

“Although not on the current property, the Francis Kotz family also operated a small water-powered burr-stone grist mill along Trout Run near the banks of the Capon River. Shortly after the mill was built by Moses Baker, probably in the late 1870s, it was sold to the Kotzes. The mill was operational until 1936. By that time the burr stones had been replaced by more modern machinery. The stone foundation of the mill and the raceway (both on adjoining property) can still be seen today. The original mill house (also on adjoining property) remains near the mill but is deteriorating.

“The existing barn on the Kotz Farm is a living reminder of the turn-of-the-century commercial activities of James Edward Kotz (1861-1947), son of Francis and Lydia Barbe Kotz. James Kotz operated a freight hauling business from the Kotz Farm beginning in 1895. He used mule teams pulling a wagon to carry local farm and other products from the Wardensville, Lost River, Rio, and McCauley areas to the nearest B&O Railroad depot at Capon Roads near Strasburg in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The trip from Wardensville to Capon Road and back on rough wagon roads took two days. The driver and mules typically stopped overnight at a farmhouse at Lebanon Church, Virginia. In turn, he picked up freight that had been shipped by railroad for delivery to the same local areas. This link made it possible for citizens of Hardy County to trade with eastern markets, reflecting the easing of the county’s economic isolation. James’ mule teams became obsolete with the building of a railway line from Winchester to Wardensville in the early 1920s.”

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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