Look. Museums are great. I love museums. But this is no museum.
We first visited Neubergthal because we’d heard about the concerts in the Krahn Barn. I was curious. It was autumn, we turned onto the village’s one street, and parked near the dormant ice rink. People emerged from their vehicles and hurried across the street, into a beautifully restored red barn. We followed, and found ourselves upstairs in the loft, aglow with twinkle lights. There was coffee. Church pews. A warmly receptive, almost reverent audience. The occasional beer, quietly produced from the depths of a subversive purse (there’s something especially Mennonite about that). We’ve returned many times, and the performances are always exquisite. There in the loft we have seen and heard: Gretna singer-songwriter Paul Bergman (the truth and beauty of his song Creeping Charlie makes me cry), acclaimed author Armin Wiebe reading from his book and later playing the brommtopp, indie bands such as Lakes & Pines and The Wooden Sky… and so I know that truly, you can trust Margruite to book stellar talent and every event in the Krahn Barn is special.
The Krahn Barn is near the edge of the village. Originally, all the villager’s cattle grazed on communal pastures, and I’m assuming were housed in that barn? The herdsman lived in a house which is on the same yard as the Krahn Barn. Today the Herdsman House has been revived by the talent and efforts of artist Margruite Krahn. It’s the only Herdsman House left in North America. When I found out that it’s possible to book a stay there, I promptly did so. While it was one of the most comfortable nights-away-from-home ever, it also felt like we’d gone back in time.
Here in the East Reserve, the street village (darp) model had been abandoned almost as soon as the pioneering Mennonites arrived, probably due to the stony, swampy land, not very good for farming. But it was quite a different story in the West Reserve, where even today you’ll find many street villages amid lush fields where people continue to live. Neubergthal was selected as the best-preserved example of this kind of prairie settlement, and achieved National Historic Site status in 1989.
When the buildings are open and events are happening, you can see the Friesen Housebarn (it’s on all the Neubergthal postcards), the village schoolhouse, and there’s an interpretive centre currently being built. Also a picnic shelter. Often you can also see the Herdsman House. Take note of the fascinating floor patterns; a unique folk art. I think I’ve read somewhere that this was Mennonite women’s way of introducing colour and personality into their homes.
If you’d like to experience Neubergthal, you should probably check out neubergthalheritagefoundation.com first. In the summer the NHF offers all kinds of events, such as ice cream days, yoga in the village, culture days, you name it. In the winter, the interpretive buildings are closed entirely. If you visit when there is no event, and you haven’t arranged a private tour, you’ll have to settle for walking the one street and visiting the cemetery (which is striking, with giant poplars towering over the original settlers’ tombstones). But I’d highly recommend the private tour. You’ll have someone from the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation (likely a descendent of the original settlers) walk you through several buildings and tell you stories to truly connect you to the significance of this place, and what it represents.
One event that I’m especially sad to have missed is Storytelling in the Village. I read about this event in the April edition of Neubergthal Notes.
An excerpt: “For the Mennonite and the French peoples, the 1870’s were a time for new land and new expansions, new possibilities. For the Anishinabe people, the 1870’s began a time of retreat and downsizing.”
It’s not often that you hear much about the impact the Europeans’ arrival had on the Indigenous population… but to me this serves as an example of how the NHF is moving forward, by taking a brutally honest look back.
(Featured image: the Friesen Housebarn.)