Pictures of an old town
The young schoolchildren in our primary schools are already taught that they live in the oldest town of the Bergisches Land. In the year 1217, Duke Adolf III and Engelbert II transferred the right to call itself a "town" to the people of Wipperfürth. By doing so the townspeople were set free of the burden of all duties and taxes. This privilege was stated by Engelbert of Berg, who at the same time was archbishop of Cologne, in a document dating back to 1222.
Duke Engelbert of Berg is regarded as being the real founder of the town. Today his name and his picture can be found on several landmarks in Wipperfürth, e.g. on the fountain in the middle of the market-place in front of the town-hall, or as the name of one of the two local high schools, the Engelbert-von-Berg Gymnasium.
The significance of Wipperfürth in the Middle Ages is stressed by the fact that in 1275 the German king Rudolf of Habsburg permitted Duke Adolf V to mint coins in his town.
The name Bergisches Land has often been misinterpreted as referring to the hilly landscape which is in fact wrong. It derived its name from the Dukes of Berg, which was the name of the family reigning over the land.
The name Wipperfürth goes back to the Old-German word Weperevorthe that can simply be translated as "a ford through the Wupper river". At that time two major roads crossed right here, one following the west-east direction from Cologne to Westphalia, the other leading from the south to the north. It was almost too natural that merchants and travellers met here. Not only civilians used these roads, but also soldiers who came through the town. Even the French emperor Napoleon is said to have been in or near Wipperfürth in 1795.
Two main facts made Wipperfürth an important trading post in the Middle Ages: the crossroads of two big trading routes and the river itself which provided some kind of energy. Early on the people from Wipperfürth started producing cloth and metal goods. Also lots of tanneries and weaving mills played a leading role from the very beginning till the 17th century. In those years woven goods from Wipperfürth were well-known in Europe.
As a member of the Hanseatic League, a medieval federation of cities in northern Germany and of communities of German merchants in the Low Countries, England, and the Baltic region, Wipperfürth became associated with important towns, such as Brugge (Belgium), London, Hamburg, Lübeck, Rostock and even Tallinn (Reval), capital of Estonia. Since there has been a revival of the hanseatic idea in modern times, Wipperfürth's "ambassadors" regularly attend the annual hanseatic conventions.
Historians report that in the course of the centuries the town had almost completely been destroyed by great fires as many as seven times, the last dating back to AD 1795. Apart from seven houses - one of them nearly 300 years old - the whole town burnt to the ground. This is the reason why there are so few remains of the past to be found in the town.
From 1815 till 1932 the town was the county seat of the Kreis Wipperfürth. As a result of the municipal reorganization of 1975, Wipperfürth became a part of the Oberbergischer Kreis and its county seat Gummersbach.
After World War II, in times of hunger and misery, the town did a lot to help people overcome the hardships of the war and the post-war period. There was a huge camp here where more than a million people found a provisional place to stay after being expelled from their homes and properties in Eastern Germany. Also families who had escaped the air-raids of the war by moving eastward had to be repatriated and were temporarily put up in Wipperfürth. Many of those mentioned before decided to stay and settle here.
The shape of the town today
Today Wipperfürth has 24,000 inhabitants, half of them living in the town itself, the other half living in the nearby villages and rural communities that belong to the town. There are seven villages surrounding Wipperfürth, such as Egen, Kreuzberg, Ohl, Agathaberg, Thier, Wipperfeld and Hämmern, which have developed some kind of independence as to keeping up their particular traditions. Each of them has a church of its own, a soccer club, a rifle club and, of course, its traditional festivities and fairs.
The economy of Wipperfürth is not only shaped by mainly medium-sized and small enterprises in industry and trade, but also by a productive agriculture. The main employers in town are the Armaturenfabrik Hermann Voss (producing automotive fittings) and the light bulb factory Radium. Commerce has gained great importance, so that shopping is always a pleasure here.
Wipperfürth is often called the "town of schools", for good reason, as there are all kinds of schools here: more than 5,000 pupils attend eight primary schools, a Hauptschule (secondary school), a Realschule (secondary modern school), two Gymnasien (grammar or high schools), a vocational school, a Höhere Handelsschule (commercial school) and schools for the mentally handicapped and retarded children. For pre-schoolage children the town provides eight kindergartens.
The town is proud to have more than a dozen medical doctors and dentists and a modern hospital. There are also excellent facilities to relax in one's sparetime or to do sports, e.g. several gyms, an indoor swimming-pool and a huge soccer and athletics stadium.
Doing the sigths
The landmark of Wipperfürth is its Catholic parish church St. Nikolaus, which dates back to the 12th century. It was most probably built between 1143 and 1189 by priests from Cologne. Its 57-metre-high spire is visible from wherever you are. The image of this romanic church is also to be found in the town's coat-of-arms.
The outlines of the town-centre remained as they were in the 14th century. Many of the houses are typical of an old town in the Bergisches Land with slate-covered façades, others are houses which were owned by merchants or middle-class people of the 19th century.
In the Middle Ages, the old town was surrounded by a city wall. Only a small part of it can still be seen near the Klosterkirche, a former monastery church, which is on a hill adjacent to the south of the centre. The market-place is situated amidst the oldest houses in town, the so-called Penne (built in 1699) and the Altes Stadthaus (c. 1780), that withstood the last fire disaster of 1795. The latter was used as the mayor's seat and the court for a couple of years after the destruction of the old townhall. To prevent it from dilapidation it was completely restored. Today it houses parts of the municipality and occasional exhibits.
To the westend of the market-place is the townhall which was built in 1949 after the total destruction of the old townhall during an air-raid in the final days of World War II. In front of the building there is the fountain dating back to 1311, and on top of it a statue of Duke Engelbert of Berg overlooking the whole square! Every Friday morning, market with all kinds of goods is held here. Just opposite the townhall one can see the Protestant church built in 1877.
Leaving the market-place southwards and walking up the Klosterberg, a small hill, you will find the former monastery of St. Francis together with its church which is - historically seen - one of the most significant buildings in town. In the year 1659, the St. Francis fathers were given this site by the magistrate of Wipperfürth to erect a monastery and a church. The buildings, constructed in 1670-74, were severely damaged during the great fire of 1795. The monastery was vacated in 1818. Today it is used by the Catholic parish as a place of family education.
Although Wipperfürth has never had a castle, people sometimes call the Altes Seminar (Old Seminar) in the Lüdenscheidener Straße a "castle". This building with its impressive three-wing construction and its enormous slate-covered roof is an example of Prussian architecture. Designed in 1910 as a place for instructing teachers, it later served as one of the two local high schools, the Engelbert-von-Berg Gymnasium, until a new high school was built in the seventies. Today not only the municipality uses the renovated building of the Old Seminar for its offices, but also the town council meets here regularly.
© Walter Dalmus