Manitoba History: Review: Esther Epp-Tiessen, Altona: The Story of a Prairie Town & Royden Loewen and Betty Plett, Blumenort: A Mennonite Community in Transition & Elisabeth Peters (editor), Gnadenthal, 1880-1980 & Gerhard John Ens, Volost and Municipality: The Rural Municipality of Rhineland, 1884-1984
by Adolf Enns
The centennial celebrations of Canada in 1967 and Manitoba in 1970 stimulated the historical consciousness of Canadians, particularly in the West. The result has been a spate of local and community histories. Since most of these are a celebration of some important milestone in the development of a town, village, or municipality, their parameters are frequently quite narrow. Moreover, because most communities appear to have available more resources for publishing than for training researchers the result is that frequently community histories are less informative and helpful (at least to the outsider) than they should be.
The four books reviewed here generally do not suffer from these shortcomings, though they are narrow in their geographical focus. Three of them were written by M.A. graduates of the history department of the University of Manitoba. Two of these were winners of Margaret McWilliams awards. The fourth, edited by Dr. Elizabeth Peters, is quite obviously a committee product and shows great unevenness in style and approach.
All four studies are of primarily Mennonite communities. Blumenort focuses on a village community east of the Red River close to Steinbach. Altona is a town and Gnadenthal a village, both in the Rural Municipality of Rhineland, west of the Red River. All four volumes deal with agricultural-economic, religious, educational, and socio-cultural phenomena. Since they cover roughly the same century of history as well as the same themes, what they have to say in general is very similar.
Mennonites first came to Manitoba from the Ukraine in a mass immigration during the years 1874 to 1880. Over six thousand of them homesteaded, mostly in single street villages or hamlets, in two block settlements: the East Reserve comprising eight town-ships southwest of Ste. Anne, and the West Reserve consisting of eighteen townships along the U.S. border west of Emerson. In spite of extensive migration out of the province — to the Northwest/Saskatchewan in 1896 and 1905, and to Mexico and Paraguay during the early 1920s and late 1940s in the aftermath of the two World Wars — they now number over 63,000 in Manitoba, according to the 1981 census. A significant part of the increase is the result of two further immigrations from the USSR, one after the Communist revolution and another after World War Two. In the four studies under review it is clear that both the out and in migrations affected the dynamics of acculturation.
The Gnadenthal book is in many ways the most problematic. In fact, it is almost two books within one cover. The first chapter covers the years 1880-1924 in a scholarly and somewhat impersonal way with extensive footnoting. In the early 1920s most of the original residents of the village emigrated to Mexico and their places were taken up by new Mennonite arrivals from the Soviet Union. The remaining chapters of the book, written by members of a committee, deal with the history of these newcomers. Religion, education, agriculture, and social-cultural developments are dealt with in separate chapters by different authors all covering the years 1924-82. Some repetition is unavoidable.
Very little of a unifying theme is discernable, except a general kind of “progress” which has led most of the children of the 1920s immigrants to leave the village. The success of many of these leavers is recorded. What has kept the village community from disintegrating under the impact of this exodus is the paradoxical return from Mexico of grandchildren of those who left in the 1920s. The book provides very little indication of how these “returnees” fit into the new Gnadenthal or how they relate to the successful and progressive descendants of the 1920s immigrants who have remained in the village.
The Gnadenthal book is the most modest of the four in its objective. Its interesting narrative is generously spiced with human interest anecdotes. Very little attempt is made to analyze events or trends. Instead, the committee celebrates with justifiable pride the sense of identity which Gnadenthal has given to its many daughters and sons over the years.
Royden Loewen’s Blumenort, perhaps the most ambitious of the four books under review, is less celebrative, more reflective. It too confines itself to the study of one Mennonite village. But it seeks to place that study into the context of the larger Mennonite community and the even larger framework of Manitoba’s development. In a sense it also deals with two communities — the traditional Russian-Mennonite farmer village from 1874-1910 and the present commercial centre whose basic character became visible by about 1948 — but there is much more continuity in personnel between these two villages than is the case in Gnadenthal.
In a significant way Loewen’s study of a village becomes a study of the Kleine Gemeinde church, one of three branches of the Mennonite Church which came to Manitoba in the 1870s. When the Kleine Gemeinde was divided as a result of an evangelical revival precipitated by the ministry of an American Mennonite evangelist, John Holdeman, in 1882, the villagers were also divided. When the church ceased to emphasize the pattern of community life brought from Russia, the village disintegrated in 1910. When the church divided over its response to government and society in the aftermath of World War II, a third of Blumenort’s population emigrated to Mexico. And as the church became theologically more comfortable with mainstream North American evangelicalism, Blumenort people became more open and similar to Manitobans in Winnipeg and elsewhere. The “transition” that Loewen incorporates in his subtitle is an assimilation of a distinctive and separate Mennonite community in 1874 into the mainstream of Manitoba society a century later. At times (pp. 257-59, 581) Loewen seems to equate this assimilation almost uncritically with progress, and he identifies its opponents as “conservative.”
The area in which the community seems to have offered least resistance to assimilation is that of agricultural economics. In the dairy and poultry industries for example, the people of Blumenort and environs seem to have been leaders in Manitoba in many aspects of innovation and modernization. In education, on the other hand, the same people resisted the trend to centralization and consolidation of schools and were slow to promote post-secondary education. And in political participation they remained positively aloof until 1972 when Jake Epp, now a minister in the federal government, first ran in a by-election.
Altona is the main town in the Rural Municipality of Rhineland. There is, as a result, considerable overlap in the subject matter of the remaining two books under consideration. In both, the chronological framework is provided by Canadian events — 1914, 1929, 1939, etc. — rather than by developments of a purely local nature as in Blumenort and Gnadenthal. Furthermore, in Altona and in some of the other rail-road towns within Rhineland Municipality there were always a significant number of non-Mennonite citizens whose influential presence significantly affected the dynamics of acculturation.
In discussing the first fifty years of Altona’s history, Epp-Tiessen surveys the generally relaxed way in which a relatively homogeneous, self-sufficient Mennonite community integrated into its life social and economic-technological influences from the outside. Competitive sports and social dancing, for example, were not the same kind of threat to the Bergthal church leaders here as they were to the Kleine Gemeinde church people in Blumenort. On the other hand, the impact of the depression of the 1930s and of World War II was much greater in Altona, making Epp-Tiessen’s chapters 5 and 6 among the most interesting in the book. Unfortunately, that interest is not sustained in her discussion of more recent decades which are more a Chamber of Commerce type of description of achievements than an interpretation of community development.
Like Loewen, Ens sets the story of his community, a largely Mennonite rural municipality, into the larger context of Manitoban and Canadian history. Carefully organized data, very helpful in spotting trends, are provided in over thirty tables.
A very valuable aspect of the Rhineland book is Ens’s attempt to interpret the history he records. In the opening chapter he characterizes the basic stance and value system of the Mennonites who settled this area. In the final chapter he assesses the effect of living a hundred years in the Canadian environment: “By the time Rhineland celebrates its centennial in 1984 it will be more homogeneously Mennonite than it was a century before, but much less distinctly Mennonite.” (p. 255). Ens sees this acculturation not only in the loss of such emphases as German language, separation from the world, and rural lifestyle, but even more in the
“majority culture” way of thinking that has become evident. At only its second meeting the council of the newly founded Municipality moved on 2 February 1884 to petition the Manitoba legislature for permission to conduct its meetings in the German language. A hundred years later, when the legislature was considering a bill to restore bilingualism to the province, the Municipal Council not only deplored this step but declared itself in favour of English only as Manitoba’s language for official business!
These local histories obviously are of great interest to many of the present and former residents of the communities described. No doubt community leaders frequently find them a useful and convenient reference in obtaining background for making decisions. But they also make a very considerable contribution to the development of an understanding for the larger Mennonite society. It is quite likely, for example, that parts of Frank H. Epp’s Mennonites in Canada 1786-1920 would read differently had these books been available to him when he was working on that volume in the early 1970s.
When Mennonites and Icelanders first founded their communities here in the 1870s, they made the French-English bilingual province into a multicultural one. With their emphasis on block communities and on village sub-communities within the larger settlements, Mennonites conveyed a strong impression of internal solidarity and separateness from surrounding society. Perhaps this was more apparent than real. W.L. Morton, in his Manitoba, A History, assesses Manitoba Mennonites of the 1930s as follows: “They had proved themselves a singularly domestic people, given to keeping themselves to themselves and their own houses in unsurpassed order.” (p. 409) These four community studies show that the Canadian context, whether in its strongly assimilationist phase of the early 1900s or in its multicultural phase of the post-Pearson era, made Mennonites much more a part of the larger society and much less cohesive internally than general studies to date have assumed.
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