By Lawrence Klippenstein

The Mennonite families who emigrated to the Manitoba East Reserve from New Russia (later Ukraine) in the mid-1870s had almost all lived in established homes of farming communities before coming to Canada. Here in Manitoba they had to begin over again “from scratch” because many of them were poverty stricken to begin with, and very few could bring along the money they got for selling property back home. Thus they became “pioneers” in a strange land in an area not all fit for farming profitably, that had not been under cultivation before. The new settlement on this reserve called for community life in all its aspects to be reconstructed as they were able, with very limited resources available for a decade or more at least.

For Manitoba Mennonites the story of these pioneering beginnings, challenging for all and extremely difficult for many, is deeply lodged in the heritage legacy left for their descendants. None of the grandchildren, great- and great-great-grandchildren experienced these times personally. Most of them do not know much about those start-up times, and some know nothing at all.

Anniversary celebrations held by the newcomers helped to keep the memory of this past alive. At the fiftieth anniversary in 1924 and the 1949 seventy-fifth gathering, a number of the first pioneering arrivals were still living. By then a number of them had come to see the importance of trying to retain a memory of these beginnings and what followed. Talk about building a museum to help make this possible was already then in the air.

Land for erecting a museum became available already in 1961, and the first pioneer log cabin may have arrived on the new grounds as early as 1963, certainly already the next year. More research is needed to know when community events of commemoration came into being. Undoubtedly the already-existing collection of Mr. John C. Reimer, the first curator, was likely moved to the site of the museum during these years.

Very soon other pioneer structures also became part of a “village,” which an early Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society president, J.J.Reimer, proposed should become the heart of a Mennonite “heritage village” museum. A focal point for all future activities and planning came with the construction of an administration and artifact building which opened its doors in 1967. It is not clear when the first event publicized under the name “Pioneer Days” originated. It has been suggested however that the concept took firm root after 1967, with accelerated development, some say, in 1976-77 under the leadership of then-curator, Ed Krahn and his volunteer predecessors.

Key early organizers for regular annual “Pioneer Days” have been listed as Eugene Derksen, Bill Giesbrecht, Harold Unger and Jake Derksen, with help from people like John Andres, the miller; Gerhard Ens as historian; and John Friesen, consultant for the major expansion of 1990. Supporting them was a quickly mounting number of volunteers that soon reached into the hundreds, as it does today.

During the early years of what is today called the museum’s “signature festival,” ideas emerged for having a giant auction sale, developing sample farm activities like plowing and steam-engine-driven threshing, displaying farm animals, demonstrating household activities such as butter making and bread baking, and furnishing the growing set of old buildings (now more than 30) with period furniture.

The organization of a women’s auxiliary (now MHV Auxiliary) provided a very significant new dimension to museum offerings, with the stronger featuring of home activities such as baking bread (and schnetje), quilt making, and preparation of so-called “Mennonite ethnic foods.” The creation of the Livery Barn Restaurant highlighted these ethnic foods, and a short-order booth features a latter-day specialty of waffles and sauce. Food sales have been a major feature of recent festivals, and some recent upgrading has heightened that contribution even more.

More recent programming has brought a stronger emphasis on the arts – book launches, drama productions, art and other exhibits (such as the current Windmills: Sailing the Skies), and music under a big tent, often brought by both contemporary and traditional (Saengerfest) groups. Tours of the now greatly expanded campus, with its specialized galleries, monuments such as those of Jakob Hoeppner and Johann Bartsch (very early land scouts in New Russia), and other features have helped to draw in crowds of visitors each year. An emphasis on entertainment for children, such as a petting zoo, is showing attendance by more families each year.

The weekend format of “Pioneer Days,” now in existence for several decades, is a proven pattern that still brings thousands (in good weather) to the four-day event. A heavy-horse show and an expanded gift shop and bookstore also add to the variety of teaching, entertainment, and learning about the Mennonite “way” (both pioneer and more modern adaptations) that we are seeking to present in our “big” event every year. Special literature and special publications also show up in the “Pioneer Days” setting regularly.

The four-day “Pioneer Day” get-togethers need to be experienced to get a real “description” of what they are all about. We would like to think there is something for everyone but remain open to new suggestions on how to really make it that, while remaining true to the Mennonite “pioneer” perspective that still pervades the “days” each year.

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.

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