The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times

28 Aug 2023
  Half-Timbered Houses and a Graduation Tower – Bad Sooden-Allendorf

I’ve mentioned the German spa town Bad Sooden-Allendorf at the Werra in my post about the Bruchteiche reservoir and already told a bit about its history and the geological foundations of the salt deposits. I recently visited the town itself and collected a whole bunch of photos of half-timbered houses ‒ Bad Sooden-Alledorf is famous for those ‒ and the fascinating history and processes of salt destillation by graduation towers for you.
Allendorf, half-timbered houses in the Kirchstrasse

The town was badly destroyed during the Thirty Years War (1618‒1648), so almost all of the houses in the old town of Allendorf date to the 17th century, which gives Bad Sooden-Allendorf an unusually harmonic look. The style of the houses is a mix of the local half-timbering traditions of Hessia, Thuringa, Lower Saxony and even Franconia, since the craftsmen hailed from various districts, yet forming a coherent whole; one could almost call it the Allendorf style. :)
Bad Sooden-Allendorf, bridge across the Werra

So let’s do a virtual walk through the twin towns – separeted by the Werra river – with some little history lessons included. We start at the bridge across the Werra which in the Middle Ages provided a harbour and a way to transport the salt ‒ the foundation of Allendorf’s and Sooden’s wealth ‒ by ship as well as by road
Allendorf, Fischerstad (fishermen’s quarter)

When we move in direction of Allendorf, the first scenic sight is the Fischerstad (fishermen’s quarter). The quarter lies outside the old town walls and has been the place where the fishermen lived; a group less wealthy than the merchants and artisans who had their houses in the town. Nowadays, those houses make for a lovely addition to the town (no hovels at all).
Fishermen’s quarter

There is still fish in the Werra, but today it’s only fished for private use or a little extra income. Most of the inhabitants of the quarter have taken up fishing, and they all have boats to cross the Werra to their gardens on an island in the river. Hence the district got nicknamed ‘little Venice’.
Lane in the Fischerstad outside the town wall (to the right)

On this photo from the back lane you can see that the houses along the river are outside the town wall whose remains are to the right. The town wall once was about 5 metres high, with three gates and seven towers, but not much remains except for a tower and a reconstructed section along the Werra (unfortunately obscured by some ugly party tents when I visited).
Allendorf, Kirchstrasse

The Kirchstrasse (Church Lane) is one of the major streets in Allendorf with some of the prettiest and most finely decorated houses. The whole ensemble dates to the 17th century. Under the week, you won’t find many tourists; they tend to be around in the spa town of Sooden.
The house called Löwe (Lion)

The most impressive of those houses is the one called Löwe (Lion), also known as Bürger’sches Haus. It was built in 1639 by a rich cloth merchant named Jakob Oderwaldt. The house has not been altered until today.

I’ll use the following collection of photos to ‘decorate’ a little essay about the history of Bad Sooden-Allendorf.
More pretty houses in Allendorf

Tacitus (59‒120 AD) mentions that the tribes of the Chatti (the predecessors of the Hessians) and Hermunduri (now Thuringia) quarreled about salt deposits at a border river. It is assumed that this may have been the Werra – border river between Hessia and Thuringia frequently during history – and the salt deposits those at what is today the Sooden side of the twin spa town Bad Sooden-Allendorf. Those are not the only salt wells along the Werra, but they are the ones at a tribal border.
Closeup of some decorations

The next witness for a settlement in the area is a charte by Charlemagne, dating to some time between 776‒779 in which the village of Westera, the salt deposits, the income thereof, the market and tithes were granted to the monastery of Fulda. Westera might mean something like ‘west of the river’ (aha / a being an Indoeuropean ‘river’-word). A ringwall fort that has been dated to Carolingian times can be found near the town.
More decoative woodwork

The name changed in the 13th century. In a charte by Landgrave Ludwig IV of Thuringia, the village is called Aldendorf (Old Village) which was later shortened to Allendorf. This charte from 1218 granted Allendorf the rights of a town and market.
Houses in the Schusterstrasse (Shoemakers’ Lane)

The town of Allendorf proper, once surrounded by a town wall, lies at the right of the Werra. This was the place where the wealthy borghers, the merchants and artisans lived.

On the left side of the river was the settlement of the salt workers and the owners of the salt pans, the Pfänner (from German ‘Pfannen’) in which salt was destilled by heating the brine, a process that required particular skills (see also below). This settlement was called Sooden since the Middle Ages.
Allendorf, the market square

Salt was much needed as preservative in the Middle Ages, so the salt production and salt trade enriched the salt mine owners and merchants, who could afford to build pretty houses. Even though the town was badly damaged by fire in 1637 (see below) we can assume that the houses of wealthy burghers looked quite splendid back then.
The town hall of Allendorf

The town hall of Allendorf is a curiosity. The original Gothic building dating to 1500 was destroyed in 1637, but already a year later, the town purchased a half-timbered house in Sooden from the heirs of the salt master (Siedemeister) Jakob Lips for the amount of 640 gulden – Sooden had fared less badly during the Thirty Years War attacks – and reconstructed in on the stone foundations of the fomer town hall.
The Stone House (Rathofstrasse 3)

The Stone House is one of the few buildings that survived the 1637 fire. It was built in 1381 by the lords of Bischoffshausen, a local noble family. It served as town hall for some time prior to 1500 when the new hall was built. The half-timbered upper floor was added in the 19th century.
Stone house, the backside

Many towns lost their independency during the Late Middle and Early Modern Ages. The burghers of Allendorf and Sooden were obliged to pawn out the salt springs and graduation works of Sooden to the landgrave of Hessia in 1554 and lost them perpetually in 1586. Allendorf by that successively lost its influence on Sooden which eventually was considered a town in its own right; a stauts officially acknowledged since 1808. Allendorf also remained under the influence of the landgraves of Hessia, but managed to retain greater independency. Both towns were reunited as Bad Sooden-Allendorf in 1929.
Allendorf, St.Crucis Church, the tower

The main church in Allendorf is St.Crucis. It is assumed that there had been an older building on the site (the name St.Crucis points at a foundation of bishop Boniface which would date the origins of the church back to the 8th century, the time of Charlemagne; see above). The first official mention of a church dates to the above mentioned charte by Ludwig IV of Thuringia (1218). The present church was completed in 1386 ‒ some older Romanesque pieces were reused in its construction ‒; the tower in 1424.
St.Crucis, the southern side with parts of a Romanesque ashlar wall

The plan may have been for the three naved transept basilica, but it ended up as a two naved hall church (which is a bit of an oddity; hall churches use to have three naves) with a single tower. The church was damaged in the Thirty Years War and remained a ruin for about 50 years. Then a roof was put back on, but without the damaged Gothic cross grain vaults – the inner roof today is flat. The Baroque cupola on the tower was added in 1719.
The Bible Garden

The church is partly surrounded by a Bible Garden. It was planted in 2007 and contains plants and flowers which are mentioned in the Bible but can also cope with the local climate. It is a quiet place with several banks, tablets with biblical quotations, and other features for contemplation and relaxation.
View to St.Crucis from the Werra bridge

We move across the Werra bridge towards Sooden. Unfortunately, the sun decided to hide while I visited that part.

I’ve already mentioned the Thirty Years War and the damage it caused to the town of Allendorf. The town had managed to buy off marauding troops several times since 1623, but in April 1637, the burghers had run out of money, and the troops of Isolani and Geleen plundered the town, which resulted in an great fire that destroyed most of the buildings.
The bridge across the Werra from a different angle

Many people managed to flee and, upon return, lived in cellars. The death rate rose in the years after the conflagration. It was questioned whether to rebuild the town at all, but in 1639, the town council allowed timber harvesting in the town forests. Rebuilding happened quite fast; carpenters came from neighbouring regions, which led to the unique mix of styles and the coherent whole mentioned above. Yet, Allendorf never fully regained its former importance.
Sooden, the graduation tower

The town of Sooden on the other side of the Werra suffered less by marauding troops because it was under the protection of the landgrave of Hessia. Before we enter the town proper, we come across the graduation works – once the main source of wealth of the town, today one of the main attractions of the spa facilities.
Graduation tower, detail

The graduation tower was a 16th century invention and addition to the old way of condensing the brine in large pans. Now natural evaporation was added to increase the salt concentration in the brine. This was achieved by having the 4-6% salt water drip down a 10 metres high wall of blackthorn (originally, straw was used, but it rotted too fast) where wind and sun allowed some of the water to evaporate and thereby condense the brine to 20-25%. At the same time, unwanted additions to the brine as gypsum and calcium would deposit in the thorn brushwood which needs to be replaced every few years. Thus the process of turning the brine into pure salt by heating, which needed a lot of wood and later charcoal, was shortened considerably.
Graduation tower, the way along the blackthorn wall

The level of the salt-carrying water had been closer to the surface at the time when the tribe of the Chatti used those salt deposits, as well as during the Middle Ages. In the middle of the 19th century those wells dried up. New salt wells were discovered which had a higher salt concentration up to 12%, and the new steam technology allowed to pump water from a a greather depth. One of those wells from 1852 is still in use.
Closeup of the blackthorn wall

The brine is pumped up from a 334 metres deep well today (by modern pumps), and led to an open runnel with 300 taps on a length of 140 metres. The brine is collected in tubs at the bottom of the blackthorn wall.

At its heighday, there had been 22 graduation works in Sooden (a complex also known as Saline), but only the number 5, dating to 1638, survives until today. Though the complete structure had to be dismantled and rebuilt to the original design in 1999-2002, because the timber had proved to be in a bad shape.
Graduation work with pump tower and canal

In the 19th century, the production of salt became increasingly uneconomic (and the Prussian taxes didn’t help). But at that time, the healing properties of brine were discovered and the town attracted visitors who came to improve their health. Sooden was acknowledged as spa town (Bad Sooden) in 1881.

The covered walk along the perimeter of the gaduation tower was added in 1887, as it was noticed that the graudation process creates a microclimate like the one at the sea. I spent half an hour there just breathing the wholesome air.
The Baroque Söder Gate, seen from the outside

The town of Sooden proper begins at the Söder Gate – nowadays, it stands there without the protection of a town wall, but when it was built by Landgrave Carl of Hessia in 1704, it was the only way to enter and leave the town. The salt deposits and salt works belonged to the landgrave, and no pound of salt was to be transported out of town without customs paid if he could be helped.
Söder Gate, inner side

Sometimes, he couldn’t. Contraband trade of salt was a popular occupation, of course, as was theft and weighing down the salt by adding water (the Salzfrevel). Therefore, the gate house had a prison cell where such miscreants could be kept until their trial.
The so-called Pfennigstube

This little house is one of the oldest in Sooden, and once was one of the most important. It housed the tax and customs office of the Saline Sooden. Two pfennig per one Achtel (eighth; those old measures are a mess) of salt was the toll the carters had to pay. The would receive an official grant to transport salt – the ‘salt passport’. There were some 350 salt carters in service of the landgrave of Hessia in 1630.

With the Scales Monument at the customs office (now the Tourist Information), we’ll move into the town and have a look at the history of Sooden. The houses here are of more different styles and date to different times.
View of houses in Sooden, with the Scales Monument in the foreground

In the Middle Ages and the early Modern Times, Sooden had about 80 Siedehäuser (‘boiling houses’, though the translation is not correct, the brine was not boiling, but simmering). The brine was heated in pans called Kot of 3.50 metres length, 3 metres width and 30 cm depth, a process going on day and night under permanent stirring of the brine turning into a paste until it became pure salt. Every house held such a pan which was a family heritage of the Siedemeister (boil master, or salt master). Salt masters were not allowed to purchase land, but they were highly valued specialist craftsmen with a good income.
Some pretty houses in Sooden

The pans were owned by borghers from Allendorf and nobles from the surrounding lands which formed a sort of union and called themselves Pfänner (see above). When Sooden fell to the landgraves of Hessia, they had to pay a tithe, but at first, the landgraves didn’t install Kots of their own. But for one, the salt production declined, and on the other hand, the position of the landgraves became more powerful, so they finally set up their own pans, which promptly led to troubles with the local salt masters. As a result, Landgrave Philipp I took over all pans and the forests (which were needed for firewood) in 1540, paying the former Pfänner a rent; but they had no longer any influence on how the salt production was run.
Lane in Sooden, the ‘Weinreihe’

The salt production and distribution became organised. At the top was a Obersalzgrebe (salt reeve; verbatim ’high salt count’, though that’s not a noble rank but an administrative title) with two salt counts one of whom was also the town major in Allendorf while the other led the administration of the salt works. He had a staff of scribes, comptrollers and such, and a well master (Brunnenmeister) responsible for the pumps, graduation works, canals etc. About 1600, the output of the salt works was 9.000 pans = 113.000 hundredweights of salt.
Sooden, the market square

One of those salt reeves was Johannes Rhenanus (1528-1589) who had studied Theology and served as curate until he was called by Philipp to oversee the salt works in 1559. Rhenanus was interested in technical matters and traveled to see other salt production sites. He was the one to install the first graduation tower in Sooden, and introduced brown coal from the Meissner Mountains as firing instead of wood (the surroundings of the town becoming deforested); he increased the temperature of the coal by adding a chimney to his stove, which was used to dry the salt as well. He also wrote a large tome about salt works – the New Saltzbuch.
Another view of the graduation tower

Another famous salt reeve was Jakob Sigismund Waitz von Eschen (1698-1776; the family was ennobled in 1764) under Landgrave Friedrich II. He changed the straw graduation with blackthorn (see above) and replaced the former pump system that was worked by horses with a water-wheel powered system of pumps, wheels and pivots (a so-called Wasserkunst), a technolgy also used in mining.
Houses at the spa park

When Hessia-Kassel was annexed by Prussia during the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the landgrave lost the salt monopoly. Sooden (and Allendorf as well) thereby lost the foundation of its wealth, the salt pans went out of use, unemployment increased. But in 1876, the town mayor Hedwig Lange got the idea to turn the salt wells into the basis for a spa. A bath already existed since 1818, but now new bath houses and hotels were built, and within a few years, many inhabitants of the town could live off the spa business. Today, Bad Sooden-Allendorf is still a popular spa town with public swimming pools, hotels, sanatoriums and wellness clinics.
View to the Werra weir and St.Crucis in Allendorf

Only online sources this time: The website with places to see, a site by the local home club and a Wiki site.
Gosh, that looks magical! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for all the fascinating details. What alot of work! And the photos - marvelous
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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.

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Location: Goettingen, Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History, interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Beginnings of the Kalmar Union

(Latvia and Estonia)

Contested Territories

Livonian Towns
The History of Mediaeval Riga
The History of Mediaeval Tallinn


Lithuanian Princes

The Geminid Dynasty
Troublesome Cousins - Jogaila and Vytautas

The Northern Crusades

The Wars in Lithuania
The Siege of Vilnius 1390


Royal Dynasties

The Jagiełłonian Kings
Władysław Jagiełło and the Polish-Lithuanian Union

The Northern Crusades

The Conquest of Pomerania / Prussia
The Conquest of Danzig


Royal Dynasties

The Bohemian Kings of House Luxembourg
King Sigismund and the Hussite Wars


House Luxembourg
King Sigismund


More to come

Roman History

The Romans at War

Forts and Fortifications

The German Limes
The Cavalry Fort Aalen
Limes Fort Osterburken
Limes Fort Saalburg

The Hadrian's Wall
The Fort at Segedunum / Wallsend

Border Life
Exercise Halls
Mile Castles and Watch Towers
Soldiers' Living Quarters
Cavalry Barracks

Campaigns and Battles

The Romans in Germania

The Pre-Varus Invasion in Germania
Roman Camp Hedemünden
New Finds in 2008

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
Museum Park at Kalkriese

The Battle at the Harzhorn

The Batavian Rebellion
A Short Introduction

Roman Militaria

Early Imperial Helmets
Late Roman Helmets
The Negau B Helmet

Weapon Finds at Hedemünden
The pilum

Other Equipment
Roman Saddles

Famous Romans

The Late Empire

The Legend of Alaric's Burial

Roman Life and Religion

Religion and Public Life

Curse Tablets and Good Luck Charms
Isis Worship
Memorial Stones
The Mithras Cult

Public Life
Roman Transport: Barges
Roman Transport: Amphorae and Barrels
Roman Water Supply

Roman Public Baths

Domestic Life

Roman villae
Villa Urbana Longuich
Villa Rustica Wachenheim

Everyday Life
Bathing Habits
Children's Toys
Face Pots

Other Times

Neolithicum to Iron Age


Development of Civilisation
European Bread Museum, Ebergötzen
The Hutewald Project in the Solling
Open Air Museum Oerlinghausen

Neolithic Remains
Stone Burials of the Funnelbeaker Culture
The Necropolis of Oldendorf

Bronze Age / Iron Age
The Nydam Ship


Neolithic Orkney
The Neolithic Landscape of Orkney
Ring of Brodgar
Skara Brae
Life in Skara Brae

Bronze Age / Iron Age
Clava Cairns
The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe - Their Function in Iron Age Society


Bronze / Iron Age
The Ship Setting of Gnisvärd / Gotland

Post-Mediaeval History

Explorers and Discoveries

Fram Expedition to the North Pole
Fram Expedition to the South Pole

Otto von Guericke and the Magdeburg Hemispheres
Raising a Wreck, Now and Then (Vasa Museum in Stockholm)

History and Literature


The Weimar Classicism


Geological Landscapes: Germany

Baltic Sea Coast
Chalk Cliffs on Rugia
Flint Fields on Rugia

Harz Mountains
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in Southern Harz
The Lonau Falls
The Rhume Springs
Sandstone Formations: Daneil's Cave
Sandstone Formations: Devil's Wall
Sandstone Formations: The Klus Rock

Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations
Salt Springs at the Werra

Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

Geological Landscapes: Great Britain

The Shores of Scotland

Geological Landscapes: Baltic Sea

Geology of the Curonian Spit

Fossils and Other Odd Rocks

Fossilized Ammonites
The Loket Meteorite (Czechia)

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