Village News

A Community Meeting Place

During my years as a student at the Burwalde School, located between Winkler, Morden and Carman, the Burwalde School District was my primary community. While this had much to do with the fact that I spent every weekday in a classroom with all the other children living within a three mile radius of the school, there were other factors that contributed to the creation of this community.

   The school also served as a meeting place for the families of the school district. For years there was a Sunday School session at our school on Sunday mornings. Our mothers would gather there periodically for fellowship, food and service projects, as was common in many churches during that era. When our fathers dropped us off for classes, they would often pause to visit with each other on the schoolyard. This camaraderie extended to the farm yards and fields where they frequently helped each other with farm work. And from time to time, our teacher would plan a skating party or a family night at the school. The family night might include some Three Stooges films, skits by students, and music by parents. All of these activities built community.

   Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) plays a significant role in building community in Southeastern Manitoba. Our summer festival days attract 12,000 to 15,000 people to this place annually. On these days, young families come for a day of fun activities, such as barrel-train rides and a petting zoo, as well as a variety of yummy food options. Adults bring their lawn chairs and their bag of sunflower seeds and spend an afternoon enjoying our musical entertainment. Hundreds of volunteers of various ages donate one or more three-hour shifts as interpreters in our heritage buildings, short-order cooks, parking-lot attendants, cashiers and other helpers. It’s always gratifying to see our community come together like this to socialize and to serve.

   MHV is a gathering place on other days as well. From May through September, many people come to our Livery Barn Restaurant with colleagues, friends or family, particularly enjoying homemade soup and bread on Thursdays, brunch on Saturdays, or the lunch buffet on Sundays. Families enjoy various types of gatherings on our grounds, in the restaurant, or in one of our meeting rooms. Teachers bring students on field trips for hands-on history lessons and a healthy outdoor experience. Many people bring out-of-town friends and relatives to our museum to socialize, relax and enjoy a meal. Without question, MHV is a beautiful and versatile gathering place for thousands of people annually.

   On a more commercial level, our museum is also a meeting place for our business community. Many local organizations hold meetings, training sessions, picnics and parties in our meeting rooms and on the grounds. Businesses bring out-of-town clients to the Livery Barn Restaurant to introduce them to local culture and cuisine.

   MHV has become a popular wedding venue. Weddings are held on the grounds, in our heritage churches or barns, and even on the deck of the windmill. Our auditorium is frequently used for wedding receptions, sometimes for entire wedding celebrations. Our Village and our campus in general frequently provide the setting for wedding and family photo-sessions.

   In times past, the Burwalde School and many other country schools of that era created strong community ties which generated strength and health within their communities. Similarly MHV, along with other local organizations, creates community strength and health by offering meeting spaces and occasions to meet. The added benefit is that MHV itself becomes stronger and healthier as these activities generate interest and income to fund ongoing museum operations.

Calendar of Events

March 22 – 7:30 PM, MHV Annual General Meeting

Village News

A Community Place

   Seven years at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) have helped me understand what a significant “community centre” this museum is. MHV depends on our community for volunteer help, cash and in-kind donations, and goodwill in various forms. In turn, the museum gives back to our community through preservation of local history, education of school-age children and adult visitors, community festivals, and the broader economic spinoffs of tourism generated by this facility.

   In just two months we will again open the Village to the public, offering our full complement of features from May through September. One of the most popular features among our youngest guests is the barnyard with all of its animals.

   Every year we bring in chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs, sheep, goats, cows, donkeys and horses. Wherever possible, we try to bring in both mature and young animals. Feeding these birds and animals through the wire cages is a popular (albeit somewhat scary) activity among children. Most children rarely have the opportunity to interact with farm animals, so this is a unique learning experience for them.

   Our interactive barnyard is successful primarily because of the support of community individuals and businesses. Many of the animals that spend the summer with us are owned by others and are generously here on loan. Len and Jane Penner provide us with goats and also house some chickens for us through the winter. Tim Schmidt and James Barkman bring us a couple of sheep with their lambs. Not many people have donkeys, but Robert Krentz does, and he always brings us a donkey with her newborn foal, as well as a cow with a calf. Juergen Schubert loans us two of his Texas Longhorns, who spend the summer here playing the role of a team of oxen. Ed Peters provides us with a few hogs, which are fed here all summer and then “participate” in the butchering demonstration at Fall on the Farm in September. Ivor Asham from Birdshill Park Ranch loans us a team of heavy horses, which provides many hours of horse-drawn wagon rides for our guests.

   All of these animals must be fed substantially more than the tufts of grass and dandelion leaves that the children feed them. Here’s where a number of community businesses pitch in. We appreciate the generosity of Eastman Feeds, Maple Leaf Agrifarms, Steinbach Hatchery, Masterfeeds, Unger Feeds and Pet Valu, who all provide nutrition for our barnyard residents, keeping them healthy and happy. We also thank Henry Martens, Corneil Blatz, Ron Andres, Ray Lange and others who have provided baled hay to round out the diets.

   Our community provides us with animals and feed; we provide housing and care; and our community comes here to enjoy and learn from the animals. Without a supporting constituency, a museum could not exist, nor would there even be a purpose for having one.

Calendar of Events

March 6 – 7:00 PM, Vespers Service

March 22 – 7:30 PM, MHV Annual General Meeting

Village News

VN 2016 02 25 Alexander and Anna Schilstra croppedThe Schilstra Collection

   Since the end of November, when I joined the staff at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV), I have been working with the Schilstra Collection. The Schilstra family (alternately spelled “Shilstra”) were not Mennonites themselves but served the Mennonite community around Steinbach for many years.

   Drs. Alexander J. (1872-1962) and Anna McConnell Schilstra (1871-1942) were the first licensed medical doctors in the Steinbach area. They moved here from Gretna in 1909 and stayed for two years until they moved to British Columbia in 1911. Following the First World War, they returned to Steinbach. Alexander acted as the first Health Officer of the Hanover Municipality from about 1918-1936. Anna was a licensed medical doctor and practiced medicine under her husband's license, often assisting him as a consultant and anesthetist. She was much in demand for her services in the areas of childbirth and childcare. Whereas her husband was known to be rough and demanding, Anna was remembered for her kindness.

   They had two children, Marie (1906-1989) and Urquhart (1908-1984). Marie’s education was halted when she needed to drop out of the University of Manitoba, reportedly due to mental-health issues. She lived with her parents until they passed away and likely took over the ownership of the family home until her death. Urquhart married Lillian Poleson of St. Boniface (1914-1972), moved to Toronto, and became a Hawaiian steel-guitar virtuoso by the stage name of Uncle Tom Alexander. He did not get along with his father and only reconciled with him after his mother's death in 1942. He died on a Toronto golf course in 1986.

   The Schilstra Collection is large and varied. There are letters, medical textbooks, and appointment books. If you follow us on Facebook (, you'll probably have seen a picture of their obstetrical record for 1936-37. There are also a surprising number of books on how to raise poultry. Personal items include gloves that probably belonged to Dr. Anna, as well as Dr. Alexander's Medical Corps uniforms from the First World War. Perhaps most poignant are the books and toys that belonged to the Schilstra children.

   None of the items in the collection have been donated by the Schilstras themselves. They came to MHV as donations from several different people but primarily from the Reimer family. The Schilstra property on First Street (just east of Elmdale Street and Friesen Avenue) was purchased by P.J. Reimer after Marie Schilstra's death in 1989. He cleared out the house before it was demolished. Items of interest which he had removed were then donated to Mennonite Heritage Village by his family after his death in the mid-1990s.

   We are currently in the process of researching and re-organizing this collection. How interesting it is to learn about the lives of people from the very objects they owned!

Calendar of Events

March 22 – 7:30 PM; MHV Annual General Meeting

Village News

Volunteers Needed

   Are you looking for opportunities to volunteer in the community? Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) has many options for you to consider, requiring a variety of different skills and time commitments. Our museum would not be able to function were it not for the involvement of many volunteers.

   We have a number of projects that could be adopted by a person or a group and worked at over a period of time. One such project would be repairing and painting the wooden fences in the Village. These fences have aged, and in some cases poles need to be pushed back into the ground, boards need to be replaced, and entire fences need to be repainted. This is clearly a summer job and would make an ideal family or small-group project.

   Cutting grass is almost a daily task at MHV at the height of the season. Two riding mowers make the task quite comfortable and efficient. The need is greatest in spring and early summer when the grass grows so rapidly. It’s a great way to enjoy nature and do meaningful work at the same time.

   In the months of May and June our Education Program will require up to a dozen volunteers daily to serve as interpreters in various of our heritage buildings. The shifts are typically about three hours long and take place between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. These roles are suitable for people who enjoy interacting with school-aged children.

   MHV owns a number of very old trucks and tractors. Unfortunately many of these vintage units have not had the attention they need in the recent past and are not operational. We would like to be able to start them, drive them around the Village from time to time, and maybe even drive some of them in the Pioneer Days parade. They need someone with mechanical skills and available time to cajole them into operation again. We have a heated shop for this kind of work.

   We have an electronic database in which we keep records of MHV members, donors and volunteers. Maintaining this database is an ongoing role that involves editing contact information to note address changes, recording donations, receipting donations at the end of the year, sending membership renewal notices, and running reports for staff as needed. This role would involve the equivalent of two or three days per month.

   The MHV Auxiliary is a strong and valuable partner to MHV, carrying out a variety of activities to raise funds for the museum. These activities include catering, quilting, volunteering as interpreters, guiding tours, and serving special food items at MHV festivals, such as waffles with vanilla sauce, rollkuchen with watermelon, and apple fritters. The Auxiliary is always looking for new members to join their ranks.

   There are a number of benefits to volunteering at MHV, not the least of which is the opportunity to spend time in a warm and friendly workplace, doing work that has value both to MHV and to our community. During the months when the Livery Barn Restaurant is operational, volunteers can purchase meals for half price on days when they are volunteering. Last but not least, registered volunteers receive a season pass to enter the museum as often as they wish without paying admission.

   The opportunities at MHV to make a difference as a volunteer go well beyond these few examples. Anyone wanting to enrich their lives with this type of service should contact Anne Toews at [email protected] or 204-326-9661.

Village News

The Value in Artifacts

   Recently a friend dropped by Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) to donate a couple of beautiful old shawls to the museum. When I inquired about the stories accompanying them, I was informed that their history was unknown, as they had been purchased at a garage sale.

   Because we didn’t know their origins or the story of their journey prior to the garage sale, we happily and gratefully added those lovely shawls to our MHV costume collection. This is not an artifact collection but rather an assortment of “props” to be used by our volunteer interpreters when hosting guests in one of our heritage buildings. Costumes enhance the authenticity of the experience for our guests.

   In contrast, let’s look at the Waldheim House, the first heritage building to be brought to the MHV site and currently the oldest building in our Village. A file was created for this building when it first arrived here, and anything we’ve learned about it since then has been added to the file.

   Last summer we were awarded $100,000 in funding by the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program. This funding will contribute to the cost of carrying out major restorative work to this 140-year-old building. The log walls are in need of some repairs, and the thatched roof needs to be replaced.

   At the time we received this funding, we wrote about the house in this column to inform our constituency of the work being undertaken. In response to the column we have heard from members of the Julius Dyck family, the family that built the Waldheim House. They have graciously provided us with new information about the house, including a sketched floor plan from the past, complete with furnishings as they were located at that time, and a picture of a wood stove that provided heat for the house in a previous era.

   This is valuable information to add to our database. It assists us in developing complete and accurate stories for the file and for use in our interpretive activities. Also valuable is the connection with the family members, who will provide whatever information they have. Our Curator, Andrea Dyck, also made a trip to the Waldheim Cemetery recently to examine the final resting place of the original owners, acquiring further information about this family.

   We like to tell stories about our artifacts and the lives of the people who owned them. These stories can only be as accurate as the best information we have. We try to glean that information from donors when we take ownership of the article. This is why we discourage people from simply dropping artifacts off at the front desk. Instead, we ask people who are interested in donating an artifact to gather as much background information about it as they can and then arrange to meet with our curators. This allows time for our curators to learn and document some of the history related to the object being donated and is also a good opportunity for both MHV and the donor to complete the necessary paperwork to legally transfer ownership of the donated object.

   We would encourage anyone possessing documented and verifiable information about any artifact that has been donated to MHV to pass it on to us. We want to maintain accurate information in our files. Storytelling at family gatherings and cleaning up boxes of old items and documents can yield new historical information; please share it with us.

Louis Riel Day

Mennonite Heritage Village will be closed on Monday, February 15, to observe Louis Riel Day.

Village News

   Every year, January 25 marks a significant anniversary for Anabaptists, those who have chosen to be baptized as adults. It was on that day in 1525 that George Blaurock was “re-baptized,” upon his own request, by Conrad Grebel at a prayer meeting in Zurich, attended by a number of radical reformers.

   As Alexandra Kroeger wrote in this column last week, Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517 by challenging some of the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church of the day. This took place in a period when the church essentially controlled the state.

   Both the church and the law required that infants be baptized shortly after birth. However, the group of radical reformers had come to the conclusion that baptism should be a choice made by an adult on the basis of one’s faith. Hence the re-baptism of Blaurock on January 25 as described above.

   This action introduced two of the basic tenets that set Anabaptists apart from other Christian faith systems: baptism by choice on the confession of one’s faith, and the separation of church and state.

   These radical departures from what was then the norm created much conflict and suffering. Society at that time tended to be considerably less tolerant than our Western culture is today. As a result, these reformers and many of their followers suffered significant persecution and even martyrdom.

   This persecution caused some of the early Anabaptists to seek refuge in other countries, such as Poland and Prussia at that time. That exodus became the first of a several migrations undertaken by Anabaptists, always in search of freedom to live out their faith according to their beliefs.

   Clearly there was a notable lack of grace in that era when people risked losing their lives because of something they believed. Few of us in the West have any sense of what it would be like to publicly declare our beliefs and convictions at the risk of being tortured or killed.

   Hopefully we are able to worship in churches where the teaching most aligns with our personal understandings of scripture. And hopefully we are able to enjoy fellowship and friendships with others even when their understanding of scripture differs from ours. These current freedoms are, at least in part, the result of the courage of our forebears, the radical reformers of the sixteenth century. We are grateful for, and inspired by, their courage.

Calendar of Events

February 7: Vespers Service – 7:00 PM

Village News

   We have just received our first donation of the new year, a 1753 three-Pfennig coin from Münster, Germany. In 1753 there weren't any Mennonites in the city of Münster, as the group now known as Russian Mennonites were in Prussia at the time, and the Swiss-German Mennonites were further south in Germany. So what does this coin have to do with Mennonites? To answer that question, we have to go back more than two hundred years earlier, to a time before there were any “Mennonites.”

   In 1517, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the All-Saints Church in Wittenburg. What began as an honest attempt to reform the Church soon turned into a religious schism that divided Catholics and Protestants. At the time, there was no concept of religious freedom as we understand it; if the leader of a country was Catholic, the entire country had to be Catholic. The same went for Protestant countries (so named because they protested the moral decline of the Church). The Anabaptists emerged in the 1520s in Switzerland. They agreed with the Protestants on many things, but went another step further. Where both Catholics and Protestants practiced infant baptism, the Anabaptists believed that Christians should only be baptized upon an adult confession of faith.

   Despite opposition from the Catholics and Protestants, the Anabaptist movement grew in areas which are now the Netherlands, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Most Anabaptists were peaceful, but one sect believed that Christ would soon return to Earth and destroy everyone who wasn't Anabaptist. This is where things got out of hand. In order to hasten Christ's return, members of this radical sect took control of the city of Münster in early 1534 and declared it the "New Jerusalem." Their new leaders made everyone get re-baptized and declared a community of goods (common ownership of everything). In response, the Bishop of Münster laid siege to the city. Mounting Münsterite casualties is likely why the leaders soon instituted polygamy. Theoretically, this was to better follow the example of the Old-Testament patriarchs, but practically, there were many more women than men by this time.

   As it turned out, the kingdom of New Jerusalem was not to be. The siege was broken on June 24, 1535, and the leaders were soon arrested and executed. But this is where the Mennonite connection to our 1753 coin comes in, speaking to this violent episode in early Anabaptist history. The significance is that it was in response to this Münster Rebellion that Menno Simons finally agreed to become a leader of the peaceful Anabaptists in the Netherlands. Although an ordained Catholic priest, he withdrew from the Catholic Church in January 1536, and his followers soon became known as Mennists, then Menninists, and eventually as Mennonites. 

   That's what a 1753 Pfennig from Münster has to do with Mennonite history. Not too bad for a single coin!

Village News

   It’s unlikely that anyone would be surprised to learn that Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) is a member of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada (MHSC). This society is made up of six provincially based Mennonite historical societies, Mennonite denominational conferences and their archives, Mennonite Central Committee, and several other Mennonite institutions such as MHV. MHSC members meet together only once a year for a series of committee meetings, a board meeting and the Annual General Meeting. This year’s meetings were held last weekend in Abbotsford, BC.

   One of the key elements of these meetings is to share information about projects and activities of the various member agencies and institutions. The sharing of ideas, methods and projects is both interesting and inspiring. One of the highlights this year was touring the new premises of the Mennonite Historical Society of BC, where we learned about the way they function and the initiatives they are busy with.

   Other member organizations shared updates as well. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) is a website operated by the Faith and Life Commission of the Mennonite World Conference, with MHSC being one of the representatives on their Management Board. This online resource of Mennonite information, begun in 1996, now has some 16,000 articles.

   The Archive Committee has been very busy during the last few years developing an online photo database. This tool is the Mennonite Archival Image Database (MAID) and is designed to store archival photos, also making them available in digital form for use in historical research projects. In just a few years, approximately 12,000 images have been entered into the database. It can be found at

   In years past, the MHSC has commissioned the writing of three books in a series called “Mennonites in Canada.” The first two, covering the period from 1786 to 1940, are both written by the late Frank H. Epp. The third volume brings the story up to 1970 and is written by Ted Regehr. MHSC will now begin to explore the possibility of a fourth “Mennonites in Canada” volume to cover more recent history. The MHSC board made a decision to distribute remaining copies of the current books free of charge through the provincial societies. This will be a great opportunity for the public to acquire copies of some very thorough and interesting Canadian Mennonite history books.

   Our meetings were held in the new Mennonite Heritage Museum in the heart of Abbotsford. This museum seeks to tell the Mennonite story going back to the 16th century, as our own museum does, but with a specific focus on the contribution of Mennonites in British Columbia. This fine facility also houses the Mennonite Historical Society of BC Archives and is sure to be a popular destination for locals as well as visitors to that city. We welcome their partnership with us in preserving and telling these stories.

   This year’s meeting also included a change in leadership personnel. Lucille Mar from Quebec stepped down as President of MHSC after four years in that role, and Richard Thiessen from BC was elected to replace her. Next year’s meetings will be held in Winnipeg.

Calendar of Events

February 7: Vespers Service – 7:00 PM

Village News

   Klaas Reimer built Steinbach’s first General Store in 1884, ten years after the first group of Mennonites arrived in this area. It causes one to speculate how people purchased supplies, food and other items, during those ten years. A trip to Winnipeg with an ox cart or even a team of horses and wagon surely was a more significant undertaking in that era than a trip to Winnipeg is today. Nobody stopped at the grocery store for a jug of milk and a loaf of bread on the way home from work.

   The original Klaas Reimer store is a valued part of our building collection on our Main Street. As Mr. Reimer’s business grew he needed more space and built a two-story building, very much like the General Store that is currently located right beside the Reimer Store at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV). This new store became known as the “Central Store”.

   Village stores were a supplier of many of the physical necessities of life to the area’s residents, on occasion including a postal service. As a result the stores also became a meeting place for the sharing of all kinds of information.

   The General Store in our village is not an original building. It’s a replica building patterned after a general store of the early 1900’s, very likely Mr. Reimer’s “Central Store.” While the appearance of today’s store resembles the original store, the function is somewhat different. Our General Store is not a place to purchase the necessities of life, other than perhaps an ice-cream Revel on a very hot day, but rather a place to get souvenirs and hand-made crafts. It is, in-deed, somewhat of a meeting place where people come to browse and talk with the store-keeper and learn more about our village.

   The store-keepers are the artisans who make the crafts that are sold in the store. Last year there were 14 who participated, volunteering one day at a time to staff the store. Being the storekeeper involves selling all the items in the store which includes all items contributed by each artisan and many different types of candy contributed by the museum. The General Store is also the candy store. Each artisan receives a monthly cheque for the product that sold in the previous month.

   This is a win-win situation where the artisans have low-cost space to sell their wares to a large international audience and the museum gets volunteers to staff the store. This is also a great opportunity for our guests to browse for gifts and souvenirs in an early twentieth century setting.

   We are currently receiving applications from artisans who would like to join the program. Anyone interested in participating should apply to Jo-Ann Friesen at [email protected] on or before February 1, 2016. There are still spaces available.

Calendar of Events

February 7: Vespers Service – 7:00 PM

Village News

   One of my Christmas gifts this year was a book by Sarah Klassen, The Wittenbergs: A Novel. This 400-page volume is very engaging, as the setting moves from the late 20th century to the early 20th century and back again many times.

   A pivotal character, Marie Wittenberg, is a survivor of the atrocities that many Mennonites (and others, for that matter) experienced at the hands of bandits in post-World War I Russia. Her granddaughter Mia, a Grade 12 student in Winnipeg, is a talented writer and spends many hours sitting with “GranMarie,” listening to her stories from Russia and writing them as part of her English assignment.

   The Wittenberg family seems to have been dealt a disproportionate share of grief, trauma and dysfunction, beginning with Marie’s horrible childhood experiences in Russia. While the intensity of these life challenges helped make the story engaging, I found myself wishing the family might get a break every now and then.

   As it turns out, Mia quickly becomes the family historian. Despite all of Marie’s terrible experiences in the land of her birth, the rest of her family has remained woefully uninformed about their family history. Only when Mia begins to write her grandmother’s stories do they become aware of many of her experiences. For example, they were surprised to learn that some Mennonites gave up their long-held position regarding pacifism and resorted to taking up arms to try to protect themselves and their families from the pillaging, rape and murder inflicted on them by the troops of anarchists. This initiative became known as the SelbstSchutz or self-defense. Marie’s stories, shared through Mia’s writing, begin to prompt additional exploration into the family’s past.

   It struck me that the fictional Wittenberg family may not be unique in their ignorance of their own history. For much of my life I’ve been so preoccupied with the present and the future that I’ve not spent much time looking into the past. And for most of that time I didn’t really understand the value of being acquainted with one’s past.

   Perhaps it’s logical that many people only develop an interest in their history later in life. But I find it quite delightful when I encounter young people, in their teens or twenties or thirties, who have a profound interest in where they came from and how they got here.

   The mission of Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) is “to preserve and exhibit, for present and future generations, the experience and the story of the Russian Mennonites and their contributions to Manitoba.” Our museum works hard to keep people of all ages connected with their history. That means telling the stories in many ways that will engage many age groups. That is our challenge.

   The Wittenbergs: A Novel is published by Turnstone Press and is available at our gift shop, Village Books and Gifts, for $21.00.

The views expressed in Community Blogs are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by is Steinbach's only source for community news and information such as weather and classifieds.

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.