The Riffesers – The Beginning
The declining quality of Groeden wood carvings concerned many, but none more so than Luis Riffeser, one of the valley’s master craftsmen. His outrage stemmed from a lifelong association with the art, and a wood carving tradition in his own family dating back to the 1600s.
In 1866, when he was only 12 years old, Luis had been sent by his father to sell the elder Riffeser’s wood carvings in the great cities of Europe, only to return from his first trip to find his father had died.
Heart-stricken, the young boy made a firm resolution to take his father’s place. Within a short time, Alois Riffeser-Maciaconi became a successful merchant in wood carvings, attending the various shows in Germany, inventing many new models such as movable toys and puppets, and giving work once again to a great number of people back home. Many of these old toys were the property of ANRI’s first travelling salesman, Jean Senoner da Vastle. Today they can be seen in the local museum in St. Ulrich.
Anton Riffeser was born on May 4, 1887. An ambitious boy, he wanted to found his own wood carving business as soon as he finished school. The beginnings were difficult. His small apartment served as office, warehouse and workshop. But life took a turn for the better when Anton married his sweetheart, Carolina, in 1912, because she took part in the business by taking charge of all the home working purchases. Their happiness became even greater when their son, Anton (Toni) Riffeser Jr. was born.
But the scenario suddenly changed when shots were fired in Sarajevo and Anton Riffeser left the valley in the uniform of the Tyrolean Kaiserschützen. Captured by the Russians almost immediately, Anton spent six years in hunger and deprivation as a prisoner of war in Siberia.
Thanks to the Swedish Red Cross, the Groedners who fought in the war were reunited and given just one room in which to stay. These quarters were called the “artist’s room” because the villagers immediately began using their natural skills as artisans. A sketch has been saved from that room, showing one of the men carving and Anton Riffeser smoking his pipe.
It was during that time that he began to learn English which could later be a great help. He had time enough to outline projects for the time when he would return home. He would build a house and found a company, which he would name AN-RI, from ANton RIffeser.
Peace finally came to Brest-Litowsk. And the return transport of the Groedner prisoners started its journey home via Siberia and China. When he met an American official in Siberia, Anton Riffeser handed him one of his carvings depicting a Russian farm couple. (Many years later, that same American paid Anton a visit and returned the original carving to him as a memento of their friendship. It is still a treasured possession of the Riffeser family).
When they came to the Chinese border, the Austrian military prisoners reported to an Austrian military mission and were told that they were no longer Austrians, but Italian citizens. They boarded a freight ship through Venice and took a train to Bozen where among the waiting loved ones were Carolina and eight-year-old Toni Riffeser.