Without artifacts, stories are difficult to ground. MHV visitors may be told that the Klaas Reimer Store was the first shop opened in Steinbach, but when they actually step inside the store and can see the goods on display – shaving mugs, horse collars, ink bottles, coffee tins, candlesticks, and a pot-belly stove - it’s another story altogether.
Stories lose tangibility without artifacts, and without stories artifacts lose significance. Together they create an experience. This relationship of artifact and story is why we cannot accept artifacts based upon their “coolness factor” alone. The more information, context, and personal histories there are explaining the artifact, the more significant and unique it becomes.
Last week we received a box stuffed with a host of artifacts including toys, clothes, a lace purse, wallet, portrait photo, 3 padlocks, 5 spoons, 2 German books on needlework, and a complete monogram set. Luckily a name and phone number were included, and I was able to inquire as to the story behind these items.
They belonged to Justina Hildebrand, daughter of Jacob and Katharina Hildebrand. This couple lived in Omsk, Siberia, where they owned and operated a lumber mill. They lived comfortably until Stalin’s rise to power in the 1920s. They fled to Manitoba and lived in Morden, in time settling in Winnipeg. Lawrence Klippenstein visited Omsk and the Hildebrand family home during his travels in Siberia. He noted that they were one of the few Mennonite families living in Omsk, while most Mennonites lived in surrounding villages. Lawrence also remarked that Justina must have been a proficient seamstress as the needlework books were quite advanced.
The history of collecting is an interesting consideration in re-telling history. All of what we know of the past has been sculpted by what people wrote down, what people saved, and above all, what people valued – not only at the time the object or information originated but also for all the time between that time and this.
A recent donation from Iris Reimer Nowakowski reflects the history of Mennonites collecting Mennonite artifacts. She provided a wonderfully detailed story of her father, Bernhardt (Ben) Heinrich Wiebe Reimer (1904-1986), along with her donation of a wooden cradle.
“In 1964, the H.W. Reimer store, which had done business on Main Street since the 1880s, was sold. My father, the youngest of the four siblings who had been the last members of the Heinrich Willms Reimer family to operate it, was somewhat at a loss as to how to spend his days. He loved to buy and sell, so for a time he scoured the Southeast of Manitoba in search of Mennonite antiques. This cradle was one of his findings.
“Ben was the youngest son of Heinrich W. Reimer of Steinbach and Anna Wiebe of Old Barkfield. Heinrich arrived in Steinbach in 1874 as a young boy along with his father Klaas, his mother, Katharina Willms, and some of the twenty-five children that Klaas was eventually going to father during his three marriages.
“My father loved his Mennonite heritage and always spoke of his ancestry in terms of ‘we’. In his retirement years he was an enthusiastic guide at this [Mennonite Heritage Village] Museum until the spring of 1986. In deciding what to do with this cradle I felt that it would honour my father most to donate it to this museum. After all, a big part of his heart was here.”