16. SUUREMÕISA PALACE
This beautiful manor house is a famous Hiiumaa landmark rivaled only by Kopu lighthouse in its historical significance and architectural beauty. And, like Kopu lighthouse it also has an interesting history.
Up until the late 19th century, Hiiumaa was divided between several landlords and each of these landlords owned large areas of land as well as all of the people who lived on their estates. This feudal system survived much longer in Estonia than in other parts of Europe. Estonia's peasants were not given complete freedom until the mid-1800's. Before that, the landlords had the power of life and death of their subjects. To give an idea of the extent of their power, there was a law which said when someone got married on the estate the bride had to spend the first night in the landlord's house! Some of these landlords were kind and fair but some of them abused their power and made life miserable for everyone around them. History has yet to make final judgement on the most famous and most powerful of these landlords on Hiiumaa, Baron Ungern-Sternberg. His name and Suuremoisa manor are always mentioned together but in fact he was not the original owner or builder of this estate.
In 1563, during the Livonian War, the Swedish gained control of Estonia. A Swede by the name of Jakob de la Gardie was made administrator of Estonia and he purchased all of Hiiumaa Island. He then started a business that engaged in farming and conducting trade. He was a very good businessman and the enterprise flourished. His children and grandchildren carried on his work until the Northern War with Russia in about 1710. The Russians gained control of Hiiumaa at this time and the estate came under government control. Not much happened here until 1755 when a great-granddaughter of de la Gardie made an agreement with the Russian government to regain control of the land for her family. Her name was Ebba-Margerethe Stenbock and she is buried in the mausoleum next to Pühalepa Church.
She and her family set about bringing the manor back into working order. One of the first things that she did was to have this beautiful palace built. It was constructed from 1755-1760 and at the time was considered to be one of the most beautiful manor houses in this part of Europe. The view from the large stone porch at the front of the palace is still very appealing. Years ago, there were statues on the porch and large stone vases containing beautiful flowers. Farther away was a large park that was planted with exotic trees. From the front porch you can also see two of the seven ponds that were used for raising trout, carp and goldfish. At one time, the park extended all the way to the sea, a distance of about 4km.
The park and the manor house are badly in need of restoration but they are both still quite impressive. The manor house was built out of limestone and granite and still has the original red tile roof. The architectural style is late baroque and this palace is one of the finest examples of this style in all of Estonia. The area around the palace, with its gardens and alleys, is also impressive even in its unrestored state. It is not hard to imagine how this place must have looked in its glory days when workers bustled around and important visitors came and went in horse-drawn carriages. However, the real treasure of Suuremoisa lies behind the front doors. The first sight to greet you is the large curving double staircase which is made out of oak. This staircase is exactly the same as it was when finely dressed ladies and gentlemen came to the palace for business or celebrations. The only thing missing is the fine red carpet on the staircase. You can still see the nails that used to hold it in place. If you listen, you can almost hear the rustle of the silk hooped dresses as the ladies gracefully made their way up the stairs with a noblemen at their side. Guides are on duty in summer to tell more about this truly fascinating place.
The manor house was sold to Ungern-Sternberg in 1796. He was a businessman of Baltic German origin who made Suuremoisa the center for his thriving shipping and salvage business. His dream was to own the entire island and by 1800 he was well on his way. In 1781, when he first came to the island, he bought the manor at Korgessaare in the northwest. He also got all of the houses and buildings that had been abandoned by the Swedes who were deported from the area that same year. Later, in 1799 he bought the Putkaste estate in the south and became the largest landholder on the island. He also expanded and modernized Suursadam harbor in the northeast.
His business office was on the first floor of Suuremoisa palace. If you go under the stairs and turn to the right, his office was the first door on the right. He kept two large dogs outside the door at all times and no-one could enter without his permission. Baron Ungern- Sternberg was both loved and hated by the people he ruled over. He was certainly an adept businessman but sometimes he could also be very cruel. We won't try to give his entire life story in this booklet because entire novels have been written about his adventures and exploits. Some of the information is true and some not but there are some facts that can be told with certainty.
His career was very successful up until about 1803 when an unfortunate incident occured. One of his ship captains, a man named Carl Malm, came back several weeks late from a sea voyage and went to see Ungern-Sternberg while he was very drunk. Ungern-Sternberg accused him of trading for his own profits on the side and the two men argued violently. They then started fighting and Ungern-Sternberg ended up killing the captain. There is still a stain on the wood floor of the office which is said to be Malm's blood. When news of the killing reached the authorities, Ungern-Sternberg was brought to the mainland for trial. Though he pleaded self-defense, he was found guilty and sentenced to prison. His family then intervened and had his sentence changed to deportation to Siberia. He lived out the rest of his days there and died in 1811 at the age of 67. The exact location of his grave is not known but someday he may be brought back to his beloved island in the Baltic Sea.
The story would end there except for the fact that his ghost is believed to still walk the halls of the palace. Locals say that they have heard footsteps creaking on the wooden floor even though no one is there. There have also been occurrences where the beautiful grand piano in the upstairs hall has played behind locked doors when no-one was in the room. The most interesting "evidence" is given by some of the teachers at the Agricultural school which now occupies the palace. Some of them claim to have seen Ungern-Sternberg's ghost. Furthermore, some repairmen who were working on the electrical wiring had a startling experience. Their story is made even more compelling by the fact that they knew nothing of Ungern-Sternberg and the history of the palace.
These two men had used a ladder to get up into the ceiling and were working on the wiring when they heard footsteps walking up to the base of the ladder. When they looked down from the ceiling, they could see no-one. They went back to work but a short time later they heard the same slow footsteps walking away from the ladder. They were a little concerned because it was night and no one else was supposed to be in the building. They again went back to work but stopped abruptly when they heard voices. It sounded like two men arguing. They decided to climb down from the ceiling and investigate. The two men followed the voices through the halls until they came to the room where the voices seemed to be coming from. The door was closed and they listened for a moment but the men were talking in a foreign language. As soon as one of the men put his hand on the door handle the voices suddenly stopped. The door was locked, so they waited for a few minutes but when they heard nothing more they went back upstairs. The next day they told about the strange experience they had the night before to their supervisor who was a local man. He asked the men to show him the room where they had heard the voices. It turned out to be the same room where Ungern-Sternberg had argued with and killed Captain Malm!
- This concludes our tour of Hiiumaa. We have gone in almost a complete circle around the island. The ferry port of Heltermaa lies about seven kilometers to the east on the paved highway.
- As was mentioned earlier in this booklet, we did not cover every interesting place in Hiiumaa. Also, there are many small islands around Hiiumaa that are famous for their beautiful scenery and diverse vegetation. In short, there is much more to see and do here and the information center in Kärdla can provide you with information about guides, hunting excursions, auto rental, etc.
- Hiiumaa is changing along with the rest of Estonia but every effort is being made to preserve the island's unique environment and culture. Economic development is a goal of the island's community and outside investment is encouraged as long as it is involved with environment-friendly industries. There are several organizations in Kärdla that can help those who wish to establish business contacts. In particular, the Estonian Small Business Association would be a good place to start.
- We hope that you have enjoyed this brief look at Hiiumaa's history, nature and culture. One more brief legend before we finish. It is said that visitors always leave a piece of their heart behind when they leave Hiiumaa and their soul yearns to come back so the heart can be whole again. Every time they come back they leave a little more of their heart until finally, they can't bear to leave. This is why the island has so many people here who are non-natives. From the de la Gardies to the Ungern-Sternbergs to the present day residents, it is part of the magic of Hiiumaa. The people of Hiiumaa bid you a fond farewell and wish you a safe journey back home. Most likely, we will see you again!