Exploring Manitoba’s Mennonite Heritage

Guide Betty Koop talking to Joan McDonnell

[Photos courtesy of Karen Wall and Mennonite Heritage Museum promotional materials.]

On May 16, 2019 twenty-nine Red River College Heritage Group members and their guests visited the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Steinbach.  This outdoor village was built to take visitors back to the mid-1870s when the first Mennonite settlers arrived in Manitoba.

With the knowledgeable help of museum guides Betty Koop and Sara Klassen the group was taken on a walking tour of the more than 20 historic buildings that make up the village, including Mennonite homes, schools, churches, and small businesses.

The tour began with a visit to the overview gallery in the main museum building. In words and pictures, the group was given a review of the history of Russian Mennonites from the 1500s to the present.  This provided a backdrop with which to view the remainder of the tour.

Great Oak Tree of Chortitza
Photo of Semlin (Soddy House)
Semlin (Soddy House)

The first stop on the tour was a visit to the Semlin, the crude “soddy” home built from sod, soil, grass and wood that provided shelter to the earliest Mennonite settlers of Manitoba.

Then the group saw the legendary Great Oak Tree of Chortitza, a small oak tree that was grown from an acorn taken from the 700-year-old original oak tree in the Chortitza Mennonite settlement in South Russia.

Monument to Mennonite Women

Next to the Chortitza Oak was a monument to Mennonite Women.  This monument was built to honor the tremendous contribution of pioneer Mennonite women in all areas of Mennonite life – working in the field, helping with the construction, raising children, keeping homes, making meals, and providing education.

Chortitz Housebarn

Next the tour offered the group an intimate look at the day-to-day home and agricultural life of the Mennonite settlers.  The log homes built after the “soddies” were a significant improvement in terms of comfort and warmth in the cold Manitoba winters.  They sometimes featured thatched roofs and were often physically connected to the barns that held the animals.  Mennonite settlements had a number of orchards that grew wild fruit trees to provide fruit that could be preserved for the winter.   In the heat of the summer much of the cooking was done outside in outdoor ovens and meals were often held in the summer kitchen, a cooler, less insulated attachment to the main kitchen.

Public School

The museum houses two schools: an original Mennonite school which consisted of a basic school and teacherage in one building (the teacher lived in the school building) and then a provincial public school of the 1920s when the transition from private Mennonite education to provincially standardized public education occurred.

Old Colony Worship House

As religious beliefs were the cornerstone of the culture and heritage of the Mennonite people, the building where worship was held was usually situated in the central part of any Mennonite village.  Religious services were a regular part of Mennonite life.  As was consistent with the beliefs of the time, Mennonite men and women were separated during religious services.  The men sat on one side of the worship house and the women and children sat on the other.  There were even separate entrances for the sexes.

The Windmill

No tour of the village is complete without a visit to the windmill.

Windmills were a central part of the agriculture of draining marshes and grinding grains in the European and Russian heritage of the Mennonite people and they brought this heritage with them when they settled in Canada.  The first windmill was built at the museum in 1972, but it burned down and was replaced in 2001 by the current windmill.

The remainder of the tour gave us a look at the business area of a Mennonite town including the steam train shelter, blacksmith shop, printer and general store.

The tour concluded with a traditional Mennonite meal in the Livery Barn Restaurant.

The group agreed that the traditional meal of locally made Foarma Worscht (pork sausage) with three Vereniki (cottage cheese perogies) smothered in Schmauntfatt (savoury cream gravy) with a side serving of coleslaw was delicious. The main course was preceded by a hearty bowl of Komst Borscht (cabbage soup) and a slice of stone ground Broot (homemade whole wheat bread), and followed by a dessert of plautz (a rhubarb streusel crumble cake).

The outing was a superb success thanks to the organizational skill and genuine helpfulness of Manager and Adult Tour Coordinator, Jo-Ann Friesen, Program Assistant, Tamara Unrau, and knowledgeable and interesting tour guides, Betty Koop and Sara Klassen.

All in all, a wonderful event to end the Heritage Group season and head into summer.

Categories: All, Past Events

1 reply »

  1. Thanks for sharing about your experience. You were a wonderful group to take on a tour and I enjoyed getting to know you and trying to answer your questions. Hope your summer goes well!

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