“Little Switzerland” Thrives in Eastern Pittsylvania County

By Frances Hallam Hurt. First published in the Star-Tribune September 13, 2000. Posted with permission.

For more than 150 years a Little Switzerland has thrived in the eastern part of Pittsylvania County among the Moschlers, Bosigers, Woibletts, Switzerletts, Wertzes, Grabers, Bergers and (through the Barksdales) the Imhoffs.

Louis Justin Imhoff, late of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, immigrated to Pittsylvania County in 1858-60 by way of Wayne County, Ohio, in a wagon train bringing other Swiss families. They were looking for rich grape growing land to make wine. With Louis were his mother, step-father and sister who later married a Woiblett. Louis was 27.

Imhoff left the people of Pittsylvania something to look up to — the beautiful ceiling of the county courthouse. It is elegantly decorated with plaster medallions. Their rhythmic perfection gives no hint of the skill required to create and install them. He had previously created medallions for Woodside, the old Wooding mansion at Chalk Level.

This talented Swiss may well have chafed to be stuck on one place so long, for he was a traveling man. One time he simply failed to come home. When he did turn up, he offered an unusual excuse for having poffed into California. He had left his horse at the livery stable in Chatham with instructions to the livery man to tell his family that he was off on a trip, and the livery man forgot.

Other Swiss were more stationary, although a surprising number returned to visit their homeland. Most came from villages around Berne where the Swiss names translated into Chalk Level, Mt. Airy, Renan, and Sonans. It gives some insight into the wrench of leaving home that they named the communities of their new home exactly after those of their old home. In a way, they brought their old country with them. These Pittsylvania Swiss know where they came from. Every family seems to have its record.

One person who remembers his Swiss grandmother is John Bosiger. Her name was Elizabeth Peter and she was French. She married Frederick Bosiger, then a Swiss soldier, but a watchmaker by profession. The marriage displeased her establishment father, so in 1880 the couple, plus the bride's mother, betook themselves to the Swiss enclave in Pittsylvania. Frederick must have missed his home village of Recomisberg for he returned in 1888 and 1892.

John Bosiger remembers the fragrance of his grandmother's house-always a delicious aroma of baking bread. “My grandparents raised everything,” he recalls, “except sugar and coffee. They even made yeast.” He especially remembers the wine from the vineyard. “They would give me a little bitty glass,” he said. “I'd take a sip and feel dizzy.”

Grandmother Bosiger spoke five languages. When Mrs. Graber called to visit, Bosiger remembers hearing the ladies rattle away in something — French, he assumes.

More than 100 years earlier, in 1753 Col. William Byrd made an effort to recruit “Switzers” to help settle the 100,000 acres he had picked up between Birch creek and the Irwin River. Accoriding to Maude Clement's History of Pittsylvania County, the vessel carrying the Swiss was wrecked in Lynnhaven Bay and many drowned.

Perhaps it was Col. Byrd's effort that brought in Jonathan Berger who arrived with his family in 1755. Family tradition holds that the family went from Switzerland to Germany. His descendant, Pomp Berger of Gretna, commented that the Bergers landed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, first — a lovely town — and left it for the “red fields of Toshes.” Jonathan returned to Germany, but his 12-year-old son Jacob stayed. Jacob became a Pittsylvania powerhouse, building a monumental home. It is now under restoration by Rita and Thomas Jefferson.

It is interesting that Aldolphus Switzerlett, born in Berne County Switzerland, in 1855, listed himself as a blacksmith when he came to Pittsylvania, for his son Sam became a favorite Pittsylvania character. The local paper featured him in a bit story because of his popularity.

One of the most interesting Swiss families families is that of the Moschlers. Nancy Moschler Motley holds a copy of Francis Moschler's naturalization paper of 1849 in which he is, after two years, a U.S. citizen. The family's roots go back to 1389 when the Moschler brothers owned a house at Wengi. By 1520, however, troubles came. The reformation, when Protestants pulled away from the Catholic Church, set family against family, neighbor against neighbor. A kinsman's letter states that “many people preferred to emigrate to the other side” to avoid persecution. Jacob Moschler first took his stand with the Catholics, even becoming a priest at Tavannes, but later converted to the new faith. The Moschlers settled along Chalk Level Road among the Swiss. They called their home Little Nook and two Moschler brothers still live there.

As much as Pittsylvanians love spinning tales, it's a wonder that they overlooked Louis Imhoff. As a matter of fact, he is almost alive again now that his granddaughter, Irene Barksdale Fry, has returned to make the old house pulse once more with company and kinfolks.

The house has a special place in history as the Griffith Dickenson house, built in 1758 by Dickenson, a major force in county and Baptist life. When Dickenson died, the house was bought by Charles Miller whose land was so extensive it almost defied estimation. He advertised the property for sale in the Wayne County newspaper, knowing that Wayne County was a stop-over for the Swiss. Louis Imhoff saw the ad. Sight unseen, he bought the house and 400 acres. Dickenson's house was rock-solid with magnificent chimneys-one, eight feet wide in Flemish bond and feeding three fireplaces. The house was a tad small for Louis Imhoff. He doubled its size, adding a third chimney of rock. He added a porch, then gave it a special touch--a decorative trellis across the front, rendering it indubitably Swiss. A house on Reid Street in Chatham [Fairytale Cottage] is almost its twin, as Swiss as a yodel.

Nowhere is the Swiss influence more striking than on beautiful Sharswood, the Swiss Gothic jewel built by the Millers at Mt. Airy. It is now owned by the Thompsons.

Imhoff's abiding interest was his vineyard. He established it immediately with cuttings from Switzerland. In his repeated forays across the country, he was always looking for cuttings to improve his stock. His vines are still producing and his granddaughter is still making wine. The locals seem to have spotted him immediately as a can-do man, for in 1861 he was commissioned to distill whiskey for the Confederate soldiers.

Amazingly, Imhoff was also an artist. Creating and installing the courthouse medallions was dauntingly complex. First, he had to carve the forms, then mix the plaster with resin, glue and possibly hog hair. When the medallions dried, they were lifted to the ceiling and attached by wire to the beam above. When you look at the ceiling, marvel.

Perhaps life did not offer enough challenge to Louis Imhoff, who kept breaking away for trips across the country, ostensibly for grape cuttings.

He spoke five languages, had Bibles in French, German and English, and worked his way to Europe three times.

It's hard to think he liked being at rest, which he now is. He died at 73 and is buried on the place, kept pristine by his granddaughter. Irene Barksdale Fry grew up in this house. Caring for it and the grounds is her pleasure. She mows five acres, and her husband Charles looks after the stock. Her mother was Belle Imhoff, Louis' daughter. Belle married William Albin (Fisher) Barksdale, establishing a wide connection. Some 350 turn up at family reunions.

This granddaughter of Louis Imhoff knew exactly what she wanted to do. On Jan. 5, 1986. she retired from her job in the Hampton Roanoke area and the next day moved into her grandfather's house. She will go to Switzerland in December to learn more about this tantalizing man.

They have a lot in common. In one respect, however, they are very different. He roamed. She is happy to stay put in her family home, Greenwood, off old Hickley's Road.


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