On Enigmatic Place-Names & Getting It Right: 5 Questions with Atlas Author Ernie Braun

Since retiring from his teaching career, Ernie Braun has delved deep into local history, researching and co-writing the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve with Glen Klassen, serving on the Chortitz Heritage Church Committee and the EastMenn Historical Committee, as well as consulting for various other historical groups and publishing articles in various Mennonite periodicals. The last few years were spent editing and updating two of Jack Thiessen’s Low German dictionaries. Ernie lives with his wife Doreen near Tourond. They will be celebrating their 50 wedding anniversary in July!

1. What made you first become interested in history?

Three things conspired to stimulate my interest in history:

– first: when I was a child my mother would mention enigmatic place-names for the area we lived in but none of them appeared on any map. Her stories were laced with names like Schoensee, Weidenfeld, Kronsgard, Gnadenfeld, Alt-Bergfeld and so on (we spoke Low German so the pronunciation was slightly different). For me, these names were charged with all kinds of meaning: the mystery of the past, a sense of loss/goneness, the hint of momentous events, the suggestions of abandonment; namely, all that which characterizes what once was but has now been forgotten. As a Mennonite I would never have thought of these as ghost villages, since that concept was not in my worldview, but in a way that is what they were to me. To me the past was a powerful and meaningful dimension that I associated with these names, and therefore I always wanted to know more about it.

– secondly: my Grade 9 history teacher made the course absolutely fascinating: for the first time I began to understand that we are what we are today because of the events of the past, in Ancient History, in European history, in Canadian history and in local history. My natural bent towards an appreciation of history was affirmed at an adult level, and further strengthened. This teacher, Jake Epp, himself later took an active part in creating the history of Canada when he served as a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

– thirdly: in the late 1960s our Braun family published a family tree book, a book that became identified with the history of our particular Braun family line which originated with one orphaned boy, and developed into a family with thousands of descendants. The sense of being at the end of a long sequence of Jacob Brauns, with the last eldest son being my Dad who was tragically killed in a traffic accident at age 40 gave me a new appreciation of being at the mercy of times and events, over which I had no control, but at least I wanted to know what they were.

2. What’s the most interesting historical site in Hanover?

For me that is easy: Alt-Bergfeld, a small village southwest of Grunthal, where my father grew up. This village was sold in the early 1920s when the inhabitants decided to emigrate to Paraguay, because of the loss of control over their schools and language. This village had retained its open-field, strip-farming design until it was sold. It was one of the last villages in Manitoba to persist in the old Strassendorf format, to the point of having the herdsman call for the cattle every morning, and take them to pasture. Every farmer had long narrow strips of farmland arranged so that everybody had equal portions of good and not-so-good land. The village had house-barns on both sides of the street right from the beginning, one of only two villages like that in the East Reserve. The village with its houses along the street was sold to two speculators, complete with cattle, machinery, over 3000 acres of land, so that suddenly, there was an entire village, hauntingly empty. The saga of what happened to the empty village is the subject of my next article.

3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the atlas?

Probably getting it right! When one undertakes a project of this size, the sheer immensity of detail is staggering. For one thing, many people had already created a map of the East Reserve, and there were serious problems with each of them. My task was to get the facts right this time. This meant that Glen Klassen and I needed to confirm some things at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and I needed to walk over any site of a village that was in doubt, in this way confirming or not whether the village had ever been there. The other chapters meant spending hundreds of hours poring over microfilm and township registers, and combing through everything that I could find about the East Reserve, much of it in German, and some of it in gothic script, so I taught myself how to read that too. In the end, Glen and I just wanted to get it right.

4. Where do you think people should start if they’re interested in learning about local history?

The place to start is at home. Parents are an amazing reservoir of information that they don’t even know that they know, or how significant it is for the person who had not already lived it. Grandparents are even better. Then talk to uncles and aunts, and seniors in the area. Then, to get a larger context, start reading the material already published and available online. Drive through the area with a parent/grandparent and have them point out significant places. And TAKE NOTES AND DATE THEM!

5. What’s your go-to pie at a soup and pie fundraiser?

There is only one go-to pie in my world: Saskatoon pie (I don’t mean blueberry pie). The end of June is a magical time, when Saskatoons appear in the wild, and one of the great pleasures of life is to brave poison ivy, ants, and sunburn in the glorious adventure of living off the land and getting next winter’s pie into the deepfreeze. In Low German these berries are called Jüne-bäa(re), which is a translation of “June berries”, but also means “your berries”. I take that very seriously.


“This summer is a great opportunity to explore Manitoba. To do it right, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve, available at the MHV book store in Steinbach, The Mennonite Post in Steinbach, and the Mennonite Heritage Centre bookstore in Winnipeg.” – Erin Unger