Western Local Mennonite Teachers’ Conference - An Early Minute Book
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1977, Volume 22, Number 2
The organization of teachers’ conferences manifested a crucial feature of early Mennonite educational efforts in Manitoba. When Heinrich H. Ewert appeared on the scene in 1891 he quickly focused on teacher training as the key factor in raising educational standards within the Western Canadian Mennonite community.  The Gretna Normal School, later known as the Mennonite Collegiate Institute, became the institutional medium through which much energy was expended to reach this goal. 
These teachers’ conferences extended the teacher training concern. A minute book of these early teachers’ meetings offers an illuminating description of the form and process by which this type of help was given.  Written in the careful German Gothic script of the secretary, Benjamin Ewert,  the material covers a total of nineteen meetings held during a four-year period from 1893 to 1897. The organization called itself the “Westliche Lokal Konferenz der Distriktschullehrer in der mennonitischen Ansiedlung von Manitoba” (Western Local Conference of Public School Teachers of the Mennonite Settlement in Manitoba). 
A careful record of the teachers’ attendance at these sessions precedes the minute entries. Those most often present included Johann M. Friesen, Altona, thirteen times; Benjamin Ewert, Edenburg, seventeen times; Abram J. Friesen, Gretna, eleven times; and David Toews, Gretna, eight times. The latter never missed a meeting in the sequence of eight from 26 January 1894 to May 1895. Other teachers, attending less regularly, were: Bernhard Friesen, Edenthal; Guenther Limprecht, Altona; Heinrich Graff, Blumstein; C. B. Fast, Winkler; Peter W. Dueck, Rosenfeld; E. Garlieb, Altona; Peter Toews, Edenthal; Franz Siemens, Schoenthal; Gustave R. Toews, Strassburg; Wm. Abrams; Johann Loewen, Edenthal; J. C. Peters, Plum Coulee; Peter Siemens, Amsterdam; Heinrich Wiens, Halbstadt; Henry Siemens, Rosenfeld; P. B. Krehbiel, Altona; Heinrich Enns, Morris; and Gerhard Hamm, Edenthal. The average attendance of six in 1893-94 dropped to five in 1895-1897. The meeting of 26 January 1895, included only three teachers (Benjamin Ewert, David Toews and John M. Friesen), along with several students from the Gretna Normal School, and the 27 March 1897, meeting at Rosenfeld had only three teachers present also.
The first all-day conference, held on 27 October 1893, at Edenburg, had scheduled a forenoon teaching demonstration by Benjamin Ewert and his pupils in the subjects of German reading, arithmetic, English reading, and the use of visual aids. Henry Graff moderated the afternoon discussion of Ewert’s work. Comments dealt with the pronunciation of words by children with a Low German background, the matter of having pupils “coming to the front” (some thought this was too disturbing for the class), the need to use relevant illustrations (problems) in arithmetic instruction, and the failure of older pupils to perform satisfactorily. The use of visual aids brought forth much discussion, and some took exception to teachers (of those present?) who were known to use the Bible as a “reader” in their schools. The format of offering a teaching demonstration with discussion became the agenda pattern for this entire period.
At the second meeting, held in Blumstein on 24 November 1893, it was recommended that teachers needed help in obtaining more uniform German text books in their classes. Heinrich Graff, who had led the morning teaching demonstration was urged to notice that pupils were looking down too much when answering questions, and that he, the teacher, was repeating the pupils’ answers too frequently. The group affirmed his solid work in the language arts, and his good discipline in the class. On the question of using notes in the teaching of music, the conference went on record as favoring notes if books were available, but accepting rote memory if necessary. The meeting closed with a paper presented by the secretary, Benjamin Ewert, on the subject, “The Teachers’ Conference.”
For the conference held at Rosenfeld on 26 January 1894, the minutes record a heated debate on the matter of teacher-pupil relations. Mr. Limprecht regarded the use of “Mister” in addressing a teacher as “unnatural” for pupils, while David Toews took a strongly opposed position. There was no unanimity on this topic in the group.
The leadership of David Toews may be detected at several points in the minutes. He was asked to chair at least three different teaching demonstration discussions during the time of his involvement and at a session of a general teachers’ conference held on 28-29 June 1894, he was also appointed to a three-man program committee to plan the next semi-annual general teachers’ conference in the area. On that same occasion he was placed on a five-man commission (along with B. Ewert, Corn. Fast, Mr. Loewen and H. Graff), “to evaluate German readers, and to recommend suitable ones for our schools.”  Limprecht became a favored choice for giving teaching demonstrations with his pupils, and was otherwise regarded as being especially stimulating in the work of the conference.
The final entry in the minute book, reporting Minutes of the monthly teachers meeting held at Edenburg on 1 May 1897 reads somewhat like the first. Benjamin Ewert once more presented the teaching demonstration with his pupils: language lessons with the second class (grade?), and German reading with the German-language beginners and the third class. Ewert described his teaching procedure in detail for all the sections included. P. B. Krehbiel, the elected moderator opened the afternoon discussion with the singing of Jesu, du allein sollst mein Fuehrer sein. Comments basically affirmed the work of Ewert in his teaching procedures. In his language instruction he was encouraged to use more drill in sentence structure so that pupils would learn the daily use of English more quickly.
Business decisions at the close of the meeting included: 1) a recommendation to “go slow” on increasing the number of study papers presented to the meetings (emphasis was on the practical); 2) the decision to hold the next conference in Winkler on 29 May, and to ask Mr. Isaac to present a teaching demonstration in arithmetic (Grade I and II), grammar, and Canadian history; 3) a decision to have an offering at the next Conference in order to purchase a minute book.
The last item suggests that another document similar to this one may be available somewhere, and that more information on the story of the Western Local Conference of Public School Teachers in the Mennonite Settlement of Manitoba may be forthcoming some day.
1. Heinrich H. Ewert had come to Manitoba from Kansas, USA, at the invitation of Dr. George Bryce, member of the Advisory Board of the Department of Education in Manitoba. He was asked to serve as school inspector for the southern Manitoba Mennonite schools and give other leadership in education. H. J. Gerbrandt, Adventure in Faith (Altona, Manitoba, 1970), pp. p. 106, 253ff.
2. The Gretna Normal School opened its door in 1889 under the principalship of Wilhelm Rempel. The program was designed for teacher training, but many others attended for upgrading or high school studies. Later the Normal School became the Mennonite Educational Institute, and finally the Mennonite Collegiate Institute, as it is known today. Ewert took over the Normal School in 1891, and stayed with the school (as principal) till his death in 1934.
3. The original titled Protokolbuch. Mennonitischen Lehrerkonferenz von sued Manitoba is located in the archives of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, Winnipeg, Manitoba. It is a 74-page cloth-bound notebook in very good condition.
4. Benjamin Ewert, a brother to Heinrich, had also moved in from Kansas, and taught at Edenburg from 1892 to 1902. Edenburg was the first district to change from private to public school status in the West Reserve of southern Manitoba. Gerbrandt, op. cit., p. 257.
5. Reference here is to the West Reserve only. Teachers’ conferences had been held in the East Reserve as early as 1878, just four years after Mennonite settlement began in Manitoba. P. J. B. Reimer, ed. The Sesquicentennial Jubilee (Steinbach, 1962), p. 163.
6. Toews left the Gretna area around 1896 and a few years later, after further studies at Wesley College in Winnipeg and a year of teaching in the Burwalde School District, moved on to Saskatchewan. He had come to Kansas from Russia in 1884, and to Manitoba in 1893, undoubtedly attracted by Ewert and his work at Gretna. Cf. Frank H. Epp. Education with a Plus. The Story of Rosthern Junior College (Waterloo, Ontario, 1975), p. 13-14. The general teachers’ conference appears to have been a semi-annual event. More information is needed on this organization.
Page revised: 4 September 2022