Manitoba History: Old Ways Under New Skies: Blumenort, Manitoba, 1874-1910
by Royden Loewen
Manitoba History, Number 9, Spring 1985
In their enquiries into the nature of the settlement process in Western Canada, historians have increasingly focused on urban history. By overcoming the inclination to indulge in community hagiography and by seeking to understand the forces which directed urban development in a particular direction, these historians have been able to explain and analyze the urban center’s social structure, institutional make-up, web of human relationships and raison d’etre. Among the urban places investigated along these lines in recent years are the following: regional metropols such as Winnipeg, Manitoba where a commercial elite directed urban development to maximize business opportunities; prairie market centers such as Carmangay, Alberta where town “boosters” clamoured for incorporation and rail-roads to entice immigrants and secure hinterlands; and resource towns such as Estevan, Saskatchewan where a single company employed a transient population in the exploitation of a natural resource. 
One type of town which has received less attention than the metropol, market center or company town is represented by Blumenort, Manitoba between 1874 and 1910. It was an Old World sectarian town, similar in size to many market centers, but less oriented than the latter to selling, to growth or to status. Its inhabitants were not English-speaking entrepreneurs who had come to the West as individuals to find new economic opportunities or greater social mobility. Rather, they were German-speaking East European farmers who had come to the West as part of a religious group bent on maintaining an Old World way of life. Although the number of villages and towns founded by these sectarian group members was small in comparison to other types, they did represent a reality on the Canadian Plains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the time World War I broke out many of these towns, including Blumenort, had dissolved. An Old World spatial organization for sectarian group settlements was evidently no longer considered crucial in the maintenance of the group’s culture. 
Historians who have paid particular attention to the existence and nature of sectarian Mennonite towns in the Canadian West include C. A. Dawson, E. K. Francis, John Warkentin and Frank H. Epp. 
Each of these writers has noted that in the establishment and maintenance of early Mennonite villages the major concern was to preserve an Old World culture. In his 1936 publication, Dawson noted that the very migration of Mennonites from one country to another was essentially “a means of isolating the group by removing it from inroads of the secular civilization.”  E. K. Francis echoed Dawson’s insight in his 1955 work on the Manitoba Mennonites. According to Francis, the Mennonites came to Canada and negotiated special privileges for their group simply “to perpetuate themselves and to protect their social heritage by avoiding the challenge that comes from contact with different cultures.”  Recent histories of Mennonite towns and villages in Manitoba substantiate the link between group settled towns and a preoccupation with self-preservation. Examples of such histories are the works on Reinland and Altona. While one tells the story of the conservative Chortitzer Mennonites, and the other the story of the more liberal Bergthaler Mennonites, both histories reveal the villagers’ intention of seeing a virtual reestablishment of the Mennonite commonwealth they had left in Russia. 
What differentiates Blumenort from other Mennonite towns is merely that, because there exists a relative abundance of primary data, the dynamics of its pioneer years can be recreated with some measure of detail. This data reveals that in every aspect of village life there was an overarching concern to perpetuate a certain sectarian way of life. This preoccupation expressed itself both in Blumenort’s geographic isolation and in its successful reestablishment of an Old World landscape, institutional framework, and family oriented, agrarian way of life. It was this concern and the expression of it which distinguished Mennonite group-settled towns, such as Blumenort, from most of the other towns and villages of Western Canada.
Blumenort was founded in August 1874 on the eastern edge of the Canadian prairies some thirty miles from Winnipeg. Its inhabitants were 140 men, women and children of the smallest of three early Manitoba Mennonite church groups, the Kleine Gemeinde or the Small Church Mennonites.  Among the various Russian Mennonite groups, the Kleine Gemeinde, along with the Chortitzer and Bergthaler Mennonites, were distinguished by their particular emphasis on an ascetic agrarian way of life and strict adherence to the Anabaptist precepts of separation from the “world” and non-resistance.  When both of these tenets were threatened by Russia’s new military laws in the 1870s, church leaders protested to the Czar. After their appeals to the government brought no results, the church leaders prepared their people for a mass migration to the new land.
Economic promise or a sense of adventure was not on the minds of the leaders who directed their people to Blumenort and her sister villages in 1874. The expressed purpose of this migration was never anything but religious duty. The writings of “Aeltester” Peter P. Toews at the time of the translocation were replete with utterances of the obligation to maintain an established way of life. “It is our priceless and holy duty to cling to the faith of our fathers ... by walking in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ,” wrote Toews to the Russian Czar in April, 1874. “Every requirement ... of military service,” he continued, “encroaches upon the deepest sense of our confession of faith. ... Those Mennonites [who] do not find [these] objectionable .. . [commit] a sin and a crime against our people.”  This religious commitment is also echoed in a letter written by one of the wealthier village fathers, Peter W. Toews, during the first winter in Blumenort. In that letter Toews confessed that “when we contemplate the reasons why we made the long trip with its many associated difficulties, we can only pray that ... [the move] would prove to be to [God’s] honor and our righteousness.” 
When the immigrants to Blumenort reflected on the immediate economic ramifications of the move they invariably sounded a pessimistic note. In his diary describing the activity of preparing to leave Russia Abram R. Friesen, the adult son of an elderly Blumenort-bound couple, noted that at his parents’ auction sale things had been sold very cheaply and that he felt very leery about the move.  Mrs. Heinrich Wiebe, the wife of a Blumenort deacon, later told her children that the sale of their farm to a hard bargaining Mennonite neighbour left them nearly destitute.  In his memoirs, John Toews, Blumenort’s second school teacher, lamented that his family had left behind “an excellent selection of homes, in a very nice and fertile country.”  David Plett, a young boy in 1874, minced no words when he later recollected seeing Blumenort a year after it was established: “It did not look very appealing here ... the grasshoppers eat everything.” 
The site which the Mennonite settlers had chosen was indeed less attractive than the sites they had left in Russia or the sites they would have seen in the United States. Because the sectarian group leaders sought places which would ensure a measure of isolation from the world, the possibility of a homogeneous block settlement, and the establishment of the medieval cultural landscape, they did not look for town sites at river confluences or possible rail-road crossings. David Klassen and Cornelius Toews, sent out in the year preceding the main influx of Kleine Gemeinde settlers, chose Manitoba above the more fertile and climatically moderate Kansas, because the Canadian government was prepared to give them a more sweeping military exemption than was the American government. And they chose the land set aside for them in southeastern Manitoba because, while it was close to the trading center of Winnipeg, it was essentially vacant. They were thus assured that their social contacts with non-Mennonites could be controlled and that the traditional Mennonite pattern of settlement could be superimposed on the grid system already in place. 
In this setting, Blumenort settlers were able to re-establish the most conspicuous aspects of their Russian experience, the farm operator village (“Strassendorf”) and the open-field land pattern (“Gewannflur”).  Indeed, the very village site of Blumenort was clearly chosen with an eye to establishing this Old World landscape. Several maps which portray the Blumenort village district in its early years are extant and show that the required haylands, bush, and well drained cultivatable areas were all present in the nine square-section village hinterland. 
The earliest of these maps depicts the Blumenort village district as it appeared about ten years after settlement.  According to this map, the farm-operator village was laid out in the southern part of the district alongside a creek which traversed the area. Only the two sections of clay loam around the village were cultivated. To distribute the good and poor land evenly and to ensure a measure of equality in the distance each farmer had to travel to his field, all cultivated land was divided into four areas. These areas were further divided into 23 equal strips called “Koagels” and every farmer was given one strip in each of the four areas. Thus, each farmer in Blumenort was put in possession of the following: a ten-acre piece of land, called the “Hus Koagel” (Home Field), lying contiguous to his farmstead; a five-acre piece of well drained soil in the area lying to the northwest of the village; a ten-acre piece of poorer soil in the southwest part of the village district; and a small four-acre piece, called a “Schode Koagel” (Detrimental Field), in the southeastern corner of the district.  The latter area was often subject to the whims of wandering cattle from neighbouring settlements over which Blumenort had no control. The two sections of high rocky land lying to the north of the cultivated areas were designated as the community pasture, and the oak and poplar bush on it was used by the villagers for firewood. The low-lying land in the far northern part of the district was put aside for communal hayland.
A glimpse of the lay-out of the Blumenort farm-operator village as it appeared in 1898 is provided by a map drawn by another local pioneer.  The map shows Blumenort’s village street as having stretched for about two-thirds of a mile in an east-west direction. On either side of the street lay the five-acre farmsteads, known to the villagers as “Fiastaeden.” In the center of the farmstead and at right angles to the street stood the house and barn. According to the sketched map, approximately half of these buildings were adjoining house-barn structures, characteristic of the architectural style used by Mennonites in Russia. Each house and barn faced a yard which was connected to the village street by a 50-meter driveway. On either side of the yard were the gardens, one a fruit orchard, the other a vegetable plot. A pathway led through the gardens to join the neighbours’ yards. 
The significance of the successful reestablishment of this landscape is that it permitted the other traits of Mennonite group settlement to flourish. It allowed for a high degree of participation in Old World institutions such as the church, school, and temporal government. It enabled the settlers to take on together many of the difficulties of pioneering and allowed for strong communal self-sufficiency with minimal interaction with the “outside.”
The successful transplantation of Old World institutions and social structures was the second most conspicuous sign of a continuation of Blumenort’s European way of doing things. Its leadership, for instance, was markedly different from that in more representative prairie towns where enterprising entrepreneurs who had been relatively powerless in their old settings in Europe or Central Canada quickly rose in status to form a new leadership. Blumenort’s governing body, the church “Lehrdienst” (the council of preachers and deacons, headed by the “Aeltester”), had been transplanted intact from Russia. Evidence suggests that the church leaders who had been looked upon as community fathers in Russia maintained and strengthened that position in the settlement process in the New World. 
Diaries and church chronicles in the possession of Blumenort settlers reveal that it was the church leadership which negotiated for a reprieve of the military laws in Russia, which commissioned the 1873 delegates to arrange settlement terms with the Canadian government, and which organized the logistics of the migration to Manitoba.  These records also show that it was the ministerial which administered the school,  provided the village assembly with the necessary power to operate,  and took charge of community welfare.  They reveal that the church maintained a tight grip on the lifestyles of the villagers and kept their thinking in check by strong appeals to a life of asceticism and separation.  Moreover, other documents such as church election results and tax records show that the villagers chosen for church office usually were men of the upper strata of societymen who had proven themselves as farmers, who commanded the respect of their neighbours,  and who could influence the lives of lesser men. It appears more than coincidental that during the first twenty-five years of its existence, seven of the eight members of the ministerial from Blumenort were the sons or sons-in-law of the four wealthiest men in the area. 
Besides the duties outlined above, the ministerial organized the important opinion forming Sunday worship services. Because there were four central Kleine Gemeinde villages on the East Reserve, a worship service was held in Blumenort only once a month.  Oral tradition tells how over a hundred pioneers would converge on one village and gather in its plain frame schoolhouse for the two-hour-long service.  The length of extant sermons reveal that they had a central place in the worship service. The themes of these sermons indicate the importance which the village leaders placed on being a separate and ascetic people. In a sermon preached in Blumenort in 1888, Rev. Peter Reimer reminded his listeners that “we are to be strangers and pilgrims here ... [and must not] cling to this world with our desires, worldly outlook and arrogant ways ... Those pilgrims who have gone before ... lived in fear and waited for ... a city built by God.”  In 1895 Rev. Peter Loewen reiterated this idea when he declared that “we are on the way to the heavenly Canaan, through the wilderness of this world.”  A life of Christian asceticism was on Rev. Cornelius Plett’s mind in 1900 when he outlined the ideal life as one lived “in humility, even in sorrow, through which we will be raised in holiness with [Christ].” 
These ideals were concretized at “Bruderschaft,” the monthly church business meeting attended by all male members. Church chronicles of the years 1880 to 1910 indicate that it was common procedure at these meetings to declare certain practises “worldly.” Among practises thus discouraged were the acceptance of jobs in government offices, the reading of non-Kleine Gemeinde newspapers, the installation of telephones and the purchase of automobiles.  Villagers were also kept in check through personal visits from members of the ministerial. A family diary for instance, indicates that in February 1889 the acting “Aeltester,” Peter Reimer, and his deacon brother, Abram Reimer, paid a special visit to Abram Friesen and Klaas Reimer to try to persuade them to cancel a deal in which they purchased a model of the as yet uncommon self driven steam engine.  During the same years Isaac Loewen, an otherwise conservative villager, was reprimanded for possessing a canopied buggy. Loewen subsequently removed the canopy and strung it up high in his haymow. If these warnings served to control liberal-minded brethren, the threat of excommunication and subsequent shunning usually served to set straight the most deviant of the brethren. 
One of the greatest potential threats to the social control of the church over the villagers’ life was the introduction of American spawned pietism into Blumenort in 1881. In that year John Holdeman, an American Mennonite revivalist, preached in Blumenort, and almost half of the adults in the village broke with the old church to join with Holdeman to form a separate church. The new importance attached to emotional religious experience caused the Holdeman people, like other pietists, to begin deviating from the established pattern of social segregation and asceticism.  The potential disruptive nature of pietism in Blumenort was minimized after 1893 when the village made provisions for the Holdeman people to move out of town and form their own community in the northern part of the village district.  Pietism was further kept in check after 1899 when the Kleine Gemeinde ministerial met at a special conference in Blumenort and issued a strongly-worded manifesto, condemning attendance of non-Kleine Gemeinde churches and Sunday Schools.
The village school was another institution which changed little in its re-establishment in the new world. In fact it was seen as a bulwark against new and disruptive ideas and given a great deal of attention by Mennonite leaders. Diaries, oral tradition, and an early school register reveal that, despite the immense difficulties of founding a pioneer settlement, a school was established in Blumenort during the very first autumn. According to the early register, 22 students, 13 boys and 9 girls between the ages of seven and twelve attended 86 days of school between the beginning of November, 1874, and April of the next year.  A family history reveals that the first teacher was Cornelius Friesen, a young farmer who kept a well-stocked library and knew carpentry and some medicine. His wage for the first year of service was eight dollars a month plus oats, hay and firewood. Friesen stayed on as Blumenort’s school-teacher for 25 years. 
Shortly after the final contingent of Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites had settled on the East Reserve in 1875, “Aeltester” Peter Toews sent a letter to each village, outlining the church ministerial’s school policy. The letter, written in a tone of urgency, outlined the church’s view that a primary education for village children was of paramount importance. The opening line of the letter declared: “It is to be known that in our new homeland our church ministerial will also be our school board.”  The letter went on to direct that all children must attend school, that each village was to build a schoolhouse, and that the ministerial would carefully scrutinize all teachers hired by the village. While the teachers would be expected to maintain a high level of education by regularly attending a regional Mennonite teachers’ conference, the letter declared that “no new ideas should be introduced by the teacher without the support of his colleagues and the investigation of the school board.” 
Accordingly, the school curriculum followed the blueprint of the one used in the German-speaking Mennonite commonwealth in Russia. It was primarily designed to prepare children for a humble farm life and eventual church membership. Peter Unger, a Blumenort pioneer, looking back in 1930 to his early school years, gave the following description of the curriculum:
Having received a firm guarantee from the Dominion government in 1873 that education would be left in the hands of the Mennonites, the Kleine Gemeinde leaders in 1876 felt secure enough to accept a Manitoba Protestant School Board grant of $80 to $125 per year. It was a grant which, according to an 1890 Blumenort school financial record, was used topay Teacher Friesen’s entire wage of $105 a year and the miscellaneous educational expenses of $20.  Despite the dependency on this grant, the community c id not hesitate to forego it in 1907 when Rodmond Roblin’s Flag Act required all registered schools to fly the Union Jack.  The Blumenort people interpreted the government’s request as an attempt to undermine their cultural autonomy and worse still, to condition them to a spirit of militarism. Klaas Penner, the local school board chairman, allegedly declared “they will have to martyr us before we fly their flag.”  According to Blumenort minister Rev. David Reimer, the flag was opposed because the community feared that it would “injure our religion and language.”  The dedication to cultural maintenance was so strong that no association with the provincial government was taken up until the Blumenort people, along with other Mennonites, were compelled to do so in 1919.
Other Old World institutions in which Blumenorters participated were the “Waisenamt,” “Brandverordnung,” and church deaconry. Just as they had done in Russia, these institutions assured the smooth continuation of the community in the face of death, disaster or poverty. The “Waisenamt,” a church-related institution, oversaw the administration of, estates. Oral tradition tells how Blumenort’s “Waisenmann,” Abram R. Penner, was from time to time called upon to protect the rights of children in the face of an avaricious stepfather or to ensure that while the family farm remained intact, each child received an equal share in the inheritance.  The “Brandverordnung” was a regionally-based fire insurance agency. After a fire in Blumenort, the village’s “Brandaeltester,” Abram M. Friesen, would fulfill his duty of collecting dues from local farmers and providing the victim with a two-thirds coverage for the destroyed property. 
The most important of these mutual aid organizations was the deaconry. It was an integral part of the church and all deacons were members of the “Lehrdienst.” Extant deacon records indicate that Blumenort was never without at least one deacon in the early years. These records show how Deacon Peter P. Wiebe bought supplies of firewood, flour, textiles and seed grain for the families of widows or the mentally ill. The money to purchase these supplies came from small Sunday worship service offeratories. The more common approach to assisting the poor, however, was by loaning them money at five percent interest. The deacons had previously borrowed the money from wealthier farmers.  Deacon Abram R. Reimer’s personal account books reveal how he often channeled such monies to young married men whose fathers could not afford to help them establish farms, or to families who suffered from so much illness that they could no longer afford to pay municipal taxes. 
Even the way in which Blumenort farmers organized the physical functioning of the village was based on an Old World pattern. The governing body of the village, the “Schulzenbott,” was simply the assembly of all land-owning farmers, headed by the democratically elected “Schulz.” The central purpose of the “Schulzenbott” was clearly revealed in Blumenort’s 1878 village constitution.  The first words of the document declared that “in accordance with our earlier custom we wish to constitute a village community.” The nine articles in the constitution set out the conditions by which the village was to operate, calling for farmers to participate in the pooling of land, maintenance of roads, fences, school house and breeding stock, and payment of a herdsman. Several of the articles were clearly adopted to discourage disintegrating forces in the village. Article One stated that all individually registered lands would be taken into common usage; Article Four maintained that a farmer could not circumvent his monetary responsibilities to the village by moving onto his own homestead quarter; Article Five stated that all farm and land sales must be approved by the “Schulzenbott”; and Article Six called for all farmers to “give punctual obedience to the ‘Schulz.Although this constitution did not have a legal base, it was enforceable through the “Bruderschaft” which could, in extreme cases, excommunicate a non-conforming villager. 
Extant “Schulzenbott” minute books and financial ledgers reveal that for the first thirty-five years in their new setting the villagers closely observed this constitution. A “Schulz” was regularly elected and given the duties of hiring the village herdsman, measuring “Koagels,” keeping in touch with the “Gebietsamt” (the municipal office), and calling village business meetings.  Oral tradition tells how the “Schulz” periodically summoned an elderly bachelor, affectionately known to the local people as Old Cornelius, and sent him through the village announcing an upcoming “Schulzenbott” meeting.  According to the minute books of these meetings there was a prevailing consensus to maintain a smooth-functioning solid, Old World settlement. In 1903, for instance, the “Schulzenbott” made joint decisions on the request of some farmers to exchange “Koagels,” on the timing of releasing the cattle onto the stubble land after harvest, on the problem of weeds on the lands of negligent farmers, and on the terms of employment for the village herdsman. In that year the farmers also discussed the request of a recently arrived Russian family, the Tielmanns, to move into the village, and the growing pressure of the Manitoba Government on the Mennonites to upgrade their teachers. 
These records also show that the common village property was carefully administered throughout these early years. To ensure a continued supply of firewood each household was charged a $0.25 fee for every sleigh of wood taken from the village bush. In 1904 the “Schulzenbott” even considered the joint purchase of an additional quarter section of bush land to boost firewood supplies. Similar care was taken to ensure an orderly and adequate hay harvest. The “Schulzenbott” appointed one of the farmers as a hay commissioner. His duty was to allot a certain portion of hayland to each farmer and collect a $0.40 levy on each wagon of hay harvested. In maintaining village fences, roads, ditches and wells each landowner was expected to give a few days of labour for which he was paid a dollar a day. Farmers could earn additional cash by volunteering for extra assignment such as mowing weeds along the street, hauling manure from the church barn, or wintering the village bull. Even the farmers who responded to emergencies in the village were paid from “Schulzenbott” coffers. Young Peter Penner was rewarded 25 cents in 1899 for chasing stray cattle from a Blumenort grain field, and volunteers who came to help fight a village fire in 1902 each received 35 cents. 
The third major aspect of the Blumenort village which was transferred from Russia with few changes was its people’s simple agrarian, family-oriented way of life. Within the confines of an Old World village settlement and traditional Mennonite institutions, the immigrants’ basic pattern of life was left essentially unchallenged. That few changes occurred in the way of life of early Blumenorters can be substantiated from an examination of the villagers’ economic activities and their family life.
The economic activities of the Blumenort villagers were, with few exceptions, carried out in agrarian and domestic pursuits.  These were pursuits for which the Mennonites had already become famous in Europe. And these were pursuits which reflected the Mennonites’ ascetic view of life. Unlike many other prairie townsmen who sought quick profits from real estate turnovers and frontier merchandising, the Mennonite villagers venerated hard, tedious work.  And unlike the Canadians who strove to translate their personal earnings into the acquisition of the latest technological amenities or the attainment of new social status in places more glittering and glamorous than the old, the Mennonite villagers appear to have held strictly to the view that economic pursuits should be directed primarily to maintaining a self-sufficient way of life, and that profits should not interfere with their theology of simplicity. 
Two of the more well-read devotional books which the Blumenort settlers brought with them from Russia were Menno Simon’s 1539 Das Fundamene Buch and Heinrich Balzer’s 1833 Verstand und Vernunft.  In Menno’s work on the fundamentals of Christian doctrine, the settlers were reminded time and time again of the dangers of a life of pride, pomp, and ease. Indeed, anything which would lead one away from an ascetic Christian piety was to be vigorously avoided. Balzer’s later writing reflected Menno’s ideas. The nineteenth century Kleine Gemeinde preacher cited involvement in business as being something which brought one into frequent contact with the outside and caused the erosion of true Christian values. Business, wrote Balzer, caused Mennonites to become “conditioned to the doings of this world without even noticing it.” the only occupation which would safeguard against the world was farming. According to Balzer,
It is not surprising, therefore, that Kleine Gemeinde elders in Blumenort warned their people against operating general stores or purchasing large steam engines. Although there were business ventures in early Blumenort, they were usually run as sideline enterprises to the farms and usually, by increasing the town’s self-sufficiency, they limited rather than increased interaction with the outside. Peter Toews’ sawmill, Abram Reimer’s blacksmith shop, Heinrich Plett’s feedmill and Abram Friesen’s watch repair service were of this nature. 
Only for a short time around the turn of the century were there any business establishments in Blumenort which were geared to providing their proprietors with a primary income. These were Klaas Reimer’s cheese factory, begun in 1893 on the west-ern edge of the village, and Johann Reimer’s general store, established in 1898 on his centrally located “Fiastaed.” The first entrepreneur was a successful businessman from the neighbouring town of Steinbach. His venture in Blumenort was tolerated by the villagers only for a time. In 1900 the farmers presented Reimer with the ultimatum to either sell the factory to them or face the competition of a new farmer-owned plant. Reimer acquiesced and the Blumenorters purchased his factory and trans-formed it into a co-operative.  The second entrepreneur was a sickly young local man who was unable to provide a means of living through farming. Given this situation the villagers graciously patronized the Reimer store providing it with more than $300 worth of business in January of 1902 alone. When Reimer died later that year the store was permanently closed. 
A simple life of diligent and hard work on the farm was, thus, extolled as the only true way of life. Extant diaries and municipal tax assessment roles offer vivid pictures of early farm activity. Abram Friesen’s diary of 1888 shows how he and his two sons spent many successive long days working their 45-acre farm: in April, they castrated bulls and repaired the farmstead fences; in May, they planted potatoes and seeded wheat and oats; in June, they butchered cattle and sawed lumber; in July, they broke new land and mowed weeds; in August, they harvested the hay on the village grasslands and helped a neighbour replace a roof torn off by a violent storm; in September, they threshed the grain and helped another neighbour build a barn; in October, they plowed the “Koagels” and butchered more hogs and cattle. 
During the winter, many days were spent hauling firewood from the village bushland and lumber from the forest east of Giroux, ten miles away. An existing account written to commemorate the tragic freezing death of the Blumenort deacon Heinrich Wiebe reveals that on December 13, 1876 almost half of the village farmers and their sons rose at 3:00 A.M. and headed out to the Giroux forest on some 10 to 12 sleighs pulled by oxen. They returned late at night with their precious loads of lumber.  Other diaries disclose that such excursions were made on a regular basis.
After a decade in the new land, many of the Blumenorters began to prosper. Existing accounts speak of a frenzy of building activity during the 1880s to replace the flimsy structures put up in the early years. Tax roles reveal that between the years 1883 and 1895 the amount of cultivated land in the Blumenort district doubled from 494 acres to 956 acres. Land transaction records show that despite the additional land, a high demand for even more land caused land prices to jump from three dollars an acre in 1880 to twenty-five dollars in 1904. Similar signs of rising agricultural fortunes can be seen in the increase of the number of cattle in the village from 127 in 1883 to 432 in 1906. During the same period of time the number of horses in the village increased from 25 to 105. Moreover, this period witnessed a steady mechanization of the farms. As early as 1878, a Blumenort farmer had purchased an upright portable Watrous steam engine and in 1882 his neighbour purchased another. 
While prosperity no doubt increased the sense of individualism among Blumenort farmers and posed a potential threat to their Old World way of life, wealth per se was not seen as a threat to tradition. Indeed, Mennonites in Russia had preached that hard, honest work would be rewarded. So long as it did not increase interaction with the outside and encourage personal pride, but rather served to help establish a farmer’s sons on the land, an increase in prosperity was quite acceptable.  One of Blumenort’s wealthiest farmers, Deacon Abram Reimer was a model citizen. He was a skilled farmer who dedicated much time to the church and provided the means to establish eight sons on farms. And, when assessing his own life in a letter in 1891, he expressed a sense of humility and self-denial venerated by his Blumenort neighbours. Referring to his active role as a deacon, Reimer declared that “I am the most insignificant that has been called to help in the vineyard.” 
Women played an integral part in maintaining an Old World agrarian way of life in Blumenort. While they were given no voice at the “Schulzenbott” or “Bruderschaft,” oral tradition indicates that they shared with their men a common view of the value of hard work and the importance of reestablishing life as they had known it in Russia. Not only did women devote themselves to domestic duties, such as cooking the dishes they had perfected in the Ukraine and sewing the traditional European peasant garb, they were also involved in farm activities. Theirs was the duty to milk the cows and, during times when male labour was in short supply, help with the ploughing and threshing. 
In the absence of male leadership in the home, women readily took upon themselves the responsibilities of managing the farm or bringing in the family income. Mrs. Carolina Friesen, a 50-year-old widow, travelled to Winnipeg with the men in September of 1874, registered a homestead, was allotted her four “Koagels” and set out to farm with her children.  Mrs. Katherine Wohlgemuth managed her farm for 23 years after her husband died in 1899. Mrs. Elizabeth Reimer became a fulltime seamstress after her husband, who was derisively dubbed “Foola Raema” (Lazy Reimer) by his neighbours, proved to be more of a dawdler than a farmer. 
Perhaps the greatest factor which allowed for the continuation of Mennonite mores and customs in the new land was the family. Unlike other prairie towns which initially were dominated numerically by single males, Blumenort was essentially a familial society from the beginningthere was no need here to promote the town as a respectable, orderly place to entice investors with families to make it their home. In Mennonite circles extended families often made a point of inhabiting a common village. Genealogical records reveal that of the 50 or so adults who made Blumenort their home in 1874, only four young men did not have close relatives in the village, and these men hurriedly established such relation-ships by marrying young Blumenort women within the first year of settlement.  Each of the 23 families to settle in Blumenort did so with members of their extended families: brothers, sisters, uncles, fathers, and grandmothers. Early letters indicate that in some instances three and four generations would cross the ocean and settle down in the same village. The eldest person to make Blumenort his home in 1874 was an 80-year-old widower, Jacob Barkman; one of the youngest was his great granddaughter, Katherina Loewen, born in November of that first fall. 
The transfer of whole families to Manitoba guaranteed the continuation of a traditional Mennonite family structure. Such a structure was a patriarchal one which pivoted around the father and geared itself to self-perpetuation.  Reminiscences of Blumenort pioneers indicate how large families were extolled, how children were imbued with the ways of tradition, how endogamy was encouraged, how family elders were revered, how sons were established as farmers and how much of the social life was carried out within the confines of the extended family. 
Children were born at home and cared for by their mothers and older sisters. Here they learned “Plautdietsch,” the Mennonite lingua franca, and German religious hymns and folk songs. Between the ages of 7 and 14, children were compelled to attend school and help with light farm chores. During this time, however, children were also given time to play the Old World games of “Zoakje” and “Dee Ole Babe” in the dusty farmyard or gather at the boundary fence to chit-chat with their cousins. 
Between the ages of 14 and 21, youths were expected to devote their time to working at home or adding to the family larder by working for wealthier neighbours. Despite these expectations, adults re-signed themselves to occasional displays of deviance in youth. Stories have been told of dances and drinking parties held in the cheese factory on Sunday afternoons, of young vandals firing forbidden rifles and smashing fences at night, and of young men extorting money from wedding couples by threatening to disrupt the traditional marriage meal following the Sunday morning wedding service. 
With parental prodding, the age of youth came to an end between the ages of 19 and 21. At this time, young people would almost inevitably seek spiritual counsel from members of the ministerial, join the church through baptism and get married.  As only those persons who were willing to comply with the strict, ethical guidelines set down by the church were allowed to join it and only church members allowed to marry, endogamy and the continuation of traditional mores were ensured. According to genealogical records, marriages with non-Mennonites were extremely rare.  In fact, during the first thirty-five years of Blumenort’s history, only three unions involving non-Mennonites were recorded and these were with Lutherans who shared a common language with the Blumenort youth. 
After marriage, the couple moved onto a farm which the father of the groom had assisted in purchasing. Here they set about establishing a large family and building a successful farm as they had seen their parents do. Diaries show that in both endeavours, much assistance could be expected from members of the extended families.
All social life expressed the Blumenorters’ ascetic lifestyle. Leisure time was always spent visiting one’s relatives or neighbours. Here religious hymns were sung, family genealogies discussed and stories of the Old World retold. They related the story of Peter Penner, who had once been knocked unconscious from a horse’s kick and had been considered dead until he regained consciousness just before his scheduled funeral. Johann Plett, another story went, once confronted and established the true identity of a man who, dressed as a ghost, had terrorized his village. They also spoke of Abram Reimer who had,on one occasion, regained the respect of a brash defiant young servant by carrying a 600 pound wagon on his back from one end of the village to the other.  The amount of visiting one did was of course directly proportional to one’s age. By the time the husband and wife reached 50, their children could manage much of the farm work. This enabled the couple to go visiting all day on Sunday or take lengthy trips to visit relatives west of the Red River or in far away places such as Kansas. 
After the youngest child was ready to take over the farm, the parental couple would move into a small house in the family yard from where they could assist their children as they had been assisted. Here, too, they could peacefully write their life’s chronicles, compose religious poetry and record genealogies.  Upon the death of one of the partners, the remaining spouse would move into the home of one of his married children. 
The basic pattern of a European based sectarian way of life remained virtually intact during the first 35 years of Blumenort’s history. As group settlers, the Blumenort townfolk were able to successfully transplant a medieval landscape, an Old World institutional framework, and a traditional family oriented, agrarian way of life to the new land. These settlement features clearly indicate the true nature of Blumenort. It was a village whose central purpose was the perpetuation of traditional ways of life and whose rhythm of development was geared to ward off culturally disintegrative forces.
In 1910 the village of Blumenort disbanded. Several factors precipitated this event. Farm mechanization had made the medieval field pattern increasingly obsolete. A progressively active municipality had assumed many of the responsibilities of the “Schulzenbott.” A rising standard of living had made the villagers less and less dependent on one another. And, most important, there was a growing consensus among the villagers that an Old World spatial arrangement was no longer necessary for the perpetuation of the sectarian culture. In fact, among the advocates of the town’s break-up were Blumenort’s religious leaders and some of its reputedly most ascetic members. The concern to maintain Old World values continued unabetted in the decades after Blumenort’s dissolution. Sermons, diaries and letters from these years show that the pulpit regularly warned against American pietistic religiosity, that the “Bruderschaft” opposed the telephone and the automobile, that the school board struggled to maintain the private German school, and that local families continued to stress endogamy and residential segregation.  After a generation under the skies of the new land, the people of Blumenort had undertaken to maintain their traditional values and way of life outside the constructs of an Old World town.
1. Gilbert A. Stelter, “A Sense of Time and Place; The Historian’s Approach to Canada’s Urban Past,” in The Canadian City, ed. Gilbert A. Stelter and Alan Artibise (Toronto: The MacMillan Company, 1979), pp. 419-441; Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: A Social History (Montreal: University of McGill Press, 1975); Paul Voisey, “Boosting the Small Prairie Town, 1904-1931,” Town and Country: Aspects Western Canadian Development (Regina: Prairie Research Center, 1981); Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies, A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), pp. 295-300.
2. Blumenort Village Papers, Schulzenbott Minute Book, 1909; Land Reallocation Committee Report, 1909, in possession of Bernard P. Doerksen, Blumenort, Manitoba.
3. C. A. Dawson, Group Settlement: Ethnic Connnunities in Western Canada (Toronto: The MacMillan Company, 1936); E.K. Francis, In Search of Utopia (Altona, Manitoba: D. W. Friesen & Sons Ltd., 1955); John Warkentin, “The Mennonite Settlements of Southern Manitoba” (Ph.D Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1960); Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada: 1786-1920 (Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1974); Also note that the terms “town” and “village” are used interchange-ably in this essay. For an example of this usage see Friesen, Canadian Prairies, p. 321.
4. Dawson, Group Settlement, p. 98.
6. See: Peter D. Zacharias, Rein/and: An Experience in Community (Altona: Reinland Centennial Committee, 1976); Esther Epp-Thiessen, Altona: The Story of A Prairie Town (Altona: D. W. Friesen & Sons Ltd., 1982).
7. The number and identity of the first Blumenort villagers was derived from: Ship Passenger Lists, 1974, Vol. 898, Mennonite Heritage Center, Winnipeg; Homestead Registration Register, 7-6E, Manitoba Department of National Resources, Crown Lands Branch; Peter P. Toews Papers, Kleine Gemeinde Membership Register, Mennonite Heritage Center, Winnipeg.
8. For a history of the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites see Peter J. B. Reimer and David P. Reimer, editors, The Sesquicentennial Jubilee (Steinbach: Evangelical Mennonite Conference, 1962) and the forthcoming two volume history of the Kleine Gemeinde in Russia by Delbert F. Plett, Steinbach.
9. Peter P. Toews, “Sammlung Von Briefen and Schriftliche Nachrichten zur Historie der Kleinen Gemeinde der Mennoniten an der Molotschna,” c. 1890, transliterated copy by Peter A. Plett and Cornelius L. Toews Evangelical Mennonite Conference Archives, Steinbach.
11. Peter W. Toews, letter to “Aeltester” Peter P. Toews, 15 January 1875, Peter Toews Papers, Bethel College, Newton, Kansas.
12. Abraham R. Friesen, personal diary, 1873, in possession of Harry S. Friesen, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
13. Ben W. Friesen, story told at Blumenort Centennial Service, August 1974, tape-recording by Bernard P. Doerksen, Blumenort.
14. John B. Toews, Memoirs, 1961 (Rosenort, Manitoba: Prairie View Press), 1978, p. 9.
15. David L. Plett, “Denkschrift,” David L. Plett Papers, in possession of Betty L. Plett, Blumenort, Manitoba.
16. Francis, Utopia, p. 40; Warkentin, “Mennonite Settlements,” p. 32; Peter P. Toews, “Sammlung Von Briefen”; Peter W. Toews, letter to Peter P. Toews.
17. These geographical terms are employed by Warkentin, “Mennonite Settlements,” p. 46. They were not used by the settlers in Blumenort. The settlers simply used the term “Darp” to refer to their village and seem not to have had any particular term for the open field system. For an historical background to the development of this land holding system see Cornelius Krahn, “Villages: Hollaenderdoerfer,” Mennonite Encyclopedia Vol. IV (Scottsdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955), pp. 821-827.
18. See enclosed village district map of Blumenort, 1884, based on information from John B. Toews Map, in E. K. Francis Papers, Provincial Archives of Manitoba; Jacob W. Friesen map in the possession of John C. Reimer, Steinbach, Manitoba; Abram L. Plett map in the possession of Rosabel Fast, Edmonton, Alberta; Klaas D. Reimer map in the possession of the Klaas Reimer estate, Belize, Central America.
20. Abraham M. Friesen, personal diary, 1,23, 24 and 31 May 1884, translated notes by Delbert F. Plett, Steinbach. In these entries Friesen describes seeding activities on the different “Koagels.”
21. See enclosed map of the Blumenort village, 1898, by Martin P. Friesen, in possession of Abram P. Friesen, Steinbach.
22. Rosabel Fast, “A History of the Plett Family” (unpublished research paper, University of Manitoba, 1978), p. 5.
23. Peter P. Toews, “Samlung Von Briefen.”
25. Peter P. Toews, “A Letter to the Molotschna Mennonite School Teachers of the East Reserve,” in John C. Reimer, “History of Our Schools Since 1874,” in Reimer and Reimer, Sesquicentennial Jubilee, p. 157.
26. Abram F. Reimer, personal diary, 19 August 1886 and 24 March 1888, transliterated by Mrs. P. J. Loewen, EMC Archives, Steinbach. On the first date a member of the church from another village was excommunicated because “his sheep do damage to other people and there are other things to which he did not admit.” On the second date a member was excommunicated after a 3-hour brotherhood meeting because his neighbours “were not happy with him.”
27. “Kleine Gemeinde Rechnung Buch (Account Book) 1847-1882,” transliterated sections by David P. Thiessen, hand-written copy on file in Blumenort Collection, EMC Archives, Steinbach.
28. Peter F. Unger, “Denkschrift: 1878-1929,” transliterated by Peter A. Plett. Copy at EMC Archives, Steinbach.
29. Because members of the ministerial were exempted from the payment of municipal taxes it is difficult to establish with precision their relative wealth. Personal diaries and homestead patent application forms, however, indicate that Abram Reimer, Martin Penner and Peter Reimer, who were chosen as church leaders during the first years, were among the more well-to-do farmers in Blumenort. Moreover, there was a saying among the pioneers that in order for a villager to qualify for the ministerial he must have a full two-storey hay mow built diagonally to his barn. This was the most visible symbol of a successful farmer. Interview with Rev. Abe P. Unger, Landmark, Manitoba, August 1980.
30. Peter B. Friesen, “Kleine Gemeinde Wahlliste,” Albert Friesen, Kleefeld, Manitoba and Unger, “Denkschrift.”
31. This information was derived from the records of church offerings in “East Reserve Kleine Gemeinde Rechnung Buch, 1883-1923,” Blumenort E.M. Church, Blumenort, Manitoba.
32. Interviews with Rev. Abe P. Unger, Landmark, Manitoba, December 1982, and Mrs. Abram C. Penner, Blumenort, Manitoba, December 1983.
33. Peter R. Reimer, sermon, 1899, copy in possession Klaas Reimer, Riverton, Manitoba.
34. Peter W. Loewen, letter to Johann L. Harms, 1895, Bethel College Archives, Newton, Kansas.
35. Corneleus L. Plett, sermon, 1900, in possession of Bernard P. Doerksen, Blumenort.
36. Peter F. Unger, “Denkschrift.”
38. Interview with Menno D. Loewen, Belize, C.A., December 1980.
39. According to Edwin Wiebe and Edwin Penner, Jacob T. Wiebe Family (Rosenort, Manitoba: Lark Printing, 1976) and inter-view with Henry Giesbrecht, Ste. Anne, Manitoba, November, 1982, the Holdeman Mennonites proved to be more open to marrying members of other, non-German ethnic groups and the acceptance of telephones and cameras during the decades these first came into use.
41. “Konferenzbeschlusse, von anno 1899,” edited and published by Klaas C. Penner, Belize, C.A.
42. Blumenort Village Papers, “Schuleregister, 1874-1875,” in possession of Bernard Doerksen, Blumenort, Manitoba.
43. Abram P. Friesen, ed., The Von Riesen-Friesen Genealogy: 1756-1966 (Steinbach: 1971) p. 168.
44. Peter P. Toews, “Letter to the Molotschna Mennonites.”
46. Peter F. Unger, “Denkschrift.”
47. Blumenort Village Papers, “Schule Rechnungen: 1890-1900,” in possession of Bernard Doerksen, Blumenort, Manitoba.
48. John C. Reimer, “History of Our Schools.”
49. Interview with Jacob C. Penner, Belize, C.A., August 1980.
50. David P. Reimer, “Blumenort: Der Geistliche Zurstand,” in Reimer and Reimer, The Sesquicentennial Jubilee, op. cit., p. 104.
51. Interview with John D. Penner, Winnipeg, Manitoba, September, 1981; Molotschna Mennoniten Gemeinde, Teilungs Verordnung der Molotschna Mennoniten Gemeinde in Manitoba (Winnipeg: 1902).
52. Abram M. Friesen, diary, and Veraenderung and Ausbesserung der Feuerregeln der Gegenseitigen Mention itischen Brandordnung (Altona, Manitoba, 1919), Jake K. Friesen Papers, EMC Archives, Steinbach, pp. 1-18.
53. David L. Plett Papers, “Wahlliste der Aeltesten, Lehrer, and Diakonen, 1818-1871,” transliterated by Isaac K. Plett, Landmark; Kleine Gemeinde Rechnung Buch, 1874, Prairie Rose E.M. Church, Landmark, Manitoba; and “East Reserve Kleine Gemeinde Rehnung Buch, 1883.”
54. Abraham R. Reimer, personal account book, original at EMC Archives, Steinbach.
55. Blumenort Village Papers, “Der Verbindungsschrift der Dorfsgemeinde Blumenort, 1881,” transliterated by Mrs. P.J. Loewen.
57. Blumenort Village Papers, “Protokoll and Rechnungsbuch:” 1890-94, 1899, 1902-03, 1907-09, in possession of Bernard P. Doerksen, Blumenort, Manitoba.
58. Interview with Jacob W. Friesen, Steinbach, Manitoba, August 1980.
61. “Hanover Tax Assessment Rolls: 1881, 1883, 1889, 1896, 1906,” Rural Municipality of Hanover, Steinbach, Manitoba.
62. Interview with John C. Reimer, Steinbach, Manitoba, July 1980. Reimer recalls the popularity of the saying “Arbeit macht das Leben Susz,” among villagers.
63. Peter F. Unger, “Denkschrift.”
64. Both books were found among the personal papers of Abram R. Penner, in the possession of John D. Penner, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the papers of Cornelius Brandt, EMC Archives, Steinbach, Manitoba. The English translations of these titles are respectively, The Foundation of Christian Doctrine and Faith and Reason.
65. Heinrich Balzer, “Faith and Reason: The Principles of Mennonitism Reconsidered in a Treatise of 1833,” ed. and tr. by Robert Friedman, The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2, pp. 75-93.
66. Information about these enterprises came from: Abram Reimer, diary; Abram M. Friesen, diary; interview with Frank P. Toews, Steinbach, Manitoba, August, 1981; and Delbert F. Plett, Plett Picture Book (Steinbach, Delbert F. Plett Farms, 1982), p. 57.
67. Interview with Abe P. Unger, Landmark, Manitoba, August 1981.
68. Johann R. Reimer, store account book, in possession of John C. Reimer, Steinbach.
70. John B. Toews, “In Memory of Heinrich Wiebe,” 75 Gedenkicier der Mennonitischrrr Einwanderung in Manitoba, Canada (Steinbach, 1949).
71. Peter Unger, “Denkschrift.”
72. Hanover Tax Assessment Roles, and Land Transaction Abstracts, 7-6E, Government of Manitoba, Department of the Attorney General, Land Titles Office, Winnipeg.
73. A comparison of genealogical records and tax roles indicates a direct correlation between the size of a villager’s farm and the number of sons in the family. The achievement of some measure of prosperity ensured the successful establishment of these sons on farms of their own and subsequently also the perpetuation of a traditional way of life.
74. Abraham R. Reimer, letter to “Aeltester” Jacob Kroeker, 1891, EMC Archives, Steinbach.
75. Transcript of interviews between Betty Plett and Mrs. John U. Brandt, Blumenort, Manitoba, August, 1980; Mrs. Peter K. Plett, Blumenort, Manitoba, August, 1980; and Mrs. C. K. Plett, Blumenort, Manitoba, August, 1980. See also the transcripts of interviews by the author with Mrs. Peter D. Kroeker, Steinbach, Manitoba, December, 1983 and Mrs. Abram C. Penner, Blumenort, Manitoba, December, 1983, EMC Archives, Steinbach, Manitoba.
76. Abram P. Friesen, Von Riesen-Friesen Genealogy, p. 1.
77. Cornelius R. Penner, “Biographie von Margaretha R. Reimer,” John C. Reimer, ed. Fawilienregister der Nachkornrneu von Klaas and Helena Reimer (Winnipeg: Regehr Printing, 1958), p. 288.
78. Ship Passenger Lists: 1874. These men included Johann Broeski, Gottlieb Jahnke, Julius Radinzel and Heinrich Wohlgemuth.
79. Frank P. Wiebe, ed., Genealogy of Jacob Bark-man: 1825-1975 (Steinbach: 1975).
80. See for example: Heinrich R. Reimer, Sr., letter to Heinrich and Abraham Reimer, Blumenort, 21 January 1975, transliterated by Mrs. P. J. Loewen, John E. Friesen Collection, EMC Archives, Steinbach, Manitoba.
81. Interviews with Mrs. Maria D. Reimer, Steinbach, July 1980, and Peter A. Plett, Landmark, Manitoba, December 1983.
83. Interviews with Peter P. D. Reimer, Steinbach, December, 1983; Henry F. Reimer, Steinbach, August 1980, and Dave P. Loewen, Steinbach, February 1982.
84. Interview with Peter K. Plett, Blumenort, March 1982.
85. See the following genealogical works in the possession of the author: Cornelius Plett (1820-1900), published in 1953; Klaas Reimer (1770-1837), pub. in 1958; Isaak Loewen (1787-1873), pub. in 1961; Klaas Friesen (1793-1870), pub. in 1966; Jacob Wiebe (1799-1856), pub. in 1966; Peter Penner (1816-1884), pub. in 1973; Johann Koop (1831-1897), pub. in 1975; David Klassen (1813-1900), pub. in 1974; and Peter K. Bark-man (1926-1917), pub. in 1977. Also see Delbert F. Plett, Plett Picture Book, and Peter Isaac, A Family Book From 1794 to 1916 (Rosenort, Manitoba: Prairie View Press, 1980).
86. These marriages included the unions of Peter Koop and Auguste Hemiger, John Friesen and Rosena Gerschefsky; and Isaac Friesen and Emilie Koenig.
87. Abram M. Friesen, diary, and Abram F. Reimer, diary.
88. Interview with Margaret D. Penner, Belize, C.A. December, 1980; Abram P. Friesen, Von Riesen-Friesen Genealogy, p. 165; Abram Unger, “Biographie des Abraham R. Reimer,” Familienregister der Nachkommen von Klaus und Helena Reimer, p. 113.
89. Interview with Margaret C. Penner, Belize, C.A., December 1980, and Peter K. Plett, Blumenort, August 1980.
90. Examples of such writings are: Jacob L. Plett, “Der Vorigen Tage,” Bericht von dew Plettentag, ed. by G. Thielmann (Steinbach Post, 1945), pp. 44-45 and Peter F. Unger, “Denkschrift.”
91. Interview with Mrs. Abram C. Penner, Blumenort, December 1980. She tells how her grandfather, Johann Koop distributed $500 to each of his married children shortly before his death in 1897. This money was in payment for the room and board he expected them to provide for their mother after his death.
92. The decision to disband Blumenort was made in 1909 at a village council meeting. To facilitate the break-up a land reallocation committee was struck. After it reported in 1910 the villagers physically translocated the village buildings onto individually owned quarter sections and established separate farmyards. See Blumenort Village Papers; interview with Jacob W. Friesen, Steinbach, August 1980; and interview with John D. Penner, Winnipeg, Steinbach, 1981.
93. Elder Peter P. Reimer, sermon delivered in Blumenort, 1926, in possession of Peter P. D. Reimer, Steinbach; Peter F. Unger, “Denkschraft”; Klaas F. Penner, letter to the Manitoba Department of Education, n.d., Klaas D. Penner, Belize, C.A.; genealogical records; Tax Rolls: 1920.
Page revised: 4 September 2022