Before Europeans arrived in the area that would be Manitoba, the landscape was dominated by the bison who moved in great herds. Following the bison were the Indigenous, who had arrived in the area thousands of years ago as the glaciers began to retreat.
Closer to the time of Europeans, the Indigenous groups that lived in the area were the Sioux and the Anishinaabe people.
As fur traders and explorers came to the area, a new group would emerge, the Metis. The Metis would have a long impact on the area, and they would hunt the bison in great hunts that lasted from the early 1800s to the 1870s, just as the new Mennonite pioneers were beginning to arrive.
The Indigenous did not interact much with the new Mennonite pioneers, fore the most part keeping their distance, or staying confined on the reserves that were popping up throughout Canada at this time.
Today, Altona sits on Treaty 1 land.
Founding Of The Community
The first settlers to the area were three young Mennonites who had obtained entry for a quarter section of land each on Feb. 24, 1880. The Mennonites were Abram and Jacob Rempel and their cousin Jacob Warkentin. The land they would settle was located just to the west of the future site of Altona, making them the first settlers of the area. By June 11, 1880, several more Mennonite families arrived in the area and filed homesteads, and nearly all of the new arrivals were related to the three men who first arrived. The original village would soon spring up, it was established in the familiar Mennonite village and open field system.
As for why the name Altona was chosen, that is not clear. It could be that it was named for Altenau in Prussia, or Altonau in south Russia. The issue is that none of the original residents trace their lineage to either location, so the choice of the name is a mystery.
The village of Altona was created in a similar manner to how villages were built in the homeland of the Mennonites, and it offered them the feeling of home despite being a world away. This included the construction of housebarns, which were houses connected directly with the barn and something completely unique to the entire area.
As it turned out, they had chosen well because one year later, Jacob Braun sold a right-of-way to the Canadian Pacific Railway for $6.75, and this would be the start of the railway through the area, near the land the three men had bought. One year later, the railway came through the area, and passenger service would start on Dec. 10, 1882. This area would become known as Old Altona Village. The story of the railroad coming through shows that it was not a welcome addition to the community, but more for where it was going. According to local folklore, the CPR was planning going to bisect Altona with a new branch line. The residents made such a fuss over it, that the CPR decided to adjust the line to just west of the village.
One of the unique aspects of this early community was the creation of a fire insurance system that was common with Mennonite villages in Europe. If a fire occurred and someone lost their possessions, the losses would be tabulated for the villager who lost what they owned. In the system, each villager paid directly into it and the person who lost their home and possessions would receive two-thirds the value of the lost buildings, and a fixed sum for the machinery or animals lost. They would also receive restitution for lost stores of grain and hay. One man was elected to serve as the manager of the insurance system.
In 1884, a public school would be established in the village. The Altona School was publicly funded but due to the high amount of Mennonites, it operated more like a Mennonite private school. German was the only language taught, and the teaching focused mostly on the bible. Some math was taught, but geography and English was nonexistent. By the 1890s though, with new settlers arriving, more subjects were taught in the school.
In 1895, as the rail line was built north of Old Altona Village, the new surveyed community of Altona would be built, and it is from there the current community has grown. By July of 1896, this new Altona had three elevators, six general stores, three wood and machinery dealers, one blacksmith, a flax warehouse, a hotel and a school. The original Old Altona Village did not become part of this village, but its proximity did allow both communities to prosper.
Why did this new town have the same name as the very nearby old town? Well, that comes from Henry Ritz. It was on his property that a rail car was set up as a temporary station, and when officials asked him for a suggestion for the new townsite, he said, quote:
“Why not call it Altona, after the Mennonite village to the south.”
As a result, another Altona was born.
By 1900, Altona would have its first bank, a private one, followed by the first chartered bank, the Union Bank, in 1903. In 1906, the Bank of Montreal was operating in the community.
By the 1920s, growth in the area was strong, with business booming and many seeing a bright future for Altona. Unfortunately, the 1930s and The Great Depression brought a lull to the rapid growth of the community, which continued to remain a hamlet throughout the decade.
In 1945, Altona was officially incorporated as a village after a petition of 150 signatures was collected. At the time, Altona had 1,065 residents. The population grew throughout the next decade, reaching 1,698 residents by 1956. On Oct. 24, 1956, Altona became a town. In the years between 1946 and 1956, the town would modernize in many ways including with its public works system, new steel culverts and the construction of 25,000 feet of concrete sidewalks to replace the wooden ones.
By 1980, Old Altona and New Altona were still separate communities but had grown so close towards each other on the landscape, that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.
Today, Altona boasts 4,212 residents and is an important commercial hub for the entire area.
The Sunflower Capital of Canada
Sunflowers have always been an important part of the history of Altona. The 1945 sunflower crop, for example, produced three million pounds of seed and 572,592 pounds of sunflower oil. It took six weeks for the local plant to process everything.
In 1954, blacksmith Fred Abel would report finding a sunflower plant that was 10 feet tall and had 43 heads on the stalk.
It was in 1965 that the annual Sunflower Festival kicked off in Altona, honouring the community that has become known as the sunflower capital of Canada. The area around Altona, the Red River Valley, is the largest producer of sunflowers in all of Canada.
For that first Sunflower Festival, which was held from July 30-31, 1965, there was a parade led by the mayor of Winnipeg, as well as events such as nail hammering, sunflower seed eating, log sawing, fiddling and tractor driving. A baseball tournament, swimming races and an auction sale was also held. For the final event of the festival, there was a grandstand show at the arena and the crowning of the first Miss Sunflower, Theresa Villeneuve.
For the person who is chosen as the Sunflower Queen, they receive a trip to Australia to Emerald in Queensland, the sister city of Altona.
The Sunflower Festival, which continues to operate to this day, was created with the purpose of promoting the commercial life of Altona, celebrating its agriculture and Mennonite heritage and the history of the community itself.
The Largest Painting On An Easel
Without a doubt the most recognizable feature of the community is the huge painting that depicts the famous sunflower painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It was officially unveiled on Oct. 17, 1998 and soon after it was registered as the largest painting on an easel by The Guinness Book of World Records.
The painting stands at 76 feet high, comprised of 24 sheets of ¾ inch plywood. The painting itself required 17 gallons of paint for the picture.
In 2017, after almost 20 years standing in town and delighting everyone who came through, the painting was taken down and completely refurbished by the original artist, Cameron Cross. It was then put back on display, ready for another 20 years.
A History Of Fires
Fires were nothing new for the community of Altona. Throughout its history, fires had raged even as the volunteer fire department did their best to battle them. From 1895 to 1915, four fires hit the community. The worst was on Sept. 7, 1908 when an entire city block was destroyed. That fire destroyed the Bank of Montreal, the D.W. Friesen store, the post office, a general store and the Commercial Hotel.
It was a very hot day in the middle of haying season on July 11, 1937. The temperature was so warm that by 10 a.m., the horses were put away for the day as the thermometer climbed above 40 degrees Celsius.
It was on that day when the heat of the sun was replaced by the heat of a raging fire. The fire is believed to have been started in the Rhineland Consumers Co-op building when a gasoline engine burst into flames. The fire would destroy the entire building, taking with it most of the equipment inside. Added to the fire was the fact that the storage tanks full of fuel exploded, destroyed most of the property. Eventually, everything had to be rebuilt at no small cost.
The next terrible fire in the history of the community came not in summer but in winter. In November of 1946, cold temperatures gripped the area but that didn’t stop a fire from spreading in the downtown core. This fire destroyed the Rhineland Car Dealership, Harry’s Café, the Red and White Store, Merle’s Dress Shop and the A.D. Friesen’s Insurance Office. This would also be the last of the great fires to hit the community.
One story from that fire centers on a young minister who was told to run into a store and grab as many groceries as he could carry before the store burned down. The minister, who was not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, did so and was able to fill two grocery bags. He then gave much of the food to the people around him.
The Henry ToewsShooting
One particularly shocking incident from the town’s early history came about in 1902 when Henry Toews, who was a teacher at the Old Altona Village School, woke up on Oct. 9 with several grievances against the households where he boarded in the community. Those grievances would have terrible results.
On that day as he was meeting with school trustees and when they arrived, he grabbed a revolver and shot the trustees, wounding three of them at the school. Then, he walked into the classroom and shot one of his students, Susie Rempel, who was hit in the left arm and in the right wrist. He then shot Helena and Annie Kehler in the back and in the arm. Of the students hit, Annie was the only one to die.
Villagers ran to the school but he kept them at bay with his gun. Finally, when he was confronted by a friend, he raised the gun to himself and shot himself in the head.
The shot did not kill him, and he would regain consciousness six days later. He would remain at the hospital until Jan. 19, 1903 when he died at the age of 37.
Located in Altona, you will find a simple storefront facility that has a pretty long history in the community. Now serving as apartments, the Bergthaler Waisenamt building was constructed in 1916 and sits in the downtown core of Altona. The Bergthaler Waisenamnt was constructed as a mutual aid institution by the founding Mennonites to help widows and orphans both locally and abroad. The society also helped locals during The Great Depression when money was tight.
The building is built with concrete blocks, and its fire resistant construction ensured that it never succumbed to fires over the course of the last 105 years.
For a time, the building was the home to the Mennonite Mutual Fire Insurance Society I had talked about earlier. Considering its fire resistant construction, it was a good fit to have the business in that location.
Neubergthal National Historic Site
Also located just southeast of Altona, there is a one-and-a-half storey dwelling with an attached barn that dates back to 1901, making it one of the oldest buildings in the entire area. The design that combines a house and a barn was often used by Mennonite immigrants when they settled in the area in the 1870s and 1880s. This partially restored structure was built for Bernard and Helena Hamm and was occupied by the Hamm and then Friesen families for nearly 90 years.
The structure is found at Neubergthal, a traditional Mennonite farm village, which is a National Historic Site of Canada due to the large number of still intact Mennonite housebarns.
Also at the historic site there is the Herdsman’s House, located on the southern edge of the historic site. This one-storey dwelling was built in 1890 and is the only remaining dwelling of its type in the entire province. It serves as an example of the facilities built for herd-marshals in farm villages by Mennonite settlers in the 1880s.
Another structure located at the Historic Site is the Hamm House, which is a small wood and timber structure that was built sometime prior to the 1880s. It was built by Johann and Anna Hamm, and is an example of the Mennonite style of residence. The building is a basic design, but its history is very deep and it serves as one of the oldest structures in the entire area.