Mennonites and the East Reserve: Reclaiming the Land

by Orlando Hiebert, Tourond , Manitoba

Mennonites were no strangers to reclaiming the land. In the Netherlands it was reclaiming from the sea. In East Prussia/Poland it was a battle against the sea to the north and the frequent flooding of the Vistula River coming from the south. In the East Reserve of southern Manitoba there was no sea and no rivers, but there were creeks, bush and stones. To many of the settlers the East Reserve appeared rather inhospitable when compared to the gently rolling treeless steppes of south Russia where they had just come from. If one traces the route on which the delegates of 1873 were taken it becomes obvious that they were only shown some of the better land in the East Reserve. Disappointment with the land is evidenced by the fact that within the first five years nearly half the settlers picked up stakes and moved to the West Reserve where the land was of better quality. In a few cases whole villages ceased to exist.

The Manning creek, with at least 4 tributaries that drained Twps. 7-6e, 6-6e as well as waters coming from Labroquerie, discharged its waters into the NE of Twp7-5e. The Chortitz creek was much smaller and drained water from the NW of Twp 6-6e and discharged its waters into Twp 7-5e. Penner’s creek, now called South Lateral, drained water from the east side of Twp 5-6e and flowed in a NW direction to discharge its waters into Twp 7-5e. Lastly there was the Tourond creek which originated in the RM of Labroquerie, coursed through Twps 5-6e, 5-5e, Twp 6-5e and then discharged its waters into Twp 7-4e.

What all of these creeks had in common was that they flowed from SE to NW, from poorer land toward some of the better land in the East Reserve. Also it appears that at 800 ft above sea level their natural channels ended with the result that the water spread out and flooded the flat lands of Twps. 7-5e and 7-4e. What may not have been fully realised at the time was that the underlying reason for these flooding problems in the north of the reserve was the elevation difference between the south east and the north west of the reserve. The south east is 200 ft higher than the North West corner. This is over a distance of 30 miles with 175 ft drop occurring in just 20 miles. By comparison the Red River drops 221 ft from Fargo ND to Winnipeg, a distance of 221 miles. 

A small trackhoe digging stones south of the Rosengard ridge in August 2014. Photo Credit: Orlando Hiebert.

A small trackhoe digging stones south of the Rosengard ridge in August 2014. Photo Credit: Orlando Hiebert.

In 1888 and again in 1899 (twp 4-6e) the Dominion Government transferred 35 quarter sections to the Province of Manitoba. This land, mostly in twp 7-4e, was deemed unsuitable for settlement. It was then soon bought up by land speculators. Around 1900, with the arrival of the Ukrainians and the Lutheran Germans, some of the land in townships 6,5,4, land which the Mennonites had rejected, was settled by these people.

At about the same time the Provincial government was aware that economically the East Reserve was lagging behind the West Reserve and that something needed to be done. As a result Drainage District number 5 was established in 1906. This meant that government money, equipment and expertise were available to do what the RM of Hanover had hitherto been unable to afford. Three projects, the Manning canal, the D20 and the Tourond Canal were constructed and completed by 1908.

These new drains were of great benefit, but subsequent years proved they had some design flaws. They were narrow with steep sides which made maintenance impossible. They were soon grown in with willows and cat tails. The spoil pile alongside also had the effect of trapping snow. The result was that the drains were still clogged with snow when the water would arrive from the south which caused the water to overflow the drain. These drains were later improved in the 1940s and 50s by making them wider with more sloping sides and dikes or roads on both sides, because at times the water within the drain was higher than the surrounding land. In 1994 with the help a federal Infrastructure Grant the RM of Hanover excavated and improved 100 miles of rural ditches. In the last ten years some farmers are using large tractor-driven pumps to dewater their fields by pumping the water over the dike into the major drains, much as was done in Holland and the Vistula Delta.

The evolution of and the role of machines in the reclaiming of land

For approximately the first 30 years this reclaiming of the land was done by human and horse power. The Hanover Council minutes indicated that much of its time was spent organising statute labour (sharwerk) to build roads and bridges. These were essential to linking the villages.  The first machines used for this were the Scoop pulled by two horses and the larger Fresno pulled by four horses. 

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On the left is an example of a Fresno scraper being used in a demonstration of traditional equipment the American badlands in 2006. Photo Credit: Lloyd Griswald, http://www.wilderness.net. The scoop on the right was used the East Reserve earlier than the Fresno scraper and was not nearly as efficient. Photo Credit: Orlando Hiebert.

While these implements were adequate for building low level roads they were not well suited for digging deep canals with steep sides. Around 1926 H.I. Fast and Sons of Kleefeld started using their newly built ditcher to do drainage and road building in various parts of the municipality. This machine could dig a ditch and deposit the dirt in a windrow which would then be leveled to form a road. The later local use of the more versatile drag line performed the same function. 

Machines made providing drainage on a large scale possible. Famous Winnipeg photography L.B. Foote took this posed shot of one of the massive drag lines used to dig major drainage canals. Photo Credit: Manitoba Archives, Foote, 208, 1914.

Machines made providing drainage on a large scale possible. Famous Winnipeg photographer L.B. Foote took this posed shot of one of the massive drag lines used to dig major drainage canals. Photo Credit: Manitoba Archives, Foote, 208, 1914.

In the 1980s the Track Hoe Excavator appeared in the south eastern part of Manitoba. This machine revolutionized rural drainage. It could build flat bottom ditches with nice sloping sides and do this in almost any conditions, even while sitting in three feet of water. It could even go through swamps. Together with laser guidance very accurate grades could be achieved. In 1994 the RM of Hanover, with a federal grant, used this machine to dig and improve 100 miles of rural drainage. 

Modern trackhoe creating drainage. Photo Credit: Orlando Hiebert

Modern trackhoe creating drainage. Photo Credit: Orlando Hiebert

The challenge of the bush

At first the only means of clearing the bush was to fell the trees using an axe and then dragging the felled trees off the land with horses. But this left the stumps which had to be dug out, pulled out with horses, burnt out, or in some cases blown out with dynamite. In the mid to late 1940s, Fast Bros. of Blumenort were cutting down bush in the area. They had attached a V plow with a sharp cutting edge which would shear off the trees at ground level to a TD 9 bulldozer. This worked well in lighter stands of trees, but in heavier stands this unit lacked the power to push its way through. In typical Mennonite fashion, this problem was solved by putting another TD 9 behind the first one and connecting the two by means of a push bar. Later as bigger bulldozers became available, Fast Bros. used two TD 25s. A heavy logging chain with a very heavy steel ball in the middle strung between the two bulldozers was used. With this unit a wide swath of bush could be flattened in a single pass. With all the trees laid in one orientation, pushing them into windrows was much easier. If this was done when the ground was not frozen, the majority of the trees were simply up-ended with roots and all, so that when the trees were pushed into windrows the roots came along too. 

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Bush Breaker plowing. Image Credit: Orlando Hiebert.

The stones and rocks.

In clearing stones and rocks the story is much the same as with clearing the bush. Rocks and stones were found primarily in townships 6,5, and 4. Those stones that could be handled by hand were loaded onto a stone boat drawn by horses and carted off to the edge of a field. Later as bulldozers became available the bigger rocks were dug out and often pushed into piles.

A 1952 image from a newspaper story about the Fast Brothers of Giroux removing stones from a field near Friedensfeld, southeast of Steinbach. Image Credit: Orlando Hiebert.

A 1952 image from a newspaper story about the Fast Brothers of Giroux removing stones from a field near Friedensfeld, southeast of Steinbach. Image Credit: Orlando Hiebert.

Even now when one tours these townships, one sees bluffs of brush and trees scattered in an otherwise open field. One can be quite certain that there is a rock pile in them. The later use of the track hoe excavator which could dig smaller, deeper holes faster allowed most of these rocks to be buried.  The picture of breaking new soil south of Steinbach reveals what our pioneers were up against. Even today in 2014 this small track hoe is still being used to deal with the rock problem. 

Machines made providing drainage on a large scale possible. Famous Winnipeg photography L.B. Foote took this posed shot of one of the massive drag lines used to dig major drainage canals. Photo Credit: Manitoba Archives, Foote, 208, 1914.

Machines made providing drainage on a large scale possible. Famous Winnipeg photographer L.B. Foote took this posed shot of one of the massive drag lines used to dig major drainage canals. Photo Credit: Manitoba Archives, Foote, 208, 1914.

The Results

Over the last 140 years farming has diversified and prospered. Grain and hay production can now be found throughout the East Reserve. The RM of Hanover now has the largest concentration of hog production in the province. Industries have sprung up as well. For this we owe a debt of gratitude to the perseverance of our pioneer forefathers.

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