Lightening Strikes & Tornadoes: Exploring Schonthal!

One magical day this past summer, I met my friend Audrey’s dad, Mr. Hiebert. Sasha, Audrey, and I were heading out to learn about Kronsthal, and she told me he could help. I wrote a blog post about it, here.

But Kronsthal’s not the only place we explored that evening!

While we were driving around the New Bothwell area, I had opened the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve (as I do) and asked Mr. Hiebert if he knew of any remaining evidence of the village of Schonthal. 

He told me that yes, back in 1981 he had been approached by a fellow who lived far away and was determined to visit his ancestor who was buried here. 

Apparently someone had told this person exactly how to locate the grave of their ancestor, even though they didn’t live here and didn’t know the area. 

Their search led them here, near a row of trees near the canal. 

The four of us eagerly climbed out of the vehicle. 

Mr. Hiebert stated this would be a bit of an endeavour, and then remarked, “I feel like La Verendrye!” (French explorer in and around Manitoba.) I loved that.

Apparently there was only one tombstone remaining, so we went off in search of it.

Sasha and I seemed to linger around the huge old trees… I kept imagining I’d find the gravestone here.

But suddenly Audrey was calling to us, “FOUND IT!” 

My favourite photo of Audrey and her dad.

I hurried over and found Audrey and her dad peering intently at something, heads close together. 

The tombstone! 

And so, this is all that really remains of Schonthal. 

Pretty much impossible to read…

In East Reserve Reflections, I read that several Doerksens hailing from Schonthal went on to serve the Sommerfeld Church. In 1887, Abraham Doerksen (jr.) moved to Sommerfeld near Altona and served as the bishop for 36 years. David Doerksen moved to Herbert, Saskatchewan where he served the Sommerfelder Church for 40 years, mostly as bishop. Heinrich Doerksen stuck closer to home in Schonthal, serving the Chortitzer Church in Chortitz for 46 years. And Rev. Cornelius Friesen who was born on the Bergthal Colony in South Russia in 1838, immigrated to Manitoba in the 1870s, and settled in Schonthal (with his family, the Doerksens); he often walked the four miles to Chortitz to preach.

The idea that people would walk four miles and apparently think nothing of it, stirs my imagination. I picture him walking those four miles east, toward the rising sun, walking by neighbours and friends and shouting greetings. I always imagine friendly things like this.

Of course, I had to consult the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve! I learned this village was likely named for Schonthal village in the Bergthal Colony in South Russia. Apparently Abraham Doerksen Sr. had owned a successful manufacturing business, prior to immigration (in 1875, I’m guessing). And he ended up here. For a few brief years, the village of Schonthal shined… and then tragedy struck. The Atlas says, “On July 1, 1881 the village was destroyed by a tornado.” By 1889, the village was officially dissolved.

According to Regina Doerksen Neufeld (in Historical Sketches of the East Reserve), nine Schonthal buildings had been swept into the marsh half a mile east of the village. “The residents promptly rebuilt their homes with lumber cut from trees in the dense pine forest of Tannenau” (halfway between Randolph and Kleefeld).

What the WHAT?!? “Dense pine forest of Tannenau”?! Look at this blog post I wrote about Tannenau in Novemver 2018. LOOK! There are NO forests there. There are no trees whatsoever. All gone. Just fields. I personally feel that a dense pine forest would be so much lovelier.

Why are there no other headstones left? There are graves under these grasses.

Historical Sketches of the East Reserve 1874-1910 contains two sketches relating to Schoenthal village.

The first was written by William H. Rempel. From his writing, I learned that the Epp family of this village endured some “calamities”, which were listed in a diary written by Heinrich Doerksen. These include lightening striking the Epp home in April 1879, Epp’s 5-year-old daughter perishing from injuries resulting from her clothing catching fire in February 1880, and in early 1883 Diphtheria claimed the lives of three Epp children.

The second sketch was written by Regina Doerksen Neufeld, about her grandfather, Abraham Doerksen (b. 1827). Apparently back in South Russia, his mother had been “kidnapped by gypsies and later rescued by the Hoeppner family”. Settled in Schonthal, East Reserve, Abraham was elected to be the “purchasing agent” for the village, which meant he had to go to Winnipeg regularly to buy supplies for the villagers: “He preferred to walk the thirty miles to Winnipeg. Such a trip usually took him away from his family for a week at a time.” Oh my goodness! I was wondering how he could have gotten the goods back to Schonthal — but there was my answer: he shipped them by steamboat to the landing site, where the supplies would be picked up!

From this write-up, I also learned that “Mrs. Henry Doerksen” (okay but seriously, what was her name? and yes it does matter) of Schonthal was struck by lightening and died in 1878.

Is it just me, or did Schonthal have more than its share of tragic lightening strikes? And then that tornado.

Unmarked Schonthal cemetery, East Reserve.

Oh, and one more thing… here are the people buried in this cemetery!