In order to distinguish it from an identically-named town in the Vogtland, our Oelsnitz carries the affix “im Erzgebirge” (in the Ore Mountains) thus referring to the town’s situation at the foot of that mountain range. Beds of hard coal from the Carbon Age covered by massive layers of sediments from the Permian Age founded the basis for the emergence and development of the coal mining area around Oelsnitz and Lugau in the years between 1844 and 1971.
The region around Oelsnitz is mountainous and much diversified. Previously restricted by the valley of the stream Hegebach, the town soon left behind its rural narrowness and started to expand.
The altitude of the town varies between 330 and 480 metres (1083 and 1575 feet), the highest point being the summit of the dump of the Deutschlandschacht (mine shaft “Germany”) with 491 metres (1611 feet).
Already in the 12th century, Oeslnitz was bigger than its neighbouring villages mainly due to the large number of farmers coming from Franconia and Thuringia. The Slavic town name which means „settlement near the alder-edged stream” is supposed to have its origin from the Sorbian tribes settling in the Saxon outland. Since these tribes had not settled down in the region around Oelsnitz, they used this name for orientation. In 1219, a comital document mentions a knight called “Rembert von Oelsnitz”. A record dating back to 1386 mentions interest payments from Oelsnitz „at the road“ tof the count of Hartenstein who was at the same time burgrave of Meißen. Thus, the town was founded in the period of colonisation of the Eastern regions of what is now Germany as a long village along one of the so-called „Bohemian paths“. This was an early German fortification with an extensive wooden area with homesteads, the feudal estate of the lords of Oelsnitz, who belonged to the lower nobility, with a big farm and, originally, three outlying estates. As early as in pre-colonial time, this fortification stretched along the mountains and the dense “Miriquidi”, the primeval forest that covered the region then.
Already in those early times, the village belonged to different manorial systems. The reasons for that are various flows of settlers, land acquisitions both peaceful and during wars as well as divine donations to the nearby Cistercian monastery. Each of these local rulers implemented his own jurisdiction.
After the division of Saxony into two parts, Oelsnitz was controlled by two different sovereigns between 1485 and 1547. This meant that a neighbouring farm could already have been „foreign territory“ then. It was not before 1839 that the different parts were combined to one local community. In 1584 the manor and parts of the village were given to the noble family of “Schönburg-Hartenstein” (in 1790 elevated to princes) and remained their property until 1945 with an interruption between 1675 and 1704 when the manor belonged to several Silesian counts.
Centuries of war and plague, of bad harvests and hunger brought much misfortune to the village and its population. The people of Oelsnitz were famous for their free-democratic attitude, which was vehemently expressed in the Peasant War of 1525, during many front conflicts between the 17th and the 19th century and in the days of revolution in 1848/49. Beginning in the 16th century, new classes of population developed in the village: peasants, gardeners, cottagers, the domestics and day labourers. At that time the centre of the village was characterized by an array of half-timbered houses.
Based on the cultivation of flax and the breeding of sheep at the manor, a number of home businesses like spinning, weaving and knitting came into existence.
Oelsnitz became the centre of weavers’ and knitters’ guilds. The international company of the Meinert brothers, who acted as publishers, manufactory owners and wholesalers, was also located here.
However, in the middle of the 19th century, a completely new chapter of the village’s economic development started.
In 1831 hard coal was incidentally found just under the surface. Later, in January 1844, Karl Gottlob Wolf, who owned a mine in the nearby town of Zwickau, lifted the first coal from a depth of nine meters. This marked the beginning of the changeful history of coal mining.
During the first decades, coal was mined in an unsophisticated way from just under the surface mainly by landholders and small companies in the area of Oelsnitz, Lugau and Niederwürschnitz. First bigger enterprises started operating in 1855. Eventually in 1871, in a period of rapid industrial expansion, a large number of deep shafts began to operate in and around Oelsnitz. Consequently it was possible to exploit coal from a depth of up to 1000 metres. After 1900 the coal exploitation was concentrated on two big corporations, the unions “Deutschland” (Germany) and “Gottes Segen” (God’s Mercy), later the “Vereinigte Steinkohlenwerk Oelsnitz” (United Coal Mine Oelsnitz). The work of the miners in the deep and partly very hot coal pits was hard and dangerous. In 1971 the coalfield was exhausted and mining consequently discontinued. Today it is only the remains of the mining installations above ground, the meanwhile woody coal dumps and old names that remind of the former mining sites. The former shaft “Kaiserin Augusta” (Empress Augusta) has been transformed into a lovely mining museum showing a variety of original exhibits that bear witness of the past mining period.
In the heyday of mining Oelsnitz continuously grew due to the influx of people from different German regions and even from foreign countries like Bohemia and Italy. In 1924 Oelsnitz was the biggest village of Saxony and thus received its town charter on 19 April. Shortly afterwards the population amounted to 20,000. The rapid growth resulted in a non-uniform townscape, which often causes amazement amongst visitors. The old village structure is yet still recognizable. The town centre, however, shows gaps due to surface subsidence damages caused by the mining and bomb damages from the year 1945. The termination of mining led to a decreasing population.