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Origins of Mennonite Heritage Village

[Lawrence Klippenstein has shared with us a column written for their local Steinbach, MB paper, the Carillon. It parallels the birth and development of the Mennonite Heritage Village, and the MMHS (Manitoba).]

The thought of establishing a Manitoba Mennonite museum may well have come with the first Mennonite families from south Russia who landed in Winnipeg on July 31 in 1874, and the next day docked at the junction of the Rat and Red rivers to build new villages in the area.

That seed may have begun to sprout during World War II for some Mennonites. It may have happened earlier as East Reserve pioneers celebrated the 50th anniversary of that historic arrival in 1924 and then a 60th in 1934.

It was definitely on the agenda of the 75th anniversary commemorated in both former reserves. John C Reimer, a local teacher, led the organizing of an East Reserve gathering and a “museum committee” was set up for that occasion.

By then a Mennonite Historical Committee, later called a Society, had been formed in the Gretna-Altona area to support preservation of the Mennonite heritage. Peace making concerns, heightened by the conscription issue during the war, had become a part of that design.

The arrival in 1946 of Gerhard Ens to teach at the Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna brought a strong supporter of such endeavours to the community. Ens sensed that the efforts of several dedicated individuals in this enterprise needed stronger community support and involvement.

In Steinbach such concerns were definitely shared and talked up by John C. Reimer, who began to set up a private museum in 1951. He saw it as a teaching aid to help children appreciate the Mennonite story.

At the same time he was modeling a project for which he already had bigger plans - a Mennonite public museum in the area. His efforts to establish a Manitoba historical society at the time did not succeed, but he was ready to join a larger plan when it came to light a few years later.

In 1957 Gerhard Ens and his colleagues began to call for a strong heritage saving effort among all Manitoba Mennonites. They met to reorganize their older committee which had published four volumes of Mennonite history written by another MCI teacher, Paul Schaefer. The books were titled Woher? Wohin? Mennoniten!, commenting on the beginnings and future of the Mennonite people.

With yet another teacher, Gerhard Lohrenz, later from Winnipeg, discussions began to focus on a Mennonite museum among other topics discussed. Ens now began to serve as secretary, a task he carried out for 25 years or more. The other main concern at this point had to do with forming the Mennonite Historical Society of Manitoba (MMHS)..

That happened officially in April, 1958, when a larger board came into being, with Ens and Lohrenz leading the fledgling organization. A museum committee was appointed, including John C Reimer and Victor Peters, also a teacher, who read a paper at that meeting in which he shared his vision for museum development. One historian has called these early structurings of 1957-58 “the founding body of Mennonite Heritage Village”.

John C Reimer was given the task of exploring the possibilities of getting such a museum going in Steinbach. A lot of his time and energy was then spent talking to possible supporters of such an idea in that community, while all the while continuing to expand his own private collection.

It would become the prototype of what was being undertaken by the new society, MMHS, brought together from both East and West Reserve, and adjacent regions as well.

Reimer soon brought to the new board several options of property to purchase where a museum complex could be established. A group of men, including Eugene Derksen, quickly caught the vision and others could soon be recruited as well. Some financial support was offered almost right away.

The physical building of museum premises could begin with the purchase of a six acre piece of land, bought for $500.00 an acre from P.A. Reimer, about a mile north of town. One document speaks of the spot as “north of the slough”.

It was hoped that an original house-barn structure, renovated to period precision, might became the centerpiece of a structural village site, but that did not materialize. Other options would be followed as time went on.

The MMHS board at that time included the following persons: G. Lohrenz, chairperson,Ted Friesen, of Altona, vice-president, G. Ens, secretary, John A Toews, Winnipeg, P.J. B. Reimer, Rosenort, Jacob Rempel, Gretna, F. H. Zacharias, Plum Coulee, and K.R. Barkman, Steinbach.

The Steinbach Chamber of Commerce in a strong show of support, elected Abe Kauenhoven and John Loewen to serve on the board also. Several years later the election of J. J. Reimer of Winnipeg as chairman of MMHS would give construction of the museum the needed push to give it a permanent place in the community and the province..

The 50th anniversary of the museum will be celebrated in 2014. Watch this column for more of the story of how the project grew, and detailed suggestions on how readers can become a part of that event.

Upcoming Events (2013)

January 28 . An exhibition, The Silent Contribution, by Linda Toews, opens in the MHV auditorium.

February 10. Along the Road to Freedom:Women Refugees of the 1940s exhibit by Ray Dirks from the Mennonite Heritage Gallery opens in the Gerhard Ens Gallery.

February 10. “Faspa” with Artist Ray Dirks hosted by the Auxiliary of MHV at 3 p.m. in the MHV auditorium.

Lawrence Klippenstein
102 - 388 1st Street
Steinbach, MB
R5G 0C7

Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

Room 900 - 110 La Ronge Road,
Saskatoon, SK, S7K 7H8
Archive Hours: Monday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. Wednesday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. & by appointment on Wed. evening.