A Glimpse at Village Life Through an Insider’s Lens

At one time, the Rural Municipalities of Hanover, Rhineland, and Stanley had been called the East and West Mennonite Reserves, riddled with Mennonite street villages. While many of these villages still exist in the RMs of Rhineland and Stanley, the majority of these villages in the East Reserve rapidly faded into oblivion. I often attempt to visit the sites of these villages, and typically only find cemeteries remaining — if I’m lucky. Even the majority of the villages in yantzied (across the Red River) are much changed from what they would have been in 1900.

That’s why I’m grateful for the ability to capture a glimpse of normal life in those early years, by paging through Mennonite Village Photography: Views From Manitoba 1890-1940.

This book features the photography of four young men who lived in four different villages… and to be honest, in spite of this previous post, I still had not sat down with the book and read it. I like the pay careful attention to books, and this makes me quite slow. I’d been saving this book, because I felt that I might be able to actually identify some people, if I paid enough attention.

It’s important to note this quote from the forward of the book:

“Their (the Mennonites) arrival and settlement on lands the government had set aside for them is one small chapter in the much larger and complicated history of Indigenous dispossession, treaty negotiation, colonization, and the Europeanization of Canada as a whole.”

Side note: I expect to see more addressing Indigenous dispossession and European colonization in upcoming publications.

I’m not sure how many people read the forward to books. Do you? I felt it was particularly important to read the forward to this book because it’s a picture book, with no interpretations. Just large, beautifully selected photographs from an era we rarely are able to see. This is especially true as many Mennonites frowned upon the notion of photography at the time, which makes these four young men whose work is featured here, pioneers in a different way. I wonder if any women had access to cameras? I would love to see their pictures.

One more note from the forward:

“While the collections have varied histories, they are all alike in having lain in almost-forgotten storage. It is impossible to know how many similar collections were lost…”

The idea of such photographs being lost forever hits hard.

Now, here are my random, disjointed thoughts as I’ve paged through this exquisite book.

The image of the Altbergthal village road draws me in , not just the two women laughing together in close, fashionable 1920s camaraderie, but the way the village street winds and bends with a house in the distance.

Though the hunting brigade on Buffalo Creek is striking — there’s so much going on, including a clear enjoyment of guns, which is surprising. I’d thought Mennonites were anti-gun for some reason… at least, back in the day. Evidently some were leaving this notion behind fairly early.

Then I come to the Schoenweise section. At first when I read that one of these photographers was from Schoenweise, I envisioned my recent late summer visit to the West Reserve village of Schoenweise, but in reading up on the details of Johann E. Funk, I realized he was from the East Reserve. Wait… all that remains of this village are two headstones lain flat in the ditch alongside a driveway, covered with grass.

I went back the post I’d written about it. Those headstones belong to Maria and Catharina Funk.

The picture I’m looking at: Maria and Helena Funk.

Maria, who died in 1910. She’s pictured here. Wow. I stare at her, the photograph is taking me into the moment when she was young and alive.

I turn the page and am suddenly face-to-face with Katharina Funk. Whether it’s Catharina or Katharina, clearly the other headstone belongs to her. The dates match. I flip between looking at Katharina… and her headstone.

Time is such a funny thing. We think it moves slowly… but in truth I think it goes fast. Even when we think it’s not.

I continue.

It’s astonishing that P.G. Hamm’s pictures had been stored in open milk crates in the barn’s milkroom. I wonder how many others have been similarly “stored” and unintentionally demolished?

I find it so interesting to see the Neubergthal store in the early 1900s — the house part is familiar, as it still stands, but the store is gone. Now I understand what it had looked like.

The Neubergthal pig butchering is quite a slice-of-life image. How many people are in this picture? So many. I think my favourite part is the fellow taking a swig out of the bottle. It would be neat if someone would attempt to recreate this image.

This book contains more than one photo of siblings next to coffins. What a fascinating subject. I’m lost in their eyes, so uncertain, sad, uncomfortable.

The two gents cheersing their alcohol, strikes me as familiar. I’ve seen a similar picture in a collection of old family photos from yantzied, featuring my great-grandfather in his youth. I must find it, and compare.

The house and store appears again in the background of an auction shot. I love pictures like this, I get a real sense of the village layout, and feel I’m stepping into village life well over a century past.

And then, at last, I page up to the final photographer’s works, belonging to Heinrich D. Fast from Gruenfeld! The Kleefelder in me is curious.

As I look at H.D. Fast’s pictures, I find myself mostly taken in by the surrounding topography. The trees, the bush.

These are photographs that we would never have access to otherwise. The Mennonite Historic Arts Committee is responsible for finding these extraordinary photographs and bringing them to light. This book would make an excellent Christmas gift. You can purchase the book online, here.

Related posts: 

Mennonite Village Photography: A Marvelous New Book and Exhibit!

This Is No Cemetery: Finding Schoenweise, ER

Exploring Old Grunefeld with Henry Fast