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Vielsalm (Municipality, Province of Luxembourg, Belgium)

Last modified: 2014-01-12 by ivan sache
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[Flag of Vielsalm]

Flag of Vielsalm - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 9 January 2008

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Presentation of Vielsalm

The municipality of Vielsalm (7,339 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 13,976 ha) is the north-easternmost municipality of the Province of Luxembourg, located in Upper-Ardenne, on the border with the Province of Liège. The municipality of Vielsalm is made since 1976 of the former municipalities of Vielsalm, Bihain, Grand-Halleux and Petit-Thier.

Vielsalm is a very ancient place of settlement, as proved by Neolithic polishers and remains of a Celtic wall found in the region. Vielsalm means "Old Salm" (Salm la Vieille); here, viel- has to be read in French ("old") and not in German ("a lot"). The name of the village was erroneously assigned in the 19th century to the river Glain, that waters it. The river was indeed known locally as "Eau de Salm", following a common use in French-speaking Belgium (eau means "water", here "river"), erroneously shortened to Salm.
Vielsalm is the cradle of the Counts of Salm, who had a castle near the parish church, from which nothing has remained. The Counts built in the 14th century a new castle a few kilometers south of Vielsalm, around which developed the village of Salmchâteau (lit., "Salm castle"). Two big towers and the narrow entrance gate of the castle are still visible.
Located in the Ardenne, Vielsalm has been for long a place of sports activity. In the 19th century, the local aristocracy scoured the forests, hunitng with hounds. The Baraque de Fraiture (aka Baraque Fraiture), located 652 m a.s.l. and therefore the third highest point of Belgium, is the place of a popular ski resort. The Blueberries' Festival (Fête des Myrtilles) is held every year on 21 July, with a massive consumption of blueberry pies.

The old massif of Ardenne has been subjected to several geological episodes, including metamorphism. The region of Vielsalm is particularly rich in mineral resources. Peat, slates, iron, manganese and even gold have been exploited for centuries there.
The slates of Vielsalm have been used for ages to make the roundish cherbins slating the roofs of traditional houses. Exploited at least since 1690, the slates of Vielsalm are easy to cleave in sheets of 3-4 mm in thickness, which is mandatory for slating roofs. The slate "vein" of Vielsalm has a thickness of 30 m and a length of 2 km; after the exhaustion of outcropping slate, pits had to be dug because of the 60-65 degree angle of inclination of the "vein". Some pits reached a depth of 60 m, which made the exploitation of slate more and more dangerous and less and less profitable. Because of the competition with synthetic products, the slate quarries of Vielsalm were all closed in the 1960s.

Vielsalm has given its name to a unique stone called coticule de Vielsalm, aka the pierre à rasoir belge, the Belgian razor stone. Not particulary beautiful, the coticule is a yellowish, schistose stone rich in spessartine, a variety of garnet (manganese aluminium silicate, Mn3Al2(SiO4)3). Very abrasive, the spessartine crystals makes of the coticule the best sharpening material ever found, surpassing all the artificial materials. According to Michel Caubergs, the exploitation of coticule started in Vielsalm not later than 1625, while foreign merchants had already shown interest for the stone in 1686.
There were some 50 full-time workers involved in coticule extraction in Vielsalm around 1860. The biggest mine, known as the Old Rock, also exploited as a slate mine, was dug in 1800 and closed in 1982. Today, there is only one company extracting coticule, Ardennes Coticule SPRL, ran by Michel Celis in Lierneux. The preparation of coticule is quite tedious; one ton of raw material is required to produce one kg of good abrasive stone, usually sold in cubes of 10-20 cm in edge. Cut with diamond saws from stone blocks, the cubes have their sides made completely flat with emery paper, then smoothed with finer emery paper, and eventually polished with soft stones to suppress any scratch. The coticule cubes are used to sharpen any kind of blades, mostly in surgery, cabinet-making and cutlery. The famous knives from Laguiole (Auvergne, France) are sharpened with coticule.
The Coticule Museum is housed in a former coticule-polishing workshop, set up in Salmchâteau in 1923.

The village of Ottré has given its name to a mineral found there in 1819 by Dethier, who called it ottrelite. Like spessartine, ottrelite is a orthosilicate, of green to black colour and of formula (Mn++,Fe++,Mg)2 Al4 Si2 O10 (OH)4. According to the amount of Fe-Mn-Mg, ottrelite was divided into ottrelite sensu stricto and ferriferous ottrelite, and distinguished from ferriferous chloritoid sensu stricto and ferriferous sismondine (L. Bustamante-Santa Cruz. 1995. "On the controversial Ottrelite Term", Natuurwetenschappelijk Tijdschrift, 75: 46-48).
In 1872, a new mineral was found in a quartz vein in Salmchâteau. Lasaulx and Bettendorf named the mineral "ardennite" while Pisani named it "dewalquite", after the famous Belgian geologist G. Dewalque. After a tough controversy, the mineral was eventually officially named ardennite, and was thought to be specific of Salmchâteau and Bihain. From 1922 onwards, other specimens, of lower quality, were found in Italy, Switzerland and India. Ardennite is a sorosilicate, of yellow to dark brown colour, of formula (Mn,Ca,Mg)4 (Al,Mn+++,Fe+++,Mg)6 (As,V,P,Si) (O,OH)4 (SiO4)2 (Si3 O10).


Ivan Sache & Rob Raeside, 10 December 2007

Flag of Vielsalm

According to Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones [w2v03a], the flag of Vielsalm is white with two red salmons acccosted.
The flag is a banner of the municipal arms.

The Gelre Armorial shows the canting arms of Henri VII, Count of Salm (Grave v. Salmen, #1501, folio 105v) as "Argent two salmons gules accosted".
The County of Salm emerged in Vielsalm after the partition of the County of Saarbrücken in 1019; it was ruled by the lords of Salm, a junior branch of the House of Luxembourg. In 1165, the County of Salm was split into the County of Lower-Salm (in today's Belgium and Luxembourg) and the County of Upper-Salm (in today's department of Vosges, France). The Counts of Lower Salm became extinct in 1416, and the County was inherited by the House of Reifferscheid-Dyck.
Among the distant descenders of the Counts of Salm are the Princes of Salm-Salm.

Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 10 December 2007