Helfrantzkirch - The Three Houses

When the mail-coaches stopped at the Three Houses relay...

Era of economic and demographic advancement, the 18th century was marked by the organisation and the development of the postal ways of Ancient Regime, with the opening of regular lines.

The mail-coach
It is in the context of postal history that the royal horse postal service was conceded to landlords, often farmers, generally established at the side of a main road. These postal relays about fifteen kilometres apart from each other were held by these postmasters, responsible for the maintenance of the horses assigned to the several couriers circulating each week. Not less than thirty five relays were spread out between Paris and Basle, both towns being connected in five days. Three were placed on the new royal roadway connecting Belfort to Huningue, the most significant office of High Alsace because of the presence of the strong garrison and from the postal relations with Central Europe which it had.
In the number of these relays appears that of the Three Houses, commonly called " Posthoernle ". Located on a strong slope at the culminating point (424m) of the locality of Helfrantzkirch, the postal relay enjoyed a privileged situation, at the crossing of large postal way above-named and the pilgrim's road towards Mariastein (diocese of Basle - canton of Soleure).




" Tres Domos ", 1736:
The construction of the fortified town of Huningue in 1679 had imposed a direct connection with the other city fortified by Vauban which is Belfort. The primitive connection Belfort - Delle - Maison Rouge (Muespach) -
Huningue was to be abandoned in the second decade of 18th century, probably in 1720, and was replaced by a shorter route, namely Belfort - Chavanne - Altkirch - Three Houses - Huningue.
Note that the first mention of Tops of the Sierentz County appears in 1736, in the register of the baptisms of the parish Saint Bartholomew in these terms: " Magister Postarum et Cauponista AD Tres Domos " (Post Master and landlord at the Three Houses).
The latter is in fact Joseph Gschwind, first known postmaster of the Three Houses, composed of three buildings, indicated in other respects on the map of the great geographers of the Age of Enlightenment, the Cassini brothers.





The dynasty of Gschwind
From the union of Joseph Gschwind and Marie-Anne Reinhard seven children were born. Two may be pointed out: Joseph Gschwind (born on June 20, 1738) became priest in Helfrantzkirch during the Revolution. Voluntarily deported in 1792, he became "prémissaire" in Bartenheim under the Concordat before dying in 1815.
The junior, Jean Bart, took succession from his father. Indeed, if the postmasters were royal officials ensuring the transport of mail and travellers, their loads were very quickly transmitted by family succession. The distance between relays was called poste, unit of tariffing.
The Belfort-Basle course counted 8 postes and a half, of which Altkirch-Three Houses counted 2, and Three-Houses-Huningue one and a half. So that the Postmaster of the Altkirch station expressly asked in 1773 that the course between Altkirch and the Three Houses " be counted as two postes and a half in order to take account of the slopes". Some two years later, there is a record of the annual purchase of not less than 200 oat bags, by the sior Gschwind, then tenant of the Three Houses.


A beautiful masonry in 1786
From the same time (1786) dates most likely the construction of the gentleman's residence; it is still currently visible, but in those days it was surrounded by imposing dependencies.
With its sixteen rooms, it keeps trace of not so remote time
s when the ground floor mainly consisted in the restaurant and the waiting room. Half an hour before each departure, one could hear the sound of the horn in the peaceful surrounding countryside. Unfortunately no longer visible is the metal wind vane, fixed on the post house, it was torn off during a night storm in 1911.
Opposite the masonry and since the end of the Thirty Year War (1618-1648) was a family chapel, capped by a pinnacle and dedicated to the 14 intercessor saints according to André Munck. A chaplain was attached to this small place of rural worship.
Mulhouse become French in 1798 and was thus going to attract the large mail, Huningue and consequently the Three-Houses losing their main postal role.
Jean-Beatus Gschwind left this world on June 17, 1804; a cross with his initials, and those of his wife Marie-Thérèse Brodhag, was destroyed in 1945. Later one of his domestic servants became owner. Thus, sold as national good at the Revolution, the farm of Windenhof (Willer) was sold again by Solomon Katz, a Jew from Cernay, on August 16, 1809 to Jean-Jacques Jäcker, of Mimliswil (canton of Soleure), employed as servant at the horse relay station of Three Houses.
The son and successor of Jean Beat Gschwind, François-Joseph, married on February 17, 1814 in the same chapel which saw his own baptism, saw his union enriched by ten children!


One of the houses destroyed by fire

The invasion of France inducted the decline of the Napoleonic Empire. An oral tradition reports that the Three Houses were the supposed meeting place of three victorious sovereigns of the emperor, the one of Austria and king of Hungary Francis 1st, the one of all Russias, Alexander 1st, and finally the Prussian monarch Frederik-Wilhelm. It seems that they actually met, but in Basle at the beginning January 1814.
June 27, 1815, one of the three buildings was destroyed by fire. There were fights between the allied and French troops coming from besieged Huningue. Once again, Tsar Alexander 1st passed at the Three-Houses in September 1815.
The land recovery (1824) shows us the large house surrounded by stables and barn for fodder, in a drawing by engineer Jaegle.

Henner at the Three Houses

Under the Monarchy of July the great sundgauvian painter Jean-Jacques Henner (1829-1905) stayed at the Three Houses for a few days in order to paint the portraits of his hosts.
But this monarchy of the king-citizen also proves to be the time of the revolution of transport, highlight of road communications, and of the emergence of the railway. Gradually, the horse post office disappeared with the extension of the railway network.
It was only just the secular reign of the coaches when that of the vapour started. During 1856, the railroad mail service replaced the mail-coach definitively, with the opening of the rail link Mulhouse-Dannemarie two years later.

The decline of the relay
Ignace Gschwind, a freemason of about 30, who was extremely indebted and who was the postmaster at that time, sold in October 1854, the small bell (50 kg) of the chapel to the municipality of Helfrantzkirch for the sum of 505 F. The municipality was to place it in a new pinnacle for the school-town hall.

Owned one century and a half by the Gschwind, the Three Houses were sold thereafter to Charles Laroche from Basle, which yielded the field to the family of the current owners, the Helterlins.
Native of Heimersdorf where he was born on June 12, 1808, François-Joseph Helterlin got back to his native Sundgau after a 14 year stay in America. He acquired the principal masonry and the attached 8 hectares attached to it for the tidy amount of 12.000 F. The property became a farm. The owner died in 1867.
At the left of the old post office, the second farm was acquired by Auguste Specker, dismounted and transported with any part in the close locality of Stetten, where it is always visible. Bicentenary, the chapel was to be destroyed, at the same time.
The current locality saw the construction, between the two wars, of the forts of the Maginot line on the banks called Aupara Jukerten.

Finally to be complete, note that since about 20 years, the model of the postal relay of the Three-Houses, created by Mr. Buret, is exposed at the Museum of the History of the Postal and Telecommunications Authorities of Alsace in Riquewihr, which shelters the beautiful collections of the Friends of the History of the regional post.


Paul-Bernard MUNCH

visit the site of the Friends of the History of the regional post:
La Société d'Histoire de La Poste et de France Télécom en Alsace (S.H.P.T.A.)

Notes & Bibliography

Notes d'Histoire sur Helfrantzkirch - DNA 3 janvier 1987
Paul Leuilliot - L'Alsace au début du XIXe siècle, tome 2, page 215