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Romantic Canada
Chapter XXVI Mine Host—The Mennonite

ONE morning in autumn we left Winnipeg by a C.P.R. train to Morden with the avowed intention of visiting the Mennonites of that section, getting acquainted with them and seeing their community life from the inside. On arriving in Morden we were somewhat at a loss to find ourselves far away from the typical Mennonite village to which we had been recommended by a young teacher in a "new-Canadian" school in another part of the Province. When we had asked her about the Mennonites, their habits and customs, she had told us as much as she knew of their quaint ways and at the end added: "They have their faults no doubt, and many of their customs are strange, but I shall never forget how kind they were to us children when our mother died."

I had treasured this in my memory because if these people were a people ready to be good to children, I had no doubt but they would show the same milk of human kindness toward—visitors.

In Morden, the mayor kindly lent us a time-yellowed chart of "The Old Mennonite Reserve", and steering by this we left Morden in the early afternoon on a branch line of railroad running south. It was an obliging sort of coach-train and set us down some six miles out of town at a grain elevator. The boys "running" the elevator got out their Ford and drove us over to Ostervick, which was our destination. Thus the day, begun in Winnipeg, found us in the late afternoon driving down a tree-lined Mennonite village street, with the prairie-wind scattering golden, autumn leaves in the car and under our wheels.

The Mennonite village here is the most perfect bit of camouflage in the world. It is located in a wood and as no house is visible it differs in no respect from any of the bluffs in sight, until you come right upon it. Even in the wood the houses are all set back from the street and a little tree-lined lane leads into the yards. Nothing can surpass the privacy thus obtained for each family. We turned in at the lane leading to David de Fehr's house and when we presented the teacher's letter of introduction, David and his wife laughed at our venture, looked us over, looked at each other, and agreed to take us in. This, briefly, was the manner of our reception into a Mennonite home with the opportunity of seeing at close quarters the life in a Mennonite village on the "Old Reserve".

I think the first surprise came to us, after the idyllic situation of the village, in the large, substantial houses. Most of them were painted, usually white, all having Dutch shutters painted a Delft-blue.

Most of the houses are long, one-storey affairs with shingled roofs and are not unlike "Cape Cod houses" of the early type. The de Fehr home was a new, two-storey cottage with the characteristic Dutch shutters at the downstairs windows. It joined the barn by a separate room where water is pumped up for the stock in the winter. We visited a number of houses, drove through other villages and were at Morden and Winkler, but I saw only one house that might be said to be in the barn, after the manner of the old-time farm-houses in France, although more or less all appeared to be connected with the barn so that you could step out of one into the other without going out-of-doors. At Mr. de Fehr's a fair white door led into the barn from a room with pumpkin-yellow floors which looked as if they had just been painted—as they look down in Quebec. There were, by way of furniture in the room, which might be called the winter-kitchen, two lounges, a table, two or three chairs, and a rocker in which David de Fehr sat to read his mail, including the different newspapers to which he subscribes.

In addition to this room, on the first floor, were a large parlour, a smaller room used as an office, and the family bedroom. There were three bedrooms upstairs. In our room, in addition to the bed with its heavy homemade all-wool comforters, a large Russian chest with black, iron handles, occupied one side.

I speak of the room on the ground floor as a winter-kitchen because the summer-kitchen is a dear little white cabin in the yard, under the Manitoba maples. A Mennonite custom which went at once to our hearts is this of outside-kitchens for summer use, we having seen so many in the West Indies and the South. The little summer-kitchen here was a house of magic from the cooking angle. There Mrs. de Fehr prepared all her long list of Mennonite dishes, and at her large stove with her kitchen apron about her, she was the typical housewife — an example to her sisters scattered far and wide all over Canada.

Every Mennonite gate had its family group at night standing inside or sitting on the fence to watch the cows come home. Evidently it is an event of which, in all these years, they've never grown tired. And a little variety creeps into it every night in watching how the cows will carry their tails, for on this hangs the weather for the next twenty-four hours according to Mennonite lore. "If the cows run with their tails straight out behind them when they come home in the evening, it is a sign of rain, and if they come with their tails down it is a sign of fair weather." The manner of their going in the morning apparently doesn't count, probably because the cows are then too sleepy to know more than that their tails are behind them.

The Mennonites, though primarily grain-growers, are generally interested in stock. They keep horses, cows, pigs, chickens, geese. A few own automobiles, but these are not "old kirk" folk. The deFehrs are Old Church people, and were to us even more interesting on that account, as we felt that our visit was with the real old-timers. The Old Church folk have little points of dress which aim at simplicity. Men of the Old Church do not wear a tie or a white collar, and the married women wear black caps. Otherwise the house-life seemed little different from any other prosperous farmer's, believing in the simple, old-time rural life. One aim of Mennonite life, it seems, is to keep its people loyal to the soil. And this is a fundamental thing in these days of farm-need.

Madam de Fehr is a great spinner. Indeed, in the winter the spinning wheel fills in much of the time in every home. But in summer there's the cooking and the horses and other live stock to attend to. The Mennonite women in all the villages lend a hand with the horses, grooming them and getting them harnessed, ready to go in the wagon or to draw plough or harvester. We had not noted this work so much among other foreign women. The women work very capably and easily with the horses and it doesn't seem hard work to them. They are at their best, however, in the little kitchen, before the door of which the wind was strewing the golden leaves when we went for afternoon—no, not tea—coffee! It is a Mennonite custom to have coffee and bread-and-butter and perhaps jam, every afternoon at four o'clock. The men leave off ploughing and come in from the fields for their cup of this refreshing hot drink. Mr. de Fehr said the Mennonites think coffee very stimulating and good for a man that works. I fear that all our Canadian farmers are not so well looked after by their wives in the cold autumn afternoons at the ploughing! The coffee is ground fresh in the little mill over the stove at every making — a pointer for any who wish to adopt this custom.

At dusk the cows come home — two hundred and twenty-two of them — in the village of Ostervick. Supper is at seven. And at night while we were at table the herdsman came to make his report to Mr. de Fehr, who this year holds the office of head overseer of all the herd. The holder of this office is elected for one year. He keeps the books, knows just how many cows each villager has, and pays the herdsman out of the several kinds of grain —so much of each—and the money that each owner pays per head. The arrival of the herdsman disclosed the fact that the cows are assembled each morning at the blowing of a horn after six o'clock. We were up betimes that first morning and every morning after to watch a scene of old-world life which we believe can be witnessed nowhere else in Canada.

The piper starts from one end of the village, blowing the horn or bugle, as he goes, down the whole length of the street—carpeted at that time with the golden autumn leaves! When he has passed the entire length he turns around, and the cows come out of the first gate, the second, the third, as fast as the rats followed the piper of Hamelin. Our gate happened to be near the centre of the village so we had a box-seat at this strange performance.

Of course before the cows come out of each picturesque lane it means that an army of milkmaids have been up betimes getting them milked and ready to come upon the stage at the psychological moment of the herder's arrival at that point. It spoke well for the girls that few cows were late. Unless one has witnessed this strange foreign sight and heard the bugler coming on, with the bugle in one hand and cracking his heavy whip with the other, driving those two hundred beasts to pasture, one cannot imagine how dramatic an event it is. But I think perhaps that, except as the early morning is always the hour of charm and witchery, the manner of the herd's arrival home in the evening, though different, is equally dramatic. For then the cows come in a hurry to be milked.

All the Mennonite women are good cooks. Some of them still hold to the out-of-door ovens as do the habitants of Quebec. For heating these ovens the women cleverly make use of the strawpile, and many are the loaves of homemade bread and the pies that find their way in and out of these ovens!

Marking the progress of this people, in some of the yards, stand the log houses of the pioneers, mute witnesses of the wilderness life to which these people came nearly fifty years ago.

We noticed that Mr. de Fehr often looked with apparent affection upon the trees in his yard. So one day we commented on them, their sizes, etc. "They were planted?" we inquired.

"Yes," he said, "my mother planted them. She brought them from the mountain in her apron. We boys went with her to get them. Each of my brothers had a bundle of them — I had a little bundle too."

What a picture he conjured up! Can't you see that old peasant-woman from Berdiansk with her saplings and her boys — saplings, too? And the mountain? We could just see the outline of it against the distant horizon. That will give you some idea of the journey she made and the distance she brought her load. As we looked at the arboreal beauty of Ostervick, to which she had contributed, we found it in our hearts to wish that every woman-settler in the West would direct some of her energy to tree-planting and tree-culture. And we wondered what this dead-and-gone mother could have given her son for remembrance one-half so precious?

Speaking of trees, the Mennonites are fond of flowers, too — hollyhocks being especially popular. But I did not notice that they kept bees in quantity as do the Doukhobors. The Mennonites are not vegetarians like the "Douks" but eat meat of all kinds, and fish. Macaroni, homemade, is a staple dish, also noodle soup. But plemm-moase, a sort of pudding-soup made of stewed fruit, prunes, raisins, etc., thickened with flour, seems to be the national dish. And their cottage-cheese dumplings served with cream and melted butter, make a dish fit for a king. There were other good things to eat, chickens, eggs, fried crabapples, etc. The Mennonites may be a plainly dressed people, but they certainly live well as to food. They say "silent grace" before and after meals. Smoke-houses stand in many yards and we saw one Dutch windmill for grinding grain. At Winkler there is a fine flour mill.

In one house we saw a quaint old clock brought over from Russia. It had no case, merely a large face with sprays of pink roses, and long brass weights. In the same house the chairs were newly painted in art combinations of black and lemon yellow.

Among the Mennonites we were everywhere struck by their thrift. Indeed, in thinking of them, my memory flies back to those substantial well-built, well-kept-up farm-houses. "Real Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod houses"—long, low, shingled, with sides painted white, against which the clean delft-blue shutters make a Dutch picture. Especially do I recall one freshly painted home which, in addition to white sides and blue shutters, boasted a terracotta band at the base of the sides, lemon-yellow balcony and steps, with apple-green railing above white bannisters with green centres. And this dignified, yet gay, little house with the real air of charm about it, sits well back in a wide lawn of its own, with a lane leading into the backyard and stable and out to the tree-lined highway, which passing straight through the length of the village, is this little rural settlement's only street.

The day we left Ostervick it blew a slight prairie gale, but after lunch, the wind abating, Mr. de Fehr and his wife put the horses to and drove us nine miles to Winkler. The wind was still high, however, and the dust like smoke, so we were very thankful to accept the kerchiefs which Mrs. de Fehr lent us to tie over our heads, and in the picture of all in the wagon it is very difficult to distinguish between Mennonite hostess and the guests now thoroughly won over to the "plotok".

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