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Western Manitoba Offers Glimpse Of History

We’ve taken this drive in late fall, but spring or summer would be equally good.

Begin your trip at Shoal Lake and drive north on Highway 21 to Oakburn; then drive five miles north on PR 577 and follow the signs west (left) for about three-quarters of a mile. Here, on the shore of Patterson Lake, is a monument erected in 1991 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada, plus a smaller stone monument erected in 1941 for the jubilee celebration. There is also a marker at the site for a mass grave for victims of a scarlet fever epidemic that struck the first group of Slavic families in the area.

The immigrants, arriving from Ukraine in May, 1898, had a terrible welcome to their new country. Three children had died during the railway journey across Canada from Halifax, and another 12 were buried in Strathclair, where they disembarked from the train. Here they were quarantined for a time in a barn, then sent off to camp beside Patterson Lake where they waited for homesteads to be allotted. While camped there, they were beset by heavy rainfall which turned to snow. With inadequate shelter, the scarlet fever took a terrible toll. Over the next two weeks 42 more children and three adults died. Only four children survived the journey from Ukraine.

About 2-1/2 miles north of this spot, back on PR 577, is the tiny settlement of Olha, the site of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, built in 1904. The first church in the area, it is recognizable by its Byzantine domes, called “banyas.” A smaller building off to the side houses the church bells and the church is a designated historic site. While in Olha, be sure to visit the Olha General Store for a variety of items – food, gas and a few hardware items – available seven days a week from 8 to 10. For close to 39 years, this store has been run by Marion Koltusky. (She closes one day a year – Remembrance Day.) Marion also has a key to the Olha church and will show visitors inside it.

From Olha, a short drive (a mile east, a mile south, and half a mile east) takes you to another interesting feature of the area. Follow signs over a Texas gate and onto a dirt road to the “Swistun Pioneer Settlement Park” to find two tent-shaped pole buildings, with straw roofs. Called buddas, these small structures were the first homes for the Ukrainian settlers, while they waited to have land surveyed and log cabins built. The two buddas here were built in 1978 by Michael Swistun who had lived in one as a child. The pioneers would have used sod and grass, but these were built using rye straw. It has proved durable and needed rethatching only once in 30 years. Take time to step inside one of these unique structures. The buddas and 80 acres of land were donated by Swistun as a historical site.

Another historical site nearby is the Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church built in the Seech district in 1937 by Michael Swistun and a crew of volunteers. To get there from the buddas, drive back through the pasture to the road, turn east (left) for half a mile, then north (left) for two miles, and east (right) for one more mile. Logs from nearby Riding Mountain National Park were used to build this church.

If you’re eager for still more history, another interesting stop is the village of Horod. From Sts. Peter and Paul Church, drive south two miles and turn left onto Road 114 N. Drive about eight miles east to Horod, a village established in 1899 by people from the West Ukraine and named for a village in their homeland. The school, church and hall from that time still remain.

Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church was built in 1922, while the one-room wood frame schoolhouse, #1364, opened in 1909. It remained open until consolidation with Elphinstone School in 1960. Over the years, 325 pupils and 36 teachers attended this school. The school has been restored as a museum and visitors are welcome. Inside the building four rows of students’ desks remain set up. The centre of the room is dominated by a large stove, and at the front is the teacher’s desk, set out with books and lesson plans. The school site still contains the original teacherage and privies, too – a fine sample of an earlier age, and a fitting conclusion for your trip back into history.

Or, if you enjoy checking out old churches and schools, there are still several more in the Olha-Seech-Tokaryk Lake area – witness to the fact that rural populations were once much greater than today. Such facilities were of necessity close together, for travel was usually with horses.

If you want to finish your loop tour, PR 354 south from Horod will take you to Elphinstone and then south to the Yellowhead Highway near Strathclair.

– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba

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