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New atlas documents Mennonite history

Two amateur historians pull together a comprehensive record of their communities in the East Reserve

When Ernie Braun was a kid growing up near Steinbach, people often drew their identities from the local villages where they were raised.

So-and-so lived just east of Schonsee. Another person came from Alt-Bergfeld. Braun himself was from Friedrichsthal. The individual identities of Mennonites were inextricably tied to the places they came from.

Braun, a retired high school teacher, came from a family that took its history seriously. When he discovered an authoritative map of the area had his home village in the wrong place, he decided someone had to do it right.

Braun’s rekindled interest in old Mennonite villages led to his involvement in the Hanover Steinbach Historical Society, the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society and eventually his own historical research.

The result was the 256-page Historical Atlas of the East Reserve, an illustrated reference book profiling the history of the eastern Manitoba region populated by Mennonite immigrants over 140 years ago.

The book, published last year by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, is co-edited by Braun and Glen Klassen, a retired University of Manitoba microbiology professor.

The full-colour, coffee table-style volume is an exhaustive compendium of historical maps and documents, archival photos, settlements, burial plots, aerial composites and written text describing the Rat River Mennonite Reserve, as the settlement was originally called.

Besides combing archives for documents and historical information, Braun and Klassen did extensive fieldwork, walking over sites, checking on-the-ground details and documenting them definitively.

In the past, local Mennonite histories tended to be dense black and white efforts, heavy on text and light on illustrations. But when Braun and Klassen received a donated set of coloured 1872 survey maps of the region, they decided on a full-colour illustrated format for their book. However, they couldn’t afford a professional layout artist, so Klassen became a self-taught graphic designer, taking care of all the maps. Braun handled the photos and wrote most of the text.

Klassen also contributed work on the cemeteries of Hanover municipality, which he had been researching on his own at the time.

Between the two of them, Braun and Klassen ended up doing most of the archival and field research, the writing, cartography, book design, proofreading and marketing.

The project, administered by the EastMenn Historical Committee, got underway in 2010. Braun and Klassen began working full time on it in 2012 and continued virtually non-stop until publication in October 2015. Since then, the book has undergone three printings and sold 600 copies.

Preserving the historical record

Braun says the driving force behind the project was the realization that, if this information weren’t documented, it would be lost forever, along with an important chunk of Manitoba history.

“That was one of the primary motivations — if our generation doesn’t do this, most of the sources are either going to get lost, die or disappear,” he said in a recent interview.

The book details the village lands and township profiles of the region settled by Mennonites fleeing oppression in Russia. The first refugees arrived by riverboat at the mouth of the Rat River near what is now Ste. Agathe in late July 1874. With them they brought their religion, their language and the names of villages they had left behind. These they transplanted into their new land as they settled and established communities.

Recreating church and village life as they had known it in Russia was important for Mennonites, historically a wandering people with no actual homeland, says Conrad Stoesz, archivist for both the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies and the Mennonite Heritage Centre.

Having a reference work such as this atlas is a way for Mennonites to locate themselves in time and place as “sojourners on this planet,” says Stoesz.

“Our memory is tied to symbols which help us to remember events and people. A place can be a very powerful symbol that connects us to family and formational events in our lives.”

Braun and Klassen acknowledge they are not professional historians. Nonetheless, their atlas has been nominated for the Manitoba Historical Society’s Margaret McWilliams Award as best local history of the year. The winner will be announced this fall.

The book earlier this year received a Manitoba Day Award from the Association for Manitoba Archives.

Combing through obscure historical records unearthed some rare information, such as a (mostly incorrect) map by Henry Jacobson, a spy sent by the federal government in 1888-89 to see how the Mennonites were doing.

But the greatest sense of discovery came from readers fascinated by the detail and historical background.

Klassen says people would come to him and say, “My grandfather grew up in that village.”

Braun recalls a Chinese friend who examined the book and exclaimed in amazement, “My family has 3,000 years of history. We have nothing like this.”

In the end, the most important aspect of the atlas may be its legacy as a social history, both archival and personal, according to Klassen.

“It’s something my grandchildren will see when I’m gone,” he says.

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