Featured is the origin of Mennonite Heritage Village as told by Lawrence Klippenstein.
The thought of establishing a Manitoba Mennonite museum 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 endeavors 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.
In 1957 Gerhard Ens and his colleagues began to call for a strong heritage saving effort among all Manitoba Mennonites.
On April, 1958 a large board came into being, with Ens and Gerhard Lohrenz leading the fledgling organization. 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.
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.