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Celebrate Manitoba’s 150th by visiting the Mennonite Heritage Museum

Get a glimpse into the pioneer years of this group of early settlers

This summer or autumn, how about a trip to the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Steinbach?

With cooler weather now approaching, this would be a good time to walk through the museum and explore the many heritage buildings. It’s a fine way to celebrate Manitoba’s 150 years as a province.

Descendants of Mennonite pioneers will find this museum particularly intriguing, but others will also enjoy a visit and can compare the early buildings here with those from other parts of the province.

Visitors enter the museum via the Village Centre that houses several galleries, exhibits and a gift shop sporting a great variety of books and souvenirs. Be sure to pick up the site guide here, with a map showing the various buildings to explore. The galleries located in the centre itself explain and illustrate the story of the Russian Mennonites, from the 1500s to the present. Visitors can take a quick turn through these, or spend an hour or so reading the story in depth. One gallery offers changing displays. Last summer it had beautiful handmade quilts, while this year’s exhibit marks the centennial anniversary of the Mennonite Central Committee.

Leaving the Village Centre, you come to the museum’s main street with 20 or so buildings, including early homes, barns, schools, churches and various businesses.

One of the most interesting features is a small sod building (labelled No. 2 on the map). Called a semlin, this was the primitive home of the earliest Mennonite immigrants, beginning in 1874. A few minutes bending over inside certainly makes one appreciate today’s more spacious homes!

This low-slung sod building was the typical first home for many Mennonite homesteaders.
photo: Donna Gamache

From there, visitors might follow the street in numbered order, as the buildings are somewhat in historical sequence. For instance, No. 6 is the Hochfield House, built in 1877 of logs, and a big improvement over the sod house from just three years earlier.

Of particular interest to visitors are the housebarns, a somewhat later development. The Chortitz housebarn, No. 8, was built in 1892 in the village of Chortitz, south of Winkler. I was surprised to find that the house and barn are connected on both the ground floor and upper floor. It could be advantageous on a cold winter’s morning to be able to milk the cows without going outside! A second barn/house structure (Nos. 11 and 12) consists of the Waldheim House and the Peters barn, but these two were actually joined at the museum site.

This combination house and barn is joined at both levels, making winter chores more pleasant.
photo: Donna Gamache

The windmill draws the attention of everyone and is a feature often used on tourist advertisements (see photo at top). This fully functional windmill is a re- built model, constructed here in 2001 after an earlier one was destroyed by fire, but the very first Steinbach windmill was built in 1877. Not far away is a sawmill originally used in Riding Mountain National Park by conscientious objectors during the Second World War.

Be sure to visit the two schools — the Blumenhof Mennonite School built in 1885 on an early plan, and the Barkfield Public School which is more representative of Manitoba’s standardized school system. The museum also has two houses of worship, an “Old Colony” one built of logs in 1881, and the newer Lichtenau Church built in 1930.

Other heritage buildings include several businesses — a blacksmith shop, a print shop, and two general stores. The Reimer Store was built as the first general store in Steinbach and includes many antique items.

The Barkfield Public School is representative of a Manitoba standardized school.
photo: Donna Gamache

The antique farm equipment will also draw the interest of some visitors, while children will delight in visiting the pens housing farm animals including goats, chickens, sheep, rabbits and donkeys.

I would suggest that you plan your visit to include a stop at the Livery Barn. If you’re there around noon, you can enjoy a typical Mennonite lunch. One of the museum’s most popular attractions, most years, for tourists and locals alike, is the Sunday brunch. Unfortunately, due to this summer’s COVID restrictions, the brunch is not offered, but a variety of traditional foods are available in small portions. These include farmer’s sausage, cabbage borscht and vereniki (perogy), as well as rhubarb plautz for desert.

If you’ve walked all around the Heritage Village, and explored the buildings, your appetite should be ready for a delicious meal. It would make a fine conclusion to your visit, or a break in the middle of a lovely day exploring one facet of our province’s history.

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Museum hours until the end of September are from 9 to 5 Monday to Saturday (plus until 8 on Thursday), and 11:30 to 5 on Sundays. Beginning in October the museum will be open from Tuesday until Saturday, 9 to 5.

For more information visit their website at mennoniteheritagevillage.com.

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