Often when I do these episodes, I am at the mercy of the resources at my disposal. Unfortunately for Oakbank, I was limited with what I could find and this will unfortunately be a shorter episode as a result.
Before Europeans arrived in the area that would one day be Oakbank, the area was occupied primarily by the Anishinaabe people. Due to the proximity of the area to the Red River and, by extension, Lake Winnipeg, the area was widely traveled by the Indigenous. The eastern reach of the bison also came up to where Oakbank would be, which provided a vital source of food and resources for the Indigenous.
As time went on, the Anishinaabe of the area would be the first of the prairie Indigenous to meet Europeans who began to arrive in the area in the late 1600s and early 1700s. They would begin to embark on the fur trade, which would greatly alter their culture over the course of the coming centuries.
Today, Oakbank sits on the border of Treaty 3 land, signed in 1873, and Treaty 1 land, signed in 1871.
Soon after the treaties were signed, and the Indigenous were pushed to reserves, settlers started to come into the area to take up the land.
In 1882, Speer House would be constructed nearby to where Oakbank would eventually sit. The house was built with local materials and using simple construction methods that were common in wood-frame farmhouses in rural Manitoba of this time. The home was built by John Speer, who had come from Ontario, to settle in the district. One interesting fact is that Speer was one of 12 farmers who contributed to the first export shipment of grain from Winnipeg a few years earlier in 1876. This helped to make Manitoba a major force in the grain industry of Canada. The home itself still stands and is still lived in by the descendants of John Speer, all these years later. In 1998, the home was made a Municipal Heritage Site.
In 1899, a post office would be established and Oakbank would start at that moment. The community would slowly grow, with the Presbyterian Church arriving in the community in 1901.
In 1906, the Canadian Pacific Railway was built through the village, greatly spurring on development as a result. Two years later, the Baptist Church was built in the community.
In 1930, electricity would come to the community thanks to the Winnipeg Electric Company. From there, the modernization of Oakbank would begin. Rural electrification would slowly expand outwards from the community until 1949 when most farms had electricity. Telephone companies had been established years earlier but there was only a dozen subscribers until 1950 when the system was absorbed into the Manitoba Telephone System. In 1945, a credit union was formed in the community as well.
In 1930, the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception was built in stages that would continue for several years. The structure was hand built by members of the congregation, including Father Ruh, who had designed more than 30 churches from Alberta to Ontario. Today, Father Ruh is buried at the church. It would not be until 1952 that the church would be consecrated. The church holds a significant connection to that era of Ukrainian church construction in Manitoba. It is also one of the largest Ukrainian Catholic churches in Western Canada. The church stands to this day and became a Provincial Heritage Site in 1986.
In 1947, one of the most prominent men in the area was Frank Van Ryssel, who was a farmer and a three time champion Manitoba champion flax grower. Three years in a row he was acclaimed as the best flax farmer in the entire area. For 15 years, beginning in 1932, he had been growing flux where he never had less than 15 bushels an acre and at times pushed 20 bushels. He would say, quote:
“I never sow flax twice on the same land, though I intend to, in a five year rotation. I keep my fields free of weeds by rotation: barley, oats, flax, fodder crops and sod pasture.”
The same year he was featured in 1947, he was planning on growing barley and expected to have 50 to 85 bushels of crop. He also had 15 Holstein milk cows. He would eventually get rid of those as with his age, he was finding it too hard to milk the cows.
In 1953, the Oakbank Baptist Church was built as a wood frame building in Oldenburg, where it was a Lutheran Church. In 1972 it was moved into Oakbank and would become the Baptist Church in 1987 and the church was used until 2009 before it became a funeral home. The building stands to this day and can be visited within the community.
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