Urry’s Grunthal history book delights & disappoints

Oof, I’d better explain that title. Okay look, I went through a bit of an expectation roller coaster with this book (On Stony Ground). When I first heard James Urry had spent YEARS writing a history of Grunthal, I was very excited. I mean… I feel like each Mennonite village area (where people have continued to live and haven’t entirely abandoned) is very interesting. Each has its own flavour. And Grunthal’s has been… interesting. As has my own personal experience with Grunthal, which I think may take a lifetime of working through. And I think on some level I expected this scholar from New Zealand to unpack all that for me. And of course he did not.

This is an academic book. I knew that with my brain. But my heart was hoping for something a little more juicy, ha.

Not to say that Urry doesn’t spill the tea. He does. Much of his research had been simply having conversations with people in Grunthal in the 1970s. And some of what he learned in those conversations, makes it into this book. Like the story about the man whose wife was very good at milking cows, so when she was very sick and couldn’t get out of bed, he brought the cow to her, with the expectation/hope/demand that she milk that cow despite her ailment.

I mean, that’s interesting stuff. Feels true.

I was pleased to read about my great-grandfather having taught at Goodwill school in Grunthal before Spencer. (More on this another time.)

On page 118 I learned that the highway between Grunthal and St. Pierre was largely constructed in the 1930s by Grunthal farmers “who would often spend days away from their farms, sleeping out in the countryside.” I have driven that little highway (which is cracking significantly by now) so many times, and never thought about who built it. I kind of love imagining those farmers having to camp out, out there… though I suppose it was tough and not an adventure like how I’m imagining it.

In reading this book, it made me think about my grandma, how she was a girl in the Grunthal area. I never really thought of her that way. Perhaps that’s because she was a Spencer girl, or perhaps it’s because, as Urry said, Grunthal had to be rebuilt. And perhaps around the time my grandma’s family rolled into the region at the start of the Depression, it had been largely vacated. It began as a village in the 1870s but then emptied out in the 1920s when many Kanadier left for Mexico. Some Kanadier stayed. Then Russlaender arrived and rebuilt Grunthal into a larger service centre. So the village did not die like so many others.

I’d never thought of Grunthal as a re-built, transformed community. So this too, is interesting.

But anyway, my grandma. She was a girl in the region in the 1930s. During the Depression. That’s when her family moved to Spencer, from the Altona area. I think perhaps that migration happened because they had been part of the Bergthalers… though not attending that church. It was a colony thing, harking back to the colony of origin in Russia. Anyway. These are pieces I had not put together before, that Spencer was a Bergthaler area near Grunthal. And what being new to the area in the 1930s would have meant and been like. (Urry mentions it in passing, just one short line: “members of the Bergthaler congregation from the West Reserve who arrived in the 1930s.” How many Bergthalers were there in this move? I’d long wondered what made the Heinrichs family make this move, and this provides some info, albeit brief, because Bergthalers were not what this book was about. Even so.)

Also she hauled cordwood. Urry talks about people in Grunthal getting by in the ’30s by hauling cordwood. And, there was no hydro power, and the winters are brutal. Everyone needed cordwood. These are things that had not occurred to me before! (Seems obvious, but I need a historian/anthropologist to piece it together for me.)

Speaking of hydro… those Manitoba Power Commision ads I mentioned in my Green & Gold post? There was a reason they were intensely targeting rural areas with ads telling them to use electricity in the 1950s — after the war, there weren’t enough workers, but the economy was boosted, it was time for prosperity — hydro power could be used to milk your cows. So you could produce more. Everyone should produce more. Faster. By using the electricity they had just connected to rural communities. That kind of idea.

I had never thought about what was driving these changes. Just two short decades later, I was born onto an electrified dairy farm in this area. And to my mind, it just was. I felt like it had always been that way. But no!

It’s fascinating to learn the very specific larger factors that influenced how my life played out. (Similar to many others in the region.) So while I take amusement (and in some cases shock) from the ads the Manitoba Power Commission posted in the Green & Gold, I now understand the context a bit more.

(To be continued…)