(written in 2006 for the new Boissevain-Morton history book)
Eighty years ago our grandparent’s Gerhard and Helena Neufeld stepped off the train at Whitewater. They arrived with fifteen family members including parents and siblings in the middle of winter (January 25, 1925) to make a new life for themselves. Gerhard and Helena were newly weds at the time. They were part of a migration of Mennonites who were leaving southwest Russia due to the political turmoil engulfing their villages. Nobody in the group knew English. They had never experienced harsh winters and they were accustomed to living in close-knit villages, not on isolated farms as was the pattern on the Canadian prairies. But they knew how to garden, tend animals and grow field crops, and they knew they didn’t want to return to the chaos they had left behind. Being pregnant, they knew the next generation was going to depend on them to prepare the way for peace and prosperity in this land.
Perhaps the largest emptiness these new Canadians experienced was the lack of an existing Mennonite church in the area. They – along with twenty other Mennonite families that settled around Whitewater that year – were devoted to their faith and to the church as the primary organization in their lives. Mennonites had settled in Winkler by this time but none had ventured as far west as Whitewater. They immediately gathered the youth into a choir and asked the teachers in their midst to prepare weekly sermons. In this way they emboldened each other to persevere in the oft-grueling task of wresting a living from the northern prairie soil and temperament. By the spring of 1927 the Mennonite elders in the area – now representing seventy families – gathered to choose their own ministers. Our grandfather Gerhard (G.G.) Neufeld was one of the three selected. This calling determined his and grandma’s, and much of their children’s, life experience; being, as they were, so intimately taken up by the work of shaping a pioneer church.
Although the church work was demanding enough even in the early years, Gerhard and Helena managed to keep the extended family (they still lived with and cared for her mother) and farm going with their own labour. For the larger jobs, like threshing, building and cutting up meat, they cooperated with their neighbours. The early 1930’s came upon them quickly and offered them few comforts – especially when compared to the established lifestyle they had enjoyed in Russia. The cumulative debts incurred from animal and equipment purchases, travel expenses owed to the Canadian Pacific Railway plus having to pay their first few years of land payments twice (due to being swindled by an agent who took advantage of their limited knowledge of English) placed our Grandparent’s in a very depressed financial position. They had just learned to farm their new land when the dry years hit and so it wasn’t until 1935 that they harvested bountiful enough crops to be able to afford their land payments and luxuries like a car, washing machine, and radio. It wasn’t until 1940 that they were able to pay off the $380.55 travel debt they had taken on to get themselves and Oma’s mother to this country.
In his autobiography What God Has Done Grandpa expresses their appreciation for the broader community. “It struck us even then, as now, that Mr. Jones and Mr. Wilson dared to sell their large farms . . . along with all cattle and machinery to strangers like us without down payments. Now it was up to us to live up to the trust placed in us. At first we were closely observed by our neighbours. The attitude of our English (speaking) neighbours towards us was consistently friendly and benevolent. In the store as well as in business places we were given credit when we found we were unable to make cash payments. The concerns, what will we eat, how will we clothe ourselves, where will we get fuel, were sometimes very heavy. And yet the Lord provided for us and helped us in wonderful ways; we did not suffer.” Suffering of course is relative. Although none of the children ever remember going hungry, at least one member of the family will not eat fried potatoes and fruit soup (Pluma Mous) to this day – because Oma served way to much of this “poverty food”, as he put it, for his liking during the lean years.
Grandpa and Grandma’s first home, along with 7 other couples and some children, was in a drafty neglected farmhouse on a vacant farm on Section 5 two miles south of Whitewater. These families drew lots and then moved into farm homes in the area. Gerhard and Helena moved on to the quarter they were to farm for several years NW 8-3-21, which, because it includes part of the village of Whitewater, was only 110 acres in size. In 1935 they rented and moved to the Hill farm one mile to the west at SW 7-3-21. Ten years later after WWII, the Hill farm was purchased by the Soldier Resettlement Board and sold to Joe Wilson – a returning soldier. Opa and Oma then bought the Carlson farm (just north of the present day # 3 Hwy) on the north half of 31-2-21 and the next year they acquired a portion of the Engbrecht farm (just to the south across the highway) on the east half of 7-3-21. After retirement they moved to a little house in Whitewater, then to a home on Ducker in Boissevain, later to an apartment in Whitewater Place and finally to the Bethania Haus/Personal Care Home in Winnipeg. Wherever they lived they were the centre of much activity. Oma consistently had something on the stove and fresh baking ready. Opa always had a working study filled with books, plaques and photos.
In 1938 Gerhard was elected by four churches (Crystal City, Mather, Lena and Whitewater) to become their ‘Aeltester’ – ‘elder minister’ or most often translated as ‘Bishop’. The added preparations, meetings and travel this demanded, forced the family to hire young men to help with the farm work. This was before the days of paid ministers – although the church did pay for most travel expenses. The older children have memories of Oma going out to milk the cows and stook the grain. They managed in this way for a decade until George and Werner were old enough to take up the farm responsibilities. Helen, being the oldest child, had to take on major responsibilities to keep the family ship afloat while Grandma joined Grandpa on his church-work expeditions. Grandma was active in the Women’s Mission, which further intertwined family life with church life. During his time as Aeltester, Rev. G.G. saw the Mennonite churches under his charge grow to include congregations in Rivers, Ninga and Manitou. The total membership of this cluster of churches, at their peak, was seven hundred. Grandpa was in charge of all the baptisms, communions and many of the weddings and funerals in these congregations as well as responsible for mentoring the pastors. In 1948 Grandpa had the opportunity, without Grandma, to spend six months in Paraguay ministering to and encouraging Mennonites who had been displaced from Russia by WW II. Needless to say, he was taken up nearly full time with all the work his position entailed; leaving the family to manage the farm, for the most part, in his absence.
Grandpa and Grandma were not quick to speak of the comforts or the cruelty they had experienced in Russia. They set about doing what they had to as cheerfully as they could. As grandchildren we hardly ever heard Opa or Oma speak English – until some of us married non-German speaking partners. Grandma could brighten a family gathering with a witty interjection but was not given to sustained expressions of joy or to sitting idly for long. Serving those around her was both her lot as a pastor’s wife and a profound way of expressing her love. In her later years she was blessed by living near to her constant companion and sister Agatha who had married Opa’s brother Johann. Grandpa was comfortable yet modest in his station as patriarch and leader. He usually had a twinkle in his eye as he playfully pinched the grandchildren and asked about our health. He loved to take off up north, or to a local lake, to go fishing with his sons or his friends.
In early 1990’s as we were looking for water on our Turtle Mountain property we were fortunate to be able to engage the services of the elderly Joe Wilson, the same man who had taken over Opa and Oma’s farm after returning from WWII. As we parted company Mr Wilson turned to me and, with great affection in his voice, told me that he had enjoyed his relationship with our grandfather and would I please pass on his regards. Opa was a German speaking Mennonite pacifist. Mr Wilson had fought against the Germans in a bitter war and had been offered the land our grandparents farmed. Their relationship could so easily have been a sour one. Opa was in his last few years, mostly deaf and lonely for his peers, in a Winnipeg nursing home when I expressed his former neighbour’s greetings. He looked me straight in the eye and nodded his appreciation. These men both, it seems to me, knew what it takes to make a community strong.
Gerhard and Helena’s children (Helen, George, Werner, Marianne, and Bernie) knew their parents were stretched thin, but were told very little of their distant ancestral home. This second generation was given the security of family, farm, church and benevolent government. Because of the choices and self-sacrifice of their parent’s generation this second generation could set about exploring the wider world around them in ways for which their parents had little inclination or energy. They all, though, married youth from the Mennonite fold and established themselves firmly within the Mennonite church and faith. We, the third generation, grew up with the same securities along with added relationship, education and employment options. In their lifetime, Opa and Oma saw their family move from being tightly Mennonite (both in faith and culture) to many becoming loosely Mennonite and openly Canadian. There were many times they must have shaken their heads in disappointment, but we also felt their pride for many of our choices and for our strength of character.
In the mid 1900’s it was peculiar to see a Mennonite living or working in town. In their lifetime Opa and Oma saw fewer Mennonites choose farming as an occupation or to live near to their parents’ homes. Helen married a local farm boy (Peter Heide), had six children and farmed here until their retirement in Morden. Of their children, George and Randy remain in the community as farmers. George married a local farm girl (Tina Harms), had five children and began farming near Mountainside but soon moved to Boissevain to work at a service station, then to supervise the Turtle Mountain School Division transportation services and bus garage and now they are retired here. Two of their daughters have married farmers near Crystal City. Their son Peter lives and works for the Co-op in the community. Werner married Elsa Klassen from Homewood, had three children and farmed in the area (along with various other jobs) until they retired to Winnipeg. Two of their children, Vicki and David, farm in the area. Marianne married Rudy Pankratz from Winnipeg, had three children and worked as an accountant. Marianne later married Don Berry from Winnipeg and they have retired to a home near Gimli. Bernie married Margaret Klassen from Laird, Saskatchewan, had three children and worked as a professor and director of music for Mennonite schools and churches in Winnipeg. They have retired in Winnipeg. And so, of Gerhard and Helena’s five children, one still lives in the area. Of their twenty grandchildren, five choose to live in or near Boissevain. So far, only two of their great-grandchildren have established independent residences in the area.