An Oasis in the Moorland Desert
By PhD Student Frederik Vognsen Hansen, Aarhus University
For centuries, production at Brejninggård was associated with waterpower. The estate had an impressive four mills. In addition to the grain mill, there were two stamping or hide mills to process leather. In the mid-19th century, the last mill was converted to a steam distillery: producing brandy on a considerable scale.
Coffin fittings coat of arms for the Lange, Skram, Breide and Krabbe families. The two first recur in the main building’s terracotta ornamentation. Probably originate from an open burial in Brejning Church. Ringkøbing-Skjern Museum
A tenacious vision: Hans Lange’s Brejninggård
Around 1580, the nobleman, Hans Lange built Brejninggård and the surrounding estate, which still exists today. But the big question is why he built the manor here? As one of the most distinguished men in the realm, Hans Lange had many properties and a great deal of land at his disposal. He was in possession of other ancient manor houses,so why did he choose to build a new one, and why exactly at Brejninggård?
A Latin document from 1638 explains: “In the middle of the area of heather, where the highest Creator has allowed a spring to bubble so abundantly […Hans Lange] was attracted by the landscape of the place and built the noble manor house, Bredninggård.” But the beauty of the landscape was probably not the only reason. Hans Lange saw untapped potential. He converted the wealth of springs, streams and meadows into an impressive water system, which not only piped water to the manor house and the grounds, but also provided ample opportunity to exploit the power of different types of mill. The text continues: “He then distributed the water, which was directed from the spring in a double channel, so that it could be put to use in various ways.”
Hans Lange’s construction project was about more than just prestige. The huge investment, which the construction represented, was a vision for future operations on the estate based on waterpower. Lange’s successors shared his vision. Consequently, the piped water system and the facilities surrounding the manor were in operation well into the 20th century. Brejninggård is still considered a unique facility, which survived and remained unchanged for 450 years.
Dams, channels and watermills around Brejninggård were critical to the estate’s production and finances. The meadows were improved by irrigation. For a long time, the grain mill west of the courtyard was the only one in the parish. In addition, the plentiful amounts of water contributed to an unusual fertility in the West Jutland landscape, which makes Brejninggård seem like an oasis: a haven rich in water and life. But what is most notable is the stamping mill. A stamping mill is a special type of mill, which is usually driven by waterpower. In mechanical terms, the mill wheel drives a shaft, which raises a number of solid wooden blocks (“stampers”) to a given height. The stampers are then released, so they fall with force. Stamping mills were used for many purposes, but at Brejninggård the mill was used by the estate’s tenants to produce soft leather from hides, to make gloves, for example. The craft would produce the same effect as tanning, and the craft was known in Danish as “felberedning”.
The stamping mill meant that the manor had revenue from something other than just agriculture. So even in this respect, Brejningård stands out as an oasis. Not only did the water system contribute to the creation of a scenic, oasis-like setting, it also turned the estate into an oasis in the economic sense of the word. Through the use of waterpower, Brejninggård experienced economic prosperity, and some investments, which made it unique in the West Jutland manor house landscape.
Leather production – and the fight against the market towns
In 1684, Laurids Munk (the owner from 1683 to 1703) was granted royal authorisation for his tenants to work at processing leather: a craft that was otherwise the preserve of the market towns. However, source material shows that, even back in 1661, Brejninggård’s tenants were processing hides into leather. In other words,the estate already had a long tradition. Munk probably procured the royal authorisation, because the tenants’ workmanship was turning into a profitable business for the overall finances of the estate.
The hide workers of Brejning were doing well enough, and their progress had strengthened Brejninggård’s finances sufficiently, to support another stamping mill . This was probably built by Christian Siegfred Eenholm, who owned the estate in the golden age of processing hides in the mid-18th century. In 1731, he had Munk’s authorisation from 1684 confirmed and renewed, probably because the nearest market towns of Holstebro and Ringkøbing had complained about the leather production on the estate. The towns’ artisans were clearly not happy about the competition from Brejninggård.
The complaints from the urban artisans were based on the fact that they had to buy trade licences and pay tax to the town. So it was expensive for them to set up in trade. Brejninggård’s tenants only had to pay for rent of land and other dues to the lord: in other words, days of work on the estate. Despite this, Eenholm got the royal authorisation confirmed in his name.
In the conflict between Eenholm and the market towns, we can see that the manor was successful at more than just agriculture. Brejninggård was a hub for an early form of manufacture, which was substantial enough to challenge the market towns – and win.
The last hide worker – and new life in the mill
We suspect that the conflict continued after Eenholm. In 1768, Christian Frederik Juul (the owner from 1760 to 1771) got the authorisation confirmed in his name. But by the early 19th century it was all over. The days of leather production were a thing of the past, and Brejninggård’s last hide worker, Christian Engel, ended up in the poor house in the middle of the century. The stamping mills fell silent and were lost as there was no longer enough work. Eenholm’s new stamping mill from the mid-18th century had disappeared again by 1810. The other mill survived a little longer, but it was converted into a steam distillery in 1851.
The steam distillery was an attempt on the part of the Frandsen brothers to inject new life into the estate’s economy after they took it over in 1849. But things did not work out as they hoped, and the estate’s economy stagnated until 1882, when Brejninggård was sold at auction to the pharmacist, Henning Gynther Koefoed. The steam distillery was sold separately.
Aerial view of Brejninggård, 1953. Behind the manor we can see the millpond with a main road on the dam. The little building at the side of the road is the final remnant of the Brejninggård Watermill, which at the time was producing electricity for the continuation school. Brejning District Museum and the Local History Archives
From 1882, there was no manufacturing at Brejninggård, no steam distillery, no copyhold farms and just a single grain mill. By then, the watermill’s days were also numbered. Until 1857, royal permission was required to construct new mills, and it was only granted to the richest people in the country: the estate owners. So Brejninggård’s grain mill had a monopoly on milling activities in Brejning parish.
But this had changed in 1857, when the milling industry was deregulated. That meant that anyone could build mills. In 1883 Spjald windmill was built as a competitor to the Brejning watermill. Because, even though the waterpower in Brejning had always been a unique resource, there had never been a shortage of wind in West Jutland.
The watermill experienced some brief prosperity in the early 20th century. During the First World War , it was difficult to obtain fuel for power stations, kerosene for lamps and so forth. In 1917, the Spjald windmill and the Brejninggård watermill were fitted with dynamos, so they could supply power to Spjald, Nr. Omme and Ørnhøj. Power production at the Brejninggård watermill continued after the war and well into the 20th century.
Gert Alsted: ‘Brejninggårds spændende herregårdsanlæg’ in Hardsyssels Årbog 2005 pp. 11-18
Poul D. C. Christensen: ‘Feldberederne i Brejning i 1600 og 1700-tallet” in Hardsyssels Årbog 1992 pp. 87-104
Poul D. C. Christensen: ‘Handelens udvikling i Brejning’ in Hardsyssels Årbog 1991 pp. 5-34