The Brandordnung Story

   In July 1941 my dad was milking a cow in his barn in the Neuanlage settlement during a thunderstorm. Lightning struck the barn and shot down the metal stanchions, killing the cow outright and stunning Dad. We don’t know how long he lay there, but eventually he regained consciousness and staggered to the house, white as a ghost.

   We had never known exactly when this happened, but I recently saw the early records of something called the Brandordnung. This was a fire-insurance scheme in effect from when the Mennonites first arrived to the middle of the 20th century. And there it was. A claim of $15 for the cow in 1941. Now we knew.

   The Brandordnung wasn’t really an insurance company in the modern sense, although it did evolve into one later. It was a clever scheme with no up-front premiums. Each participant would assess the value of his or her own buildings and register this with the local Brandshultz (village fire manager), who would forward this data to the Brandaeltester. This person had the data for virtually all Mennonite holdings in the province. Later the scheme was extended to Mennonite communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan.

   After a fire, the damage would be assessed, and to get the money for the claim, all of the Brandshultzes would have to go around the villages and collect levies proportional to each family’s self-assessment.

   The scheme was so clever because when making the self-assessment the farmer was caught between two constraints. If he assessed too high, he would be stuck with high levies after someone else’s fire. If he assessed too low and had a fire himself, he would have a low pay-out. So he would have to self-assess judiciously.

   Some of the Brandordnung records have survived to the present. These consist of eight ledgers with handwritten gothic-script entries. They will be deposited in the EMC Archives at the Mennonite Heritage Centre (MHC) in Winnipeg, but they have also now been digitized and are available electronically at the MHC (8.1 Gb).

   One benefit of these records is that we can trace the economic history of each village according to changing assessments. This approach is especially important for the 19th century, when participation in the Brandordnung was nearly universal among Manitoba Mennonites.

   Let’s have a look at how assessments changed in the East Reserve Kleine Gemeinde villages from 1875 to 1900. For the first six years or so, all the villages are roughly comparable. Then the smaller villages start to disappear from the records, and rising assessments occur mainly in the villages in the north-east township: Steinbach, Blumenort, Blumenhof, and Neuanlage.

   The most obvious observation is the meteoric rise of Steinbach’s assessment. It rises more than 10-fold in those 20 years, while the other successful villages barely make it to 2-fold. Why? The obvious answer is that commercial activity was consolidated there, at the expense of the other villages in the East Reserve. But why did this happen in Steinbach? One reason might be that some Mennonites collaborated with the Clear Springs people who lived in the outskirts of the village and were quite progressive.

   The preservation of old records such as these helps to remind us that cooperative behaviour within a trusting community is the norm for societies that care deeply for the unfortunates in their midst. My father had a large family, and I’m sure he felt supported by the community when the local Brandshultz delivered the $15 in cash for the loss of his cow.

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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.