Mennonites – People of the Plains

On a recent visit to Netherlands we rented a car and drove to the province of Friesland, land of my forefathers. Specific Dutch locations linked to family ancestry have long been lost in the mists of time, notwithstanding my father’s considerable research. After five centuries, three intervening countries, and several refugee crises, it is understandable that maintaining precise documentation was not uppermost in family thoughts as they prepared, yet again, to flee to safer havens.

As we drove along the rural lanes I secretly hoped we might stumble upon a site where I would feel some sort of ancient Schroeder vibe, but that is a bit too “New Agey” to be part of the Mennonite DNA. But somewhere near Schraard I duly found a farmer’s field where I realized I could, with reasonable confidence, claim that my ancestors might well have lived within a 20 kilometre radius of where I stood. In fact, given the flatness of the area, I could see virtually the entire 20 kilometre radius from my vantage point.

Helping plant the family potatoes near Morris, Manitoba, 1960

Helping plant the family potatoes near Morris, Manitoba, 1960

Substitute windmills for grain elevators, a dwindling old-world architectural icon for its new-world counterpart, and the terrain reminded me very much of my childhood home in southern Manitoba.

What is it with Mennonites and flat, some say boring, surroundings? I grew up by the Morris River, a minor tributary of the Red. If you have ever heard of it, that’s likely from periodic news reports of spring flooding. In 1966 when I was young, for example, the Morris burst its modest banks and merged with the flooding Red to create a lake that was, to use a phrase in its literal sense for a change, 10 miles wide and one foot deep.

A few years later, now living in Winkler a bit further south, we once convinced a visiting college student that the Pembina Hills, visible 15 kilometres away, were actually the Rocky Mountains rising out of uninterrupted prairie 1,000 kilometres to the west. I’m not sure if he ever learned the truth but I don’t think he was a geography major.

Both my grandfathers immigrated from the USSR in the 1920s and surviving black and white photographs from Mennonite regions of the Ukraine reveal a similarly flat topography. Judging from the pictures, Chortitza, Ukraine looks remarkably similar to Chortitz Manitoba; Chortitz, Paraguay; or other similarly named villages scattered in Mennonite areas around the globe.

Photography did not exist during our Prussian sojourn, and Mennonites are not renowned for their landscape painting (Rembrandt stayed in Holland, after all), but the Vistula delta where Mennonites lived for several generations is another level, breadbasket-to-the-nation type of region.

Paraguay, Kansas, Northern Mexico, southern Ontario, Saskatchewan – a similar topographic image springs to mind when one hears the place names of these centres of Mennonite settlement, although, to be sure, Abbotsford and the British Columbia lower mainland may be the exception that proves the rule.

Perhaps our propensity for the plains is an extension of a dour world view. Elders scouting new locations as potential sites for resettlement might have worried that scenic vistas of hills and valleys would distract us from the serious business of farming. If our sons and daughters are tempted by visual splendour, they might also covet fancy jewellery and flashy cars.

I am being facetious of course; as an agricultural people, finding flat fertile land to farm makes perfect sense. Every available acre can be planted. The land can be neatly subdivided into tidy rectangles that lend themselves to efficient cultivation. Less preparatory work, such as moving rocks aside like settlers in other parts of Canada need to do, is necessary.

The 16th century Friesian farmers had a good thing going. Though forced to migrate, seeking subsequent Babylons with similar surrounding was eminently sensible.

Bill Schroeder standing in a field in Friesland, Netherlands, August 2015

Bill Schroeder standing in a field in Friesland, Netherlands, August 2015

Born in Paraguay, raised in Manitoba, of Russian Mennonite heritage, Bill Schroeder is a teacher in Barry’s Bay, Ontario where his view is blocked by the hills and forests of the Madawaska Valley.