A tour of buildings and history in the village of Neubergthal, Manitoba,
a National Historic Site
In southern Manitoba, surrounded by flat farmland, a village of about 120 people is a Canadian National Historic Site. Neubergthal received that designation in 1989 because it is one of the best-preserved Mennonite street villages in the world, with over 30 narrow farmyards and eight still intact housebarns. Its single street illustrates the distinctive form of Mennonite settlements on the Canadian prairies.
Neubergthal was founded in 1876 by a group of related Mennonite families from Russia. Long, narrow farmyards were aligned side-by-side. Housebarns, single long units with family living quarters at one end with attached barns for cows and horses at the other end, were built at right angles to the street. Chickens and pigs, who were dustier and dirtier, were kept in outbuildings at the side and rear of the property. Today, the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation maintains and preserves the historical aspects of the village. The restored Friesen housebarn is used as an interpretive centre. A friend and I arranged for a tour of that house and other buildings in the village.
Norma was our guide for the tour of the Friesen house. She was born in 1940 and grew up in the house. It was built in 1901 by her grandparents Bernhard and Helena Hamm. Bernhard Hamm came to Canada with his family as a young boy in 1875. The house is a typical example of Mennonite rural architecture. Norma’s mother and brother lived in the house until the 1980s.
The Great Room was used for formal social occasions. The wood panels in the wall were designed so they could be removed to open the room up to the next room for larger gatherings. Sawhorses would be placed in the opening and made into tables to place food on.
From the late 1800s to the mid 1900s many Mennonite women painted the wood floors. Patterns were created with whatever was available (vegetables, ropes, tires, etc.). Patterns have been uncovered in a number of houses in and around Neubergthal, under layers of linoleum and carpet. Artist Margruite Krahn, who lives next door to the Friesen Housebarn, has been actively involved in village restoration work since 2001. When not all of the floors could be restored, she began documenting the patterns on cotton canvas floor cloths. She has continued to recreate the patterns, with some taking on a more contemporary design through artistic licence.
Mennonite origins start with the development of Anabaptist beliefs at the time of the Reformation. Menno Simmons, a Dutch Catholic priest who lived from 1491 to 1561, converted. He became the leader of Dutch and Swiss Anabaptists or Mennonites. Their beliefs, which included refusal to swear allegiance or participate in military activities, created conflicts with government authorities. Persecution and restrictions on their ability to remain pacifist led to several migrations over the years. In the mid-sixteenth century they fled to the Vistula Delta and the city of Danzig in Polish Prussia. In the 1780s Prussian control in the Vistula region renewed state pressure for military service. Many Mennonites accepted an invitation from Catherine II of Russia to settle in Imperial South Russia (Ukraine). The original settlers of Neubergthal left Russia in the 1870s when Tsar Alexander II had voided the charter granted Russian Mennonites freedom of religion and right to self-determination, and when the Canadian government was offering free land to encourage settlement of the Canadian prairies. About 7,000 Russian Mennonites settled in southern Manitoba during the 1870s, in two areas where blocks of crown land were reserved exclusively for Mennonite homesteaders.
It was interesting to hear Norma relate her personal memories along with the history of the village. When electricity came to the village in 1946, her father bought a refrigerator. Her grandfather, who lived with them, asked how much it cost. When he heard the price ($300, a large sum for that time), he retreated to his room and never mentioned the refrigerator again. After touring the house and the garage, Norma took us across the street to meet Ray Hamm. Ray and his wife live in the traditional housebarn Ray’s grandparents once lived in. Ray showed us the barn, but we were unable to see the house because his wife was busy canning that day.
Although the Hamm housebarn is ten feet longer than the Friesen housebarn, Ray told us it is laid out the same way. All houses in the village have similar floor plans. “They only brought one plan from Russia,” Ray said. We learned more about Neubergthal’s history from Ray, including the conflict between the Mennonite village tradition and Canada’s Homestead Act, and the impact of the 1916 School Attendance Act.
The terms of the Canadian land grants gave each head of the household 160 acres of land, to which they received full title after three years of residence on the land. The Mennonites who came to Manitoba in the 1870s were used to a communal life in villages, not a life spread out on homesteads. Animals were kept in the yards. Neighbours were close by and they assisted each other with harvesting and threshing, butchering and building. Farm fields surrounded the village. The Mennonite (and Icelandic) immigrants were granted “hamlet privilege”, allowing them to settle in village formations rather than on individual homesteads without losing the right to their 160 acres. Villages managed their lands in a pooled manner, keeping track of who owned which tract. Sometimes a few acres would be traded for specific purposes. Ray said this resulted in some current-day odd-sized properties, citing a particular 67-acre plot. (Standard land divisions would be in quarter sections, half sections or full sections. A section of land is 640 acres.)
In 1916, Manitoba introduced legislation making school attendance compulsory and a standardized public school system with instruction in English. This prompted another migration for some Manitoba Mennonites, who viewed this as an infringement on their freedom and wished to instruct their children in German without an imposed curriculum. Many moved to Mexico or Paraguay. Ray said that in some cases entire villages moved. Only a couple of families left Neubergthal. The rest of the village remained.
Ray took us to see a school house currently being restored. Neubergthal had a village school until the 1960s. Children are now bused to Altona, just under nine kilometres away. The Neubergthal school house no longer exists. The one being restored came from another village. Beside the school house is an old house which once would have had a similar layout to the Friesen and Hamm houses. It has no interior walls and is one big open space used as a picnic shelter or for events.
We ended our tour back at the Friesen housebarn with coffee and apple platz in the kitchen, supplied by Karen, another village resident with family roots in the village. While we ate, a couple of village boys came in to purchase candy. The pantry of the house becomes a local candy store over the summer.
Tall zinnia plants in front of the Friesen housebarn are the offspring of seeds brought from Russia. Norma gave us packets of heritage seeds to plant in spring. I may have plants like this around my house next summer.
The Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre is open during select hours over the summer. Tours should be pre-arranged.
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