Ballenberg, a trip back in time

Coordinates: 46°45′N 8°04′E

When I listen to my mom’s childhood stories in Puerto Rico’s countryside, I suspect how privileged those who grow up during the seventies and eighties in urban areas or in other economic conditions could feel. Nevertheless, at the same time, I believe our rural ancestors were more skillful and ingenious than us, and consequently, we have missed on learning basic skills such as spinning, bread making and milking a cow. During my visit to the Ballenberg Open Air Museum in Hofstetten by Brienz, I was able to imagine my life, had I been born a few decades earlier.

The museum is organized by geographical regions; also different in how houses are designed. Photo: Tamara Carra

The museum is organized by geographical regions; also different in how houses are designed. Photo: Tamara Carra

Housing for all

At this outdoors museum, located in the canton of Bern, there are over a hundred houses that recreate life over six decades ago. A peculiarity was the need to separate space in the family house for the animals. They kept cows, horses, rabbits, chickens and pigs on the ground floor, leaving the second level for the family. It was interesting to see that the family living room was, as today, a key element in the home’s distribution. Nevertheless, pragmatism dominated its design. For example, during the winter and in the absence of electric power, the stove was used simultaneously to cook and maintain the room warm. After dinner the same room was used to mend some clothes or enjoy a table game.

Before your visit, it is a good idea to review the demonstrations to be held at the museum and organize your tour around the ones that interest you. Photo: Tamara Carra

Before your visit, it is a good idea to review the demonstrations to be held at the museum and organize your tour around the ones that interest you. Photo: Tamara Carra

Threads and a Distaff

The first time I heard the word distaff was while reading The Sleeping Beauty to my son. It was fascinating for both of us to see this tool live and in use, during one of the multiple demonstrations offered so visitors can better visualize how life was in the past. There was a lady spinning in a distaff; she was combining threads of different colors to form a piece of cloth that was later used to create a bread bag. There were other pieces made with this instrument in exhibition and available for the sale, such as blankets, aprons and even shirts.

This version of the Mühlespiel (the Mill game), a strategy pastime that dates back to the Roman Empire, was carved on a piece of wood and used buttons as game pieces. Photo: Tamara Carra

This version of the Mühlespiel (the Mill game), a strategy pastime that dates back to the Roman Empire, was carved on a piece of wood and used buttons as game pieces. Photo: Tamara Carra

Playing Outside

While the interior of the house was distributed to accommodate the family, the animals, the workshop and an area to preserve food (like cheeses, jellies, dry meats, etc), the exterior was as versatile. In addition to separating spaces to dry clothes, feed the animals and cultivate orchards, communal areas were left for recreation.

We had fun playing with this rustic bowling game, although the solid wood pieces were hard to lift. Photo: Tamara Carra

We had fun playing with this rustic bowling game, although the solid wood pieces were hard to lift. Photo: Tamara Carra

Wood and Stitches

In addition to family houses, the museum recreates workshops like those of blacksmiths, ceramists, hair stylists, teachers and carvers. For my son and his friend, in first and second grade respectively, it was extremely interesting to enter a classroom and compare the antique decoration with the one now in their schools. A detail that attracted our attention us was that, in old times, students wore a type of glove over the part of the arm that rests on the furniture to protect the cloth. The wooden furniture was often splintered, what could cause a possible tear in the only school shirt the child probably had.

Simplicity and wood reign at this school’s decoration. Photo: Bruny Nieves

Simplicity and wood reign at this school’s decoration. Photo: Bruny Nieves

Cheese as currency

Since in old times there were no iceboxes, nor supermarkets, to have food you had to sow and preserve for future consumption or for when the climate did not allow harvesting. For example, the extra milk, not consumed as a drink or to make butter, was used to produce cheeses. In the ancient Switzerland, cheese was used as currency or as trade.

The cheese making process during which milk is constantly stirred over heat and turned into curd. Photo: Bruny Nieves

The cheese making process during which milk is constantly stirred over heat and turned into curd. Photo: Bruny Nieves

Hydraulic power

The mill had a leading function, as canalizing water from rivers, lakes or cascades was extremely important. With the hydraulic power generated by the mill, it was possible to activate machineries to grind the wheat, make flour and even cut tree trunks. The wood was used to make planks that were later used to build a fire, furniture or roofs for houses. After this trip back in time, we, the young and the old, left with new knowledge and with a reinforced appreciation for all those who still work the land or with their hands. 

The Ballenberg Open Air Museum can be visited from April to October as it closes during the Winter.  Photo by: Bruny Nieves

The Ballenberg Open Air Museum can be visited from April to October as it closes during the Winter.  Photo by: Bruny Nieves


Conscious Travel Practices:

1. Recognize and appreciate hard labor.

2. Learn the importance of natural resources.

3. Appreciate past times and our ancestor’s history. 


Equipment used in beauty parlors around 1950. Photo: Bruny Nieves

Equipment used in beauty parlors around 1950. Photo: Bruny Nieves