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Little Red Riding Hood country

Marie, the nanny, told Dortchen Wild, who told her husband, Wilhelm. Wilhelm , together with his brother, Jakob Grimm, later told the world the story of "Little Red Riding Hood."

This fairy tale, along with 200 others, was collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in a number of volumes, the first of which came out in 1809. Their "household tales" have been printed in every written language. In fact, in 1955 comedian-author Steve Allen wrote yet another translation in "bop," calling it "Crazy Red Riding Hood," "a lovely little girl who was also a fine chick."

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But Red Riding Hood never lived in the "Land of Oobopshebam," as Allen wrote. She actually grew up in the Schwalm Valley, 65 miles northeast of Frankfurt, West Germany, in the federal state of Hesse, where counts used to live in castles and peasants worked their land.

Today the 13-village area is called Schwalmstadt, and its people, the Schwalmerm (people of the Schwalm).They have clung to their old customs, perhaps longer than the people of any other district in Germany.

Women more than men still wear the native dress. During the early days, women wore a certain color that signified their status: red for youth; green for young married; purple for middle age; and black for old age and mourning. And the red cap and dress that the young Schwalmer girls used to wear became "the little red riding hood," or Rotkappchen.m Today, you'll only see the older women wearing the black with white leggings; or in the fields, where they wear white bonnets with white aprons over their full knee-length skirts. I saw only one man wear a native frock and rounded felt hat going to church.

Since 1728, the people of Schwalmstadt have celebrated their heritage in a festive five-day event with parades, dances, folksongs, and regional foods. Held in June, 60 days after Easter, Salatkirmesm or "salad festival," commemorates the time when lettuce was introduced to the Schwalmers' diet.The celebration takes place in Ziegenhain, which is the hub of Schwalmstadt, and attracts people from all over. Men, women, and children, too, dress up in the original native costumes that their ancestors wore.

"This is a very special time of year for us. Townspeople who used to live here return just so they can celebrate with their old friends. It's one big reunion. I have a friend now living in Zurich, and he always comes back for Kirmes,"m said Peter Mueller, a retired German Air Force officer and resident of the area.

I learned about the celebration quite by chance when I met Mr. Mueller. The owner of the 17th-century landmark Hotel Rosengarten in Ziegenhain called up Mr. Mueller to come over because the hotel keeper's English and my German just never got together. Mr. Muellerhad gone to flight training school in El Paso, Texas, years ago and spoke English very well, maybe with a slight Southern drawl!

The Kirmesm didn't begin until the following week, but Mr. Mueller persuaded me to stay, to meet his family, and to see a part of Germany that he thinks most Americans do not get the chance to visit.

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The Schwalm Valley is named for the Schwalm River that flows through Ziegenhain. During the Middle Ages in Germany, territory was governed by the landgrave, the territory of a count or prince. Ziegenhain was annexed to the Hessian landgrave in 1450 and became a stronghold of the region with the completion of the moated castle built in 1543 by Earl Philip. Ziegenhain was well fortified and loyally supported by the townspeople, surviving the Thirty Years' War (1618- 1648, originally fought on political and religious issues between German Catholics and Protestants).

Traditionally a religion-rooted and community-conscious group, the Schwalmer have remained a conservative folk. Most are farmers who raise wheat, barley, sugar beets on the fertile land, and dairy cattle and swine. The village blacksmith and the cooper, the cabinetmaker, and the cobbler have been replaced by the advent of modern technology. But the Museum der Schwalm in Ziegenhain, next to the old castle (now a prison) has reconstructed these various workshops of the artisans who used to live in the region. Also, there are exhibits of the various ornate dresses, highlighted by silk, gold, and silver embroidery, once worn by the women here. The wedding gown, especially, is influenced by the baroque and rococo period, and took nearly five hours to pin and put on. Examples of Schwalmer pottery and stoneware are exhibited too.

Werner Dorrbecker is the only potter still throwing in the Schwalmer tradition. Like his father and grandfather, he produces vases, jugs, bowls, plates, and pitchers in his Treysa studio, 5 kilometers from Ziegenhain. His wife manages a gift shop next door where his earthy-colored wares with hearts, six-and eight-pointed stars, and three-part tulip designs are sold.

Peter Mueller and his wife, Renate, are avid collectors of Schwalm pottery, furniture, and antique stoves. They bought an old framework house and barn in the village of Obergrenzebach.Plainly, Mr. Mueller keeps one foot in the past. But he also thinks of the future regarding his children and their adapting to small-town rural life. "I retired from the Air Force so that I could spend more time at home and live in a small community. Before we were always moving from one city to another. Now when I leave the village, I really miss it. I've learned to appreciate living in Schwalmstadt more and more. It has an easy, down-to-earth life style," he said. "The people who I know here keep me here. They may be reserved and not as outgoing as Rhinelanders or Bavarians in the south, but once they've befriended you, you have a friend forever. The Schwalmer are dependable, reliable, helpful, and gracious people."

The best way to visit the Schwalm Valley is to drive through the countryside, which is similar to eastern Pennsylvania. There are gasthauserm everywhere and these are less expensive than hotels. To the southeast of Ziegenhain lies Marburg, a Gothic and Renaissance city, famous for its university which the Brothers Grimm attended. To the northeast is Spangenburg, whose 13th-century castle is now a hotel.

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