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Cable lift pioneer from Harlingen built Gdansk bastion and dikes

Mennonite refugee hero in Polish city

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

HARLINGEN, The Netherlands - The headline in a Dutch daily announced: Harlingen pioneer unknown in his hometown, Adam Wybe built a revolutionary cable lift in Danzig in 1644. After all those years, Danzig (Gdansk) still remembers the Frisian migrant with a Wiebe Wall, a Wiebe Square, a Wiebe armory, and a Bastion Wiebe. East Prussians and the Polish remain acquainted with their fortress builder and water works engineer, even though his name was forgotten at home. A subtle reminder, that about 435 years ago, Dutch religious dissenters became refugees abroad.

It has taken centuries since he and his brother departed this northwestern city in the province of Friesland but only recently people there became acquainted with Adam Wiebe and his brother Jacob. The brothers who pulled up stakes in Harlingen around 1600, felt threatened by heavy-handed and ruthless governors sent to the Lowlands by King Philip II of Spain. The brothers, followers of nearby Witmarsum’s former priest Menno Simons fled east, where numerous dukes and counts had joined Luther’s Reformation. By 1616, Adam Wiebe had settled in Gdansk, then still named Danzig, located in the flood-prone region of East Prussia. Jacob Wiebe built a new life in Freienhuben, near the Nogat River.

It is only a few years ago that a German named Jacob Wiebe requested city hall in Harlingen for information about his ancestor Adam Wiebe. A search of the archives failed to produce any vital statistics but Gerry Kuijper of the local history committee did find a late 19th century booklet about Adam Wijbe von Harlingen. As a result, he introduced Harlingen’s refugee and master builder in the city’s periodical Oud Harlingen through an article.

The next step in the re-acquaintance with the Wiebes again originated from Germany when a woman surnamed Wiebe wanted a tour of the city. This honour fell to Gerry Kuijper who very much surprised the lady when she informed her that she was aware of her distant ancestor Adam Wiebe.

It is not just the city of Harlingen that has extensive Doopsgezinde or Mennonite roots. Much of the province of Friesland has as well. The influence of the Mennonites in Harlingen is particularly strong however. While the Wiebe brothers migrated east, many of their fellow believers had migrated north (from Flanders and elsewhere) to that city where at the time they caused a building boom, particularly in the period of 1543 to 1565. On May 17, 1568, the Spanish surprised Harlingen when they landed 1800 soldiers there, led by Colonel Casper di Robles, a man the dissenters quickly learned to fear.


Adam Wiebe’s story is very much part of the Mennonite migration in Europe. It has been known along that Mennonites, Frisians among them, were welcomed in the bogs and flood-prone regions of East Prussia to channel waterways, build dikes and cultivate the land. They were granted exemptions from military service to take part in these other such duties. It is remarkable that Adam Wiebe’s legacy is still known for his fortification of the city in Gdansk hundreds of years later.

He is not known just for the 17th century fortifications but especially for the the ingenious way that Adam Wiebe built the structure. Evidence of his construction remains in a detailed engraving showing how horses moved dirt buckets suspended from a cable lift coming down from the Bishop’s Mountain towards the building site below. The empty buckets pulled back up the mountain. Wiebe’s simple but ingenious contraption has been called the first known cable lift in European history and precedes the invention of steel cables. It is not known how long this lift was used. In any case, it would be another 230 years before Germany would get the second cable lift, this newer version equipped with iron wire cable.


There seems to be consensus that certainly most people surnamed Wiebe descend from the brothers Adam and Jacob, although information on the early generations is far from complete. Interesting too is the early reliance on oral history (reading and writing in Western Europe’s rural regions only became relatively common during the 18800s). A Peter Wiebe transcribed the family’s oral history to paper sometime around 1880, going back to the 1620s, but is rather lacking in detail. No place of origin is identified nor is there total agreement on dates, although the general family history outline is reasonably consistent. They probably were not aware of the engraving which identifies Adam Wiebe as being from “von Harlingen.”

Adam Wiebe’s son Jakob also was known as a waterworks master builder. He was involved in dike building along the Nogat River in the Elbing district. Son Abraham assisted his father in Danzig and later became his successor. The sons were also lease holders of the king of Poland and in the mid 1600s were joined in the settlement by distant relative Hans Wiebe. According the sources, there were various groups of Mennonites, Flemish as well as Frisians.

The strength of a dike is gauged by its weakest section. It seems that settlers were responsible for their own section along the Nogat River and could be blamed for neglect if the dike breached along their place. The fact that the King August of Poland in 1700 had to order the Wiebes to upgrade their dikes, seems to suggest that not every member of the Wiebe clan willingly took to that task.


Gerhard Wiebe who lived around 1790 was a Mennonite elder who worked on the 20 Articles of the “Religious Beliefs of the Mennonites in Prussia” and published them at Elbing. He also translated into high German (the Mennonites spoke low German, a dialect very close to those along the Dutch and German border areas of Groningen, Drenthe and Overijssel in the Netherlands) a tract written by Menno Simon(i)s in 1549 so it was accessible to all Mennonites. Furthermore, Gerhard Wiebe did his community a great service by collecting every brief, tract, letter and other writings that had circulated among the various Mennonite communities since the Reformation. Gerhard’s son Isbrand transcribed all these into a comprehensive collection, bound into a thick, pigskin bound book. This documentation work, prompted another Mennonite migrant, a man named Friesen, to honour Gerhard Wiebe for his efforts in 1911, stating: “”With reverence and awe we thank the reverent Episcopal figure …”

Apparently, this book was taken along to the Black Sea region when the Prussian Mennonites in the late 1700s lost ownership of the land and were invited by the Czar of Russia to settle in his country. Decades later when the Mennonites moved on to North America, the book went with them. It since has been returned to one of the original settlement communities although it provides no date for this return.

The Mennonite surname Wiebe can be found in many countries but, so remarks contemporary family historian John D. Wiebe. According to him, the Wiebe family lines all can be traced back to the Nogat River area in the 1600s. He can safely go at least a generation further back in history, namely to Harlingen.