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Glarus weaves its heritage into a theme trail

Eastern Switzerland's highest mountain, the 3,614m Tödi, is the backdrop to the Decoralwerke factory. Glarus Industry Trail

Canton Glarus has an industrial heritage like no other mountainous region in the country, and has not shied away from promoting its tall smokestacks as well as its high peaks.

This content was published on December 11, 2003 - 08:25

In fact, the canton has successfully marketed the Glarus Industry Trail, which is nearly 40 kilometres long and seeped in 250 years of history.

The old factory buildings that line the main valley in canton Glarus are evidence of a once thriving textile industry.

Many of the old buildings are now manufacturing centres for plastics and high-tech products, some have been converted into museums and multifunctional spaces, while others have been abandoned or torn down.

“We were disappointed at first because there was a factory with a smokestack in every village we came to,” a former engineer, Heini Honegger, said of his first impressions of the canton.

But that did not stop Honegger and his wife from moving from the suburbs of Zurich to a small village in Glarus where they have retired.

They have since become leading members of the Industry Trail association.

Mountains and factories

“When we began working with the association, we discovered that the combination of mountains and factories is unique in the Alps, and industry has also made the people here very open to foreign influence,” he added.

“Some of the big factories were built - architecturally – just to be functional,” explained Brigitte Honegger, a former architect.

“But some of the old factories are very beautiful,” she said. “You just have to open your eyes. It really depended on the period when they were built and the extent to which the industrialists wanted to show off.”

The association has printed an informative brochure and trail map (in German only, but guided tours in English are available).

The whole route can be explored by car, but has been designed mainly for hikers or cyclists, divided geographically into three sections.

National recognition

The trail has drawn more tourists to the region, boosting hotel and restaurant sales, and won national recognition earlier this year when it was short-listed for the Milestone prize, awarded to innovative tourism projects.

It was innovation which led the people of Glarus in the 18th century to transform their human and natural resources into a successful textile industry, like no other mountain region.

Pioneering figures at the time realised they could harness the power of the River Linth to drive their machines, and took advantage of a cheap labour force.

The people of Glarus lived in abject poverty and saw the factories as a chance to make better lives for themselves.

When the textile industry was at its peak in the 1860s, one-quarter of the population worked in the canton’s spinning and weaving mills.

Hanging towers

Some of the companies specialised in textile printing, drying the colourful fabrics under the eaves of tall factory buildings known as “hanging towers” that are unique to Glarus. The printed fabrics were sold the world over.

The factories were often built in the village centre, a visible display of the dominant place industry had in Glarus society.

The massive wood and brick structures are still surrounded by neat terraced “workers’” houses and the ornate villas where the industrialists once lived are close by.

The less than imaginative street names found in the town of Ennenda, such as Fabrikstrasse” (factory road) and “Villastrasse” (villa road), attest to this period of history.

Factories were also built in the countryside - quite often near dairy farms that served as suppliers of cow dung used in the dying process.

Weaving and spinning

A wonderful example is the weaving and spinning mill of Daniel Jenny and Company outside the village of Haslen, one of a handful of Glarus’ textile factories still in operation.

The long five-storey building is surrounded by lush fields and its slender smokestack leads the eye up to the mountains above.

The nearby farmhouse is dwarfed in such a setting, as is a small transformer station, which Brigitte Honegger likens to a chapel.

“It’s very typical that it’s built like a chapel, so I guess it was the local population’s way of thanking their gods for having work,” she said laughing.

“It’s very important to preserve these buildings because it’s like inheriting a beautiful piece of furniture from your grandparents,” she continued.

“You won’t throw it away since it meant a lot to them, and these buildings are part of Glarus’ heritage.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Glarus

In brief

The Glarus Industry Trail is divided into three sections:

From Elm to Schwanden, 14 km
- the 17th century village of Elm is a national heritage site
- former slate factory in Elm, now an interactive museum
- slate mine in Engi
- textile mill with factory outlet store in Engi

From Linthal to Glarus, 12 km
- textile factories
- ornate villas, workers housing and modern industry
- hydroelectricity

From Glarus to Ziegelbrücke, 11 km
- Switzerland’s sole lime factory in Netstal
- electricity museum in Netstal
- textile printing museum in Näfels
- Important spinning mill in Ziegelbrücke

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Key facts

Glarus was a key textile manufacturing centre in the 19th century.
Printed fabrics from Glarus, from linen to handkerchiefs, were exported worldwide.
There are nine industry theme trails in Switzerland.

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