1874 - 1974 Centennial Year For Mennonites

by

Pam Surface

Senior High Division

 

June 17, 1873 the International docked at Winnipeg. Onboard was a group of men on a special mission. Charged by their Mennonitecolonies in Southern Russia to explore the possibilities of a mass migration,twelve weary men felt the pressures of their job riding heavily on theirshoulders as they stepped off the boat.

The Mennonite Church originally began in Switzerland. By1850, they began changing the language from German to English. Also, thebeginnings of Sunday Schools and evangelistic services, along with othercultural problems, led to a number of divisions among the Mennonites. Theyare: Old Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, MennoniteBrethren, Old Order Amish, and the most extreme are the Hutterien Brethrenwho live in communes.

Historically, the Mennonites had music in the serviceswith no musical instruments permitted; the ministers preached short sessionsbased strictly on the Bible; worshipers knelt for prayer; and the ministeralways ended the audible prayer with the Lord's Prayer.

Now, the more progressive groups use an organ, pray sittingor standing, abolished the silent prayer, and their services tend to resemblethat of other Protestant churches.

In many groups communion is observed two to four timeseach year. Baptism is generally by pouring. The Mennonite Brethren are theonly large group that baptize by immersion. More conservative groups stillobserve foot washings and the Holy Kiss. Men and women are separated forthese, the women wearing prayer veils.

In 1872, Mennonite leaders in Russia wrote a letter toEngland asking for information on the "new country" in Canada.The British forwarded the letter to John A. McDonald's government in Ottawa.It just happened that William Hespeller, a member of Canadian government,whose job was to promote settlement of the Canadian provinces, was on vacationin Germany when the letter arrived in Ottawa. Hastily, a directive sentto Hespeller told him to investigate the possibility of getting these experiencedfarmers to settle the prairie.

Hespeller was able to stir up some interest among the Mennonitepeople. The result was twelve men delegated to travel to Canada and theUnited States to have a look.

Hespeller sent word ahead to Winnipeg that he was bringingsome scouts who might be in a position to bring a number of farmers to settlein the Red River Valley.

When the International docked that day in Winnipeg, therewas a hearty welcome for them. This included the Governor of Manitoba, H.Schantz, of the Ontario Mennonites. He accompanied the group and acted asinterpreter.

A tour of the area of Ste. Anne convinced five out of thetwelve men that the land of Manitoba was not fit for agriculture. So, theydeparted looking elsewhere on the continent. The remaining seven were thenshown the area around the Riding Mountains.

During the tour, the Mennonite delegates met Indian farmers,Scottish, Ukrainian, and German settlers. They liked what they saw, butthe area wasn't recommended for a mass migration such as theirs becausethe Assiniboine River was not navigable. They could not get necessary suppliesfrom Winnipeg.

As a result, the Canadian government offered the scoutsan initial land grant of six townships on the East side of the Red River.Also, the promise that sufficient land to accommodate a mass migration wouldbe made available on the west side of the Red River as the need arose. OnJuly 23, 1873, the delegation signed the legal papers in Ottawa.

In the absence of the delegates, the Russian governmenthad become alarmed at the thought of losing their best farm producers whenthe time of food production was high. To soften the determination of theMennonites, most of the threatened self-governing rules were reinstated.

Many of the Mennonites felt this was just a temporary reinstatement.The result was a soul-searching of their faith. Did they value their wealthand comfort in Russia more than the opportunity to transplant their chosenlifestyle into a new, exciting, completely free country?

Most of the pioneers decided for a pioneer life in a landwhere they would have to begin all over again.

In 1875, 1875, and 1876, 6,500 Mennonites came to Canada.The first group came to Winnipeg again on the International, July 31, 1874.Winnipeg was only four years old and had a population of 3,000.

After two days of shopping for necessities to get started,the 380 people set out by steam boat to a point where the Rat River meltsinto the Red. This point is about 25 miles south of Winnipeg.

At this junction, public transportation facilities ended.The passengers then willingly unloaded their belongings unto the river banks.They walked, pushed, and dragged their way another seven miles to wherethe provincial government had erected four temporary barracks for theiruse.

They finally had arrived. In a virgin country with an unsatisfactorylife style behind them, they could only better themselves in the future.

The Mennonites built sod houses for living quarters, treetrunk shelters of poplar thatched with prairie grass sheltering their livestock.

G. H. Kehler, one of the first Mennonites, left a recordof what his $75.00 purchased for him in 1874; a quarter section of land,two sacks of flour, salt, piece of pork, and one cow.

The first years were simply disastrous for this group ofpeople. Nothing had prepared them the severity of the 1874 winter. Eventhe burly Russian cowhide fur coats did not protect them from the ragingprairie storms. Their homes made of sod were so warm and had no ventilation,that rivers formed on the ceilings and walls. The inhabitants suffered greatlyfrom respiratory and rheumatic disorders. The old, the very young, and theweak died.

Spring found the settlers in a state of near death. Theybegan to plow the prairies and precious wheat was planted. Grasshoppersate the first crop. Cash was depleted by laying in a store of flour forthe winter.

The winter was a terrible experience. There's a story ofa sod shanty where the temperature was 16F degrees below zero under thebed where a baby was being born. Clothes were worn by those who had to gooutside. In order to get flour, meant a two day trip by oxen to Emerson.There were no medicines and no doctors.

The next two seasons were disasters as well - - a combinationof grasshoppers and drought wiped out total crops.

In 1875, the first settlers moved across the river to homesteadthe virgin prairie. The soil was thought to "look like the soil backhome", and to the farmers it looked like a reasonable risk to beginagain.

Soon the plains turned into admirable wheat fields andgardens to yield bountifully. In 1876, enough wheat was produced to feedthe settlers on the west.

Slowly, the movement from the east side of the Red Riverto the west began. By 1881, more than half of the population had moved.

These communities were joined by new groups as they arrivedfrom Russia. By 1885, fifty-two villages had sprung up in places that hadonce been called wasteland.

The farmers prospered beyond their wildest dreams. TheMennonite villages had schools, churches, smithees, stores, and flour millshad been built to mill their own supply of flour.

In 1880, Altona was a collection of tents and huts. Bythe turn of the century, Steinbach, Gretna, Winkler, and Plum Coulee wereon the map.

The Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1883. It relievedmany of the hardships the Mennonite pioneers had suffered.

Together, with other pioneers on the prairies, the firstMennonite settlers outlived droughts, grasshoppers, and the indifferenceof a government situated many miles away.

In 1974, the Mennonites celebrated 100 years on the RedRiver Valley scene. They expressed real gratitude to the memory of the manyMennonite pioneers who suffered to make the country what it is today---anice place to call home.

Bibliography

Encyclopedia Americana, 1963 ed., vol. 18, pp. 634

Encyclopedia Briticanna, 1970 ed., vol. 15, pp. 160

Encyclopedia Colliers, 1964 ed., vol. 15, pp. 694

Heibert, Susan, "Mennonites 1874-1974", CanadianFrontier, vol 2, no. 4, winter 73-74, pp. 28-31

Zielinski, Mary, "Old Order Amish", Senior Scholastic,April 25, 1974, pp. 13-15ianFrontier, vol 2, no. 4, winter 73-74, pp. 28-31

Zielinski, Mary, "Old Order Amish", Senior Scholastic,April 25, 1974, pp. 13-15