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The museum is located in Toerbel, a mountain village at an altitude of 4900 feet in the canton Wallis in Switzerland. It is surrounded by majestic mountains and the dark wooden houses appear to be glued to the steep slopes. They are all build on rock to save the fertile ground. Some of them are over 400 years old. The larch wood used for their construction was sawn and planed by hand. Almost all of the houses consist of a kitchen, a living room and a small chamber, which would be further subdivided if there were both boys and girls in a family. Up to 15 people lived in such houses. Ceilings, windows and doors are very low, in part to save wood and also to keep the heat inside in winter. Many foreign visitors leave the house with a bloody head, because they forgot to bow humbly on departure.

Living conditions were tough. There was hardly any cash. The men left during the summer months to find jobs as day laborers, mule drivers or in tunnel construction outside the village, while the women were busy with farming, gardening, and bringing up the many children, who, barely three years old, had to help. Every family had on average 5 – 10 children. One or two would be gladly passed on to any childless relatives. If the mother died in childbirth, which happened frequently, the other children would then be distributed among the usually numerous relations.

The whole mountain was – and still is – used from top to bottom. At the lowest level, at 1950 feet, are the vineyards. Each family made its own wine. Early in the morning the people descended on foot to spend the day working the vines to return home in the evening over the tortuous path. In the autumn, the grapes would be transported by oxen or mules into the village and put into barrels. Each house had its own wine cellar, which also served to store cheese.

The middle of the mountain would be used for farming. The ground is rocky, poor and dry. It could be made productive only through the use of a century old system of watering canals. Because of the many slabs of rock the area of useful ground was small and every inch of it was fiercely defended. Serious fighting broke out if a farmer, while mowing, disregarded a border marking and encroached on his neighbor’s field, which happened often, or secretly diverted water from a canal to his own field. Most of the families possessed one or two cows, two or three goats or sheep, and a few chickens. These, together with their potato field and vegetable garden made them perfectly self reliant.

The top-most part of the mountain is the alp at 6550 feet. This is where cattle spend the summer up to this day. That gives the farmers time to bring in the hay. Because the pieces of land that they own are scattered, there are a number of small buildings where they could store hay. In winter they lived there with the animals, until the barn was empty and they had to move to the next place. It was a constant wandering with family, possessions and animals. The children in these outlaying stations, who only received six months of schooling in winter, often had to walk one to two hours through deep snow to reach the school.

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