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The history of Schwelm can be traced back to the ninth century, where it is first mentioned as "Suelmiu". The city of Schwelm was officially established in 1496 and became seat of the Ennepe-Ruhrdistrict in 1929. According to its area, Schwelm is the smallest town in North Rhine-Westphalia.
A Westphalian variety of high German is spoken in Schwelm (Westphalian: from old Saxon Westfal = "western land"). The Westphalian dialect belongs to the low Saxon dialects, which is a part of the family of low German dialects. Compared to other German regions (e.g., Bavaria or Swabia) the dialect does not have a strong influence on the everyday speech. Especially the elderly population is still able to speak Schwelm's original Westphalian tongue, called Schwelmer Platt, which is quite different from standard high German and bears a certain resemblance to Dutch.
Schwelm has got a particularly pretty historical town center with many old houses, some of which date back to the 18th century. The Altmarkt is a historical market place lying in front of the tall Christuskirche, the town's principal Protestant church. From the Altmarkt, the decorative street Kölner Strasse leads uphill and is part of the former road to Cologne.
Until 2011, Schwelm was home to the Brauerei Schwelm, the "Schwelm Brewery", one of few remaining private breweries in Germany. Established in 1830 by Haarmann & Kathagen, the brewery was one of the first worldwide to switch from wooden to metal storage containers. The original administration building, the Rietz'sche Haus built in 1701, is among the most appealing houses in the town center. Most of the brewery's historic production site, however, was torn down in 2012.
The oldest piano manufacturer in the world is located in Schwelm. Since 1794, Rud. Ibach Sohn has been building pianos and, until 1904, organs in Schwelm.
Europe's biggest fair-trade organisation "GEPA" was founded in Schwelm in the 1970s, but is now located in Wuppertal.