Perhaps it was a shepherd boy who first used his knife to carve, from a scrap of fireplace wood, the figure of a dog or a barnyard animal as a birthday remembrance, or simply to amuse a younger brother or sister. Such carvings were received as treasures, and examples of them which date from the 17th and 18th centuries are among the most valuable of the artefacts on display at the Groedener Heimatmuseum in St. Ulrich.
From approximately 1650 to 1750, wood carving in the Groeden Valley was dominated by the influence of the Vinazer family. It began with Melchior. Originally apprenticed in the workshop of Master Raphael Worath in Brixen, he located to St. Christina and St. Ulrich. Melchior taught his six sons the secrets of the art, and they became masters and teachers as well. The most renowned of these sons were Dominikus and Martin, who received formal training in sculpting studios in Vienna (Austria). Many of Dominikus’ religious carvings can be found in museums at St. Ulrich, Brixen, Innsbruck and Vienna, as well as in churches throughout the Groeden Valley.
Martin’s works were so highly prized that his patrons would often ask for reproductions of an original, and to supply them, Martin hired other carvers to execute copies.
Martin was probably the first carver who created master models from which reproductions could be made by other craftsmen. This practice formed the foundations for the art of reproducing which later was adopted by many Groedner artisans.
But the true measure of the popularity of the Groeden carvings is recorded in history. By 1788, the Raschötz forest – source of the carvers’ precious raw material – had been stripped of the best trees, and was threatened with extinction. The Imperial government in Vienna (Tyrol was then part of the Austrian Empire) issued a decree reducing the number of wood carvers in the Groeden Valley form 300 to 150.
The townspeople – particularly the wood carvers – protested, but the decree was revoked only when they agreed to adopt strict conservation methods to preserve the woodlands. It is one of the earliest known instances of a government-mandated measure designed to protect the environment.
By 1800, two-thirds of the population of the valley was making a living from wood-carving, and it had become the principal industry of the Groeden Valley. Not lace, not Loden cloth, not Groeden shag, not Alpine goat cheese, not dried hams but, wooden carvings.
In the Beginning, the sale of wood carvings was accomplished by itinerant trading. Many Groedners were at that time peddling their wares throughout the European countries with particular preference towards the Romanic ones whose languages were easily understood by the Groedners.
By 1864, over hundred branch companies founded by Groedners were operating all over Europe. The craftsmen often married girls from their home valley, and left business to sons or relatives when it was time to retire.
Most of the branch offices were later closed when the European railway network made it possible to do business directly from the valley to customers abroad.
This development brought a new boom to the wood carving industry. But there were also some big social disadvantages. Groedner businessmen, who commonly copied every model from each other, began trying to undersell each other, forcing down production prices. So, many wood carvers tried to become independent by looking out for customers they could supply directly. They proved to be right successful and within a short time the whole valley was busy, producing huge quantities of woodworks.
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, the quality decreased as demand increased. Due to an economic depression throughout Europe in the latter half of the 19th century, prices dropped, forcing many carvers to cut corners.
In order to meet the demand for cheaper goods, for example, carvers turned to softer woods, which had not been properly aged and inferior paints and finishes. Within one or two years, cracks would appear and the paints would peel, and the purchaser in Munich or Lisbon of London would simply have to suffer the loss. Since the salesman hat long since returned home over the Alps.