The area around Steinbach is home to the Ojibway-speaking Anishinaabe people, who would fish, hunt and trap in the area, moving over the borders that would not exist for centuries. The Indigenous would live on the land for thousands of years, but over time new arrivals came into the area.
By the time that the Mennonites arrived, the land was mostly occupied by the Metis, who were farming and participating in their annual bison hunts that continued until 1874 when the last of the hunts occurred due to the dwindling numbers of bison.
On Aug. 3, 1871, the Indigenous of the area signed Treaty 1 and moved onto Brokenhead Indian Reserve and the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation Reserve.
Founding of The Community
In 1870, Manitoba became a province and only four years later, Steinbach was founded by Russian Mennonites, 18 families in total, who came from the Borosenko colony that is today in the Ukraine. It was from there that the name Steinbach came from. Upon their arrival, two Mennonite groups settled in the East Reserve area next to future Steinbach. The settler families for Steinbach would arrive in the summer of 1874.
Settling on the higher lands and gravel ridges, they chose the best land they could on the northeast corner of the East Reserve. Those 20 homesteads would be laid out on the northeast side of present-day Main Street. The village was organized into a Strassendorf, also known as a street village. This meant that each family occupied a long narrow strip of land.
In 1875, the settlers built a school, and the Main Street of Steinbach was cleared of the poplar bush. That same year, the spiritual leader of the community, Jakob Barkman, drowned in the Red River and John Holdeman would take on the mantle of spiritual leadership in 1881.
In 1877, the first windmill in the town was built by Abraham Friesen and by 1882, the village had grown to 28 families with a population of 128 people.
By 1900, the land had been cleared and was suitable for farming wheat, barley, oats, and potatoes. In 1901, the population was 366 and most of the population spoke Plautdietsch, and only a few spoke English.
In 1910, the Strassendorf system ended in town and the village was surveyed and land was redistributed. By this point, change was coming to the community. Only two years later, J.R. Friesen opened the first Ford dealership in Western Canada in Steinbach. In 1915, the population of the community was 463, and the first bank in the community would open that year.
The town would continue to grow through the 1920s and the difficult 1930s but as the Nazis and Soviets began to take over parts of Europe, the Mennonites would flee to Canada. On Dec. 31, 1946, Steinbach was incorporated as a town and Klaas Barkman was elected as the mayor. Also, in the Barkman family, Leonard Barkman was elected mayor in 1958, serving until 1970. During that same time, he also became the first Mennonite elected to the Manitoba Legislature, which he did from 1962 to 1973. In 1972, Jake Epp, the local high school teacher, became the first Mennonite elected to Parliament.
Steinbach was incorporated as a city on Oct. 10, 1997.
By 2016, the community had nearly 16,000 people, up from 2,100 in 1951.
The Mennonite Heritage Village
The biggest tourist attraction in the entire area is the Mennonite Heritage Village, which opened in 1967 and has seen significant growth since then. Featuring horse barns, churches, and other buildings that date back to the 1800s, the facility documents the origin of the Mennonites in the Netherlands and Switzerland, and their voyage to Canada.
The Dutch windmill is one of the most recognizable parts of the museum. It is a replica of the original windmill that was built in Steinbach in the 1880s. The first replica was destroyed by arsonists in 2000. Also, in the outdoor village, you will find a section of the Berlin Wall, the original sawmill used by the Mennonite Conscientious Objectors and two monuments erected to honour Jacob Hoeppner and Johann Bartsch, who had chosen the original site for the colonists.
Each year, 47,000 people on average come to the museum from around the world.
The Walking Tour
Along the walking tour, which is self-guided and runs for 3.5 kilometers, allows you to see much of the unique history of the community.
I will not go through all the items of the tour, but I will cover some that I found interesting.
At 255 Hanover Street, you will find the Friesen House, which I am discussing in the next section.
At 236 Main Street, you will find Fairway Ford, which is the original site of the first Ford dealership ever opened in Western Canada, but more on that in the next section too.
At 377 Main Street, you will come across The Carillon, the local newspaper that was previously called the Steinbach Post. The business was originally a German-speaking newspaper but in 1946, it was changed to the Carillon News and became the first English-language newspaper serving southeastern Manitoba.
At 280 Barkman Avenue, there is a crab apple tree that was planted in 1905 by Jacob and Anna Barkman. Interestingly, the tree branched off itself around 20 years ago and since then, the tree produces fruit on only one trunk, in alternating years.
At 376 Elmdale Street, there are oak trees in the front yard that are 180 years old, 45 years older than the community itself.
The First Ford Dealership
In 1914, Jacob Friesen was selling farm implements when he decided that the time was right to take a leap and begin selling cars. He would write to Henry Ford and ask to become a Ford dealer. While Henry Ford had never heard of the village before, he was impressed with the request and agreed.
On June 6, 1914, Friesen officially became not only the first auto dealer in Steinbach, but the first in Western Canada. The business was an immediate success and he sold 11 cars by the end of the year. The vehicles would arrive by train to Winnipeg, where they were assembled and then shipped in box cars to the community. During the winter, Friesen would not sell cars as no cars were on the road, but by the spring he would be back up and running.
In 1915, he was able to sell 22 cars, although not everyone liked this invention. Friesen would report to the Steinbach Post that a driver of a horse-drawn wagon would not let him pass on a country road. The first car-pedestrian accident would occur in 1916, leaving 73-year-old Abraham Schellenberg lame as a result. The car quickly showed its benefit when Peter Froese fell ill with typhoid. A phone call was made, and three men journeyed out on a journey that would take a wagon a day, but only took a couple of hours in a car. The car likely saved the boys life.
Located in Steinbach, you will find the two and a half storey Friesen House, which was built in 1916 on a simple four-square design. Built by Jacob R. Friesen, the man who opened that first Ford dealership I talked about, he was a noted businessman in the area and helped the community gain the reputation of the Automobile City.
For years, the home sat next to his dealership and garage on Main Street. That garage would see a notable aircraft in the area built, but I will get to that. The home was lived in by the family for many years. In his dealership, for which he was excommunicated from the church, 70 cars per year were sold at a cost of $650 each.
Eventually, the building would be moved to a residential neighbourhood where it served as a nursing home, residence for nurses and a rooming house.
While J.R. Friesen is long gone, having died on Aug. 6, 1950, ten years after his dealership burned down, the home remains and was made a Municipal Heritage Site on Sept. 7, 2004.
Willow Plain School
Another historic building in the area is found in nearby Sarto. The Willow Plain School was built as a wooden one-room school in 1911 along the rural highway by early Ukrainian settlers to the area. Located across from the St. Michael’s Ukrainian Church in the area, the school was built in the style of the early one-room schools of the turn of the 20th century.
With the church nearby, many of the students who attended the school also attended the church nearby.
Originally, the school was going to be lost, but the community saved it before it could be destroyed and today it remains the only remaining historic school on its original site in the area.
On Dec. 17, 2003, the school was made a Municipal Heritage Site.
For any community, the visit of a significant individual is a big event. In Canada, the big three for visits are Queen Elizabeth II, a few prime ministers and a couple Governor Generals. Most communities get one, a couple get two, but then there are places like Steinbach, which has seen all three visit from time to time.
I am going to look at all three in the next few sections. I will begin with the Governor Generals.
The first Governor General to visit Steinbach was Lord Dufferin, who came out to the community when it was called Gruenfeld on Aug. 21, 1877.
Joining the Governor General was German Consul William Hespeler, who was a major reason that the Mennonites had come to Canada.
To welcome Lord Dufferin, 700 people came out and the air of excitement was high for residents. A platform was also built, with German and British flags, and flowers, on it. A banner also hung over an archway that said Wikommen.
Local children also sang a welcome song, and three girls provided the dignitaries with tea.
During his visit, he would say, quote:
“If you come hither to seek peace, peace at last we can promise you.”
For many, this visit was a turning point for the growth of Steinbach.
The next Governor General to visit Steinbach would be Lord Bessborough, who arrived on Aug. 3, 1933. The community was deep in the harvest season but that did not stop a lot from coming out to see the notable visitor. A public reception was held on the old school grounds to welcome Lord Bessborough.
In March of 1958, while on the campaign trail, John Diefenbaker came out and was welcomed to the community. A total of 3,000 people came out in Steinbach to see the dynamic new politician. About 1,500 jammed themselves into the Penner Tire and Rubber Company storage shed, with another 1,500 circled the building outside listening over the public address system. Diefenbaker spoke about what his government could accomplish, and he praised the Conservative members who had represented the area over the years. Diefenbaker would go on to win the largest majority in Canadian history to that point later that year. He would return in October of 1965, but by this point he was no longer prime minister, and 700 people came out to hear him talk.
In April of 1962, Lester B. Pearson, just prior to winning the June 18, 1962 election, spoke to 900 people, including 350 high school students. He then spent some time walking around the crowd, shaking hands with many people. He would soon be elected as the 14th prime minister of Canada.
On July 1, 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited Steinbach, and was greeted by a crowd of 6,500 people. Wearing a striped, open-buttoned shirt and a bandana tied around his neck, he went through the crowd to shake hands, sign autographs and to raise a centennial balloon. Also on hand was Bobby Gimby, the man who sung the Canadian Centennial anthem, CA-NA-DA. Trudeau then spoke to the crowd, who did their best to hear him in the 50-km/hr winds that were whipping flags at a frenetic pace. Trudeau, who was not on a campaign stop, told everyone how pleased he was to visit the community. He would say quote:
“Ever since the early Mennonites settled here in Steinbach, this community has been known as having industrious and a hard-working people and I did know there would be a lot going on today.”
Down the road, Brian Mulroney would visit the community in 1987 and 1992.
One of the biggest visitors to ever come to the community was Queen Elizabeth II herself, who arrived on July 14, 1970 with Prince Charles, only two weeks after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited the community. The big event was announced as such, quote:
“It was the most memorable and exciting moment in the history of the southeast. For the first time since the earliest European settlers arrived in the 1860s and 70s, a member of the British Royal Family paid a personal visit to the communities of La Broquerie, Steinbach, Sarto, Grunthal and St. Pierre. For these communities and their people, the visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles on the eve of Manitoba’s 100th birthday highlighted a century of economic and cultural development.”
When the big day arrived, 10,000 people descended on the community to see Queen Elizabeth II arrive at 11:38 a.m. Nearly every person in the community had come out for the big event. Prince Philip and Princess Anne were not in Steinbach though, as they attended a gliding championship at Carman. The Queen was welcomed by Mayor L.A. Barkman, after which a German hymn by the community choir was sung. Four-year-old Lisa Dawn Epp would present Queen Elizabeth with flowers. After this brief ceremony, the Queen and Prince Charles were on their way. While many were able to see the Queen, there was some disappointment that she did not speak to the crowd.
The Vita Disaster
On June 19, 1955, the neighbouring community to Steinbach, Vita, was hit by a terrible disaster that wiped out a large portion of the community in only a few minutes. The community had been founded in 1898 by Ukrainian settlers and at that point had a population of about 350 people. On that fateful day, the community’s residents were going about their day, as they had for years. A baseball game was in progress with Vita beating Woodmore 11-1. Around 5 p.m., the breeze began to pick up and before long, black thunderheads were moving towards the community. The rain began to fall harder and then a tornado began to descend from the clouds, moving straight towards Vita.
The residents of the community quickly began to run for shelter and soon after the tornado hit the community. For the next 120 seconds, it would rip through Vita, smashing windows, tearing roofs off buildings, and sending cars through the air. Telephone and electric poles were snapped and thrown into buildings. For Vita, day had turned to night as the tornado moved through the community.
As soon as it had hit the community, it moved through, but it left behind a trail of complete destruction. The disaster was not over yet. With the tornado now gone, fires started to burn in many of the destroyed buildings and homes. Quickly, the fires were dealt with and rescuers began to dig through the rubble to find survivors.
Amazingly, no one was killed but eight people were severely injured, and 41 people were given first aid at nearby hospitals. The hospital in town was destroyed, as was the high school for the community. There were some amazing and terrible stories from the disaster as well.
Mike Sandul, a 75-year-old man, was thrown out of his home and fell across the street, wrapped in broken power lines. His house was destroyed. Nicky Stecky had just finished building his new bungalow, a process of two years. As soon as it was done, the tornado arrived and destroyed the home before he could ever live in it. Edward Wolanski would lose a barn he had just finished after two years of saving money to build it. His wife and daughter had crouched on the floor of their home when the storm hit. When the tornado passed, the pair were sitting in the open, with their home long gone. At the Loewen Funeral Home, the building was destroyed but a black casket had come to rest in a ditch, with a wreath, totally intact, sitting on a nearby fence post.
In all, the tornado caused $200,000 in damages, or $2 million today.
The Pietenpol Plane
By 1931, the world was enthralled by the concept of flight. In Steinbach, J.R. Friesen, along with his son Edwin, decided that they would build an aircraft in their garage. They were joined by two of the garage employees who saw the plans for the plane in a magazine and decided to try it out. Friesen agreed to provide the funds for the venture, and to build and sell more planes if the venture was successful. Work began in the rear of the garage, with nearly everything except the propeller was built completely by hand. The undercarriage for the plane was constructed from motorcycle wheels and a straight axle. A Model A Ford engine was rebuilt so that it could supply the power by means of a special carburetor. They also got rid of the heavy cast iron manifold and built lighter ones for the aircraft. Residents became intrigued about the building of the plane, and at one point the pastor of the church came with his bible and asked what scripture the men wanted said at their funeral. When the plane was finished, two Department of Transport inspectors came out and agreed that it was possible to fly it.
On May 2, 1932 at 10 a.m. the big moment had come and a crowd of hundreds, some considered it the largest crowd assembled in the area at the time, came out to see the flight. Frank Brown was chosen to fly the plane as he had flown a plane during the First World War. The plane then took flight, rising to 500 feet and circling the community.
The event would spark the first fly-in in Steinbach when thousands came out to watch 14 planes land at the village, as part of a goodwill tour on Manitoba.