The land that would one day be Winkler was the traditional land of the Anishinaabe people for centuries. They would move through the area to hunt, trap and fish, crossing over the US-Canada border long before the border ever existed. The Sioux were also in the area for centuries.
One of the most important aspects of the life of the Indigenous who lived in the area was the hunt of the bison, who existed in massive numbers throughout the prairies. While the number of bison was less than was found to the west in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the animal was still incredibly important to the Indigenous.
The bison would be an important part of the culture of the Metis, who occupied the area as their culture began to grow in the 1700s and 1800s.
On Aug. 3, 1871, the Anishinaabe people of the area would sign Treaty 1 and be pushed to reserves by the federal government.
Founding Of The Community
Known as the West Reserve, which was set aside for Russian Mennonites, the history of Winkler begins in 1876 as the first of the Mennonites started to settle in the area.
The start of Winkler comes down to one man, Valentine Winkler, whose name the community still honours, but first we need to talk about the train.
The railroad came through in the 1880s and many older citizens in Winkler stated that the start of Winkler owes itself to a freight car that derailed. Of course, that may not be the case but it is an interesting story none the less.
As for Valentine Winkler, he became the first reeve of the Stanley Municipality in 1890, and he owned the land that Winkler now sits on. He had bought it from Isaac Wiens, a Mennonite immigrant, who was pressured to sell by the church. Development of the land site began in 1892 and soon lots and businesses were being sold and established. The creation of this new townsite did not sit well with the people in Morden, where Winkler lived, nor in the RM of Stanley.
On May 9, 1906, the community had grown enough to be incorporated as a village. At the time, it had a diverse population including English, German and Jewish residents. The nearby Mennonites would also start moving into the village and by the end of the First World War, they would outnumber the rest of the town residents.
Unfortunately, the community would see a decline in its population from the early 1900s until the end of the Second World War as Jewish and German residents began to move from the community to elsewhere in Canada.
Following the war, the population once again started to rebound and on April 7, 1954, the village became a town. By the 1990s, the population was growing at a fast rate and on April 7, 2002, Winkler became a city.
Today, with its population of 13,000 people, it is the sixth largest city in Manitoba.
As for Valentine Winkler, his story would be an interesting one. He would be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba as a Liberal in 1892, serving until 1920 with a brief gap in 1900. He was also a cabinet minister in the government of Tobias Norris, serving as Minister of Agriculture and Immigration.
He would die in 1920 from diabetes, only two years before insulin was discovered. His son, Howard, would serve as a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party from 1935 to 1953.
Bethel Heritage Park
If you would like to explore the history of the community, but want to enjoy the outdoors, then Bethel Heritage Park is the place to visit.
Known as the central park of Winkler, the downtown park features cairns and historic storyboards that highlight the history of the city, along with a fountain and live theatre in the summer, along with concerts in the park.
The park is located where the Winkler Hospital once stood for decades. The park itself is relatively new, coming along in 2010 to fill the need for a central park location for the community.
Today, the park serves as the symbol of the strength of the Winkler citizens and the many gates they have travelled through to settle here.
Fire Hall Museum
In the Winkler Fire Hall, you will not only see the people who help keep the community safe from fires, but also the history of fire fighting in the community.
Outside the hall, you can find the recreation of the Winkler Bell Tower, which houses the original bell at the very top.
Once inside the hall, you can explore the history of the community from the perspective of the firefighters who kept it safe. You will find pictures from the firefighting past of the community, as well as memorial pieces and historic remnants from days gone when firefighting was a matter of life and death, and the men who fought the fires were the last line of defense for the community.
The 1904 and 1920 Bank Robberies
In rural Canada, we typically don’t think too much of bank robberies. Canada never had a wild west period as was seen in the United States, but that doesn’t mean robberies didn’t happen. In fact, Winkler has had two robberies in its early past.
On Oct. 24, 1904, three bankers were traveling in a buggy after the workday, with $4,600 between them from the bank vault that they were taking on a business trip to another bank. As they travelled, they were surprised to find two men emerge from a culvert with sacks on their heads, who promptly pointed guns at the bankers. One robber held the horses while the other robber told the bankers to throw the bags of cash over the side of the buggy. One banker who had been on the job for 21 days thought it was a joke and turned to the other bankers but saw the fear in their faces and realized it was no joke.
The two robbers were caught before they could get to the American border .One of the robbers was John Krafchenko, who was an apprentice at a harness shop in the area and had been known to police for several years.
On Oct. 13, 1920, five individuals robbed the Union Bank of Canada and were able to get away with $19,000 in total, or $236,000 today. A lot of the blame for the success of the robbery was put on Constable George Hiebert, who apparently knew the robbery was progressing one hour before the robbers were able to escape. Hiebert would state that he did not go out to arrest the men because his wife stated that he wanted him to stay in the house with her, likely worried about his safety. Local residents urged him to go to deal with the robbery but he refused and would later admit that he was afraid for his life.
In contrast, William Graefer, the local blacksmith, started to ring the firebell to alert the residents of the community. He had heard the robbers in the bank as he lived across the street and he would be shot by one of the robbers but survived.
It was believed that the robbers were form the United States and it was believed that they were able to escape back to the United States.
The robbery would be re-enacted 50 years later by residents of Winkler on Oct. 13, 1970.
The Prime Minister Visits
Several prime ministers have visited Winkler over the years, including Lester B. Pearson and John Diefenbaker, but one I want to focus on is William Lyon Mackenzie King. Before I do, in regards to Diefenbaker, he visited in 1970, several years after he was prime minister, and he was given an honorary citizenship pin from Mayor Nick Wiebe.
As for King, despite his long time serving as the prime minister of Canada, longer than anyone else actually, there is little in the way of him visiting communities.
Winkler was lucky enough to have him visit, but it came when he wasn’t actually the prime minister. From 1930 to 1935, R.B. Bennett was the prime minister of Canada and King was the leader of the Opposition. He would come back into power in 1935, but for now, he was just a major political figure.
On July 22, 1933, King came to the community of Winkler where he was given a huge reception from the mayor, a former mayor, Reverend Warkentin and others. He would also visit the elementary school and meet with several children as well.
The Tornado Of 1933
Tornados are not a rare occurrence in Manitoba, with roughly 10-20 appearing every year. Winkler would see one of its worst tornadoes on May 23, 1933 when the tornado struck west of the community and moved along the outskirts of the town. While the tornado was not destructive directly to the community, the amount of rain that fell would cause immense flooding in the community.
The oldtimers in the community stated that it was the worst flooding they could remember. While the tornado struck late in the day on May 23, by May 24, the entire town was flooded.
Throughout southern Manitoba, rain fell in buckets, with several inches reported in various communities around Winkler. Winkler and Morden would report 5.78 inches falling, which is roughly 146 millimetres of rain. Several large stretches of road and the CPR railway were also destroyed.
The Flood of 1966
One of the worst floods to hit the Winkler area would occur in March of 1966 when flood waters quickly rose, leading to the evacuation of several residents. On the Main Street of Winkler, the water was up to three feet deep, with varying depths across two-thirds of the town. As a result of the flooding, 25 families were evacuated from the community as their homes were surrounded by water.
Fire sirens began to blare at 1 a.m. after the runoff waters began to reach the community, coming from the Red River that was 40 kilometres away.
The Co-operative Cannery, a major employer in the community, reported having one foot of water above its floor level.
Mayor John Epp would say that there was no way of knowing how high the damage was but, quote:
“it is certain to be very high.”
He would add, quote:
“The whole town is surrounded.”
Ditches and creeks were filled with heavy snow in early March, which forced the water across the fields into town as a result. As can be expected, many basements and stores were flooded throughout Winkler.
The Winkler Heritage Museum is a great place to spend the day and learn about the history of the community through artifacts and displays. The museum features early photographs, children’s toys, quilts, furniture, musical instruments and much more. A farm kitchen display has been created to showcase the hand-driven appliances that were used in the 1930s, while the clinic display showcases the medical history of the community.
In one corner of the museum, you will also find old school desks, a black board, and models of several original schools in the area, including old school books. It is a great glimpse into the school life many students enjoyed during the early years of the 20th century.
The 1961 Fire
One of the most devastating fires to hit the community of Winkler came in March of 1961 when a fire destroyed a large portion of the community’s main businesses. The fire had raced through the communities thanks to high winds that allowed it to burn through 300 feet of businesses. Two grocery stores, a restaurant, a furniture store and a book store were among the buildings to go up in flames. A meat market, that had been occupied until one week previous to the fire, was also damaged by the flames.
Firemen did what they could to fight the fire but the water mains gave out in the community and the pressure dropped, severely impacting the ability to fight the flames.
By the end of the fire, with eight buildings burned to the ground, damage estimates were put at $800,000, or $7.1 million today.
Pomeroy School and The Reimer Mennonite Log House
Outside of Winkler, you will find an original school from the early days of schooling in Manitoba. Built in 1909 and originally called Newton School, and then renamed as Pomeroy School in 1950, it is one of the few remaining one-room schools in the province. Located at the Pembina Threshermen’s Museum between Morden and Winkler, it is one of seven other historic buildings from the area that are located there.
Today, only 100 one-room schools still stand in Manitoba, when once there had been over 1,000 and most of the ones that remain have been turned into sheds, granaries and more. Thankfully, Pomeroy School has not and can still be visited.
The Pomeroy School still contains its cloak room, the teacher’s storage room, built in book cases and the blackboards.
Due to its historic nature, it was made a Municipal Heritage Site in 2009.
Also located at the Threshermen’s Museum, you will find the Reimer Mennonite Log House, a one-storey-with-attic log house that was relocated to the museum in 1980 to preserve it. The house was originally built in 1878 and today serves as an example of a Mennonite housebarn, although the barn portion did not survive the late pioneer period.