Mennonite Settlement Near Vanderhoof, BC in 1918

Mennonite settlers arrive in Vanderhoof, BC in 1918
Mennonite settlers arrive in Vanderhoof, BC in 1918

Excerpts from the Personal Diary of Peter Neufeld and author J.V.Neufeld’s 1980 essay, Reflections, The Mennonite Settlement Near Vanderhoof in the Nechako Valley British Columbia 1918.

The authors describe the history of Mennonite settlement in Vanderhoof, BC from its beginnings in 1917 and its end in 1918 when conditions were deemed unfavourable and many Mennonite pioneer families left.

Mennonite Settlers from USA to Vanderhoof, BC

According to J.V. Neufeld, “In 1917, the Mennonite people coming to Vanderhoof, BC, as a matter of faith, were conscientious objectors (believed in doing no harm to other human beings), which meant that they were exempt from being drafted to fight in WW1.  J.V. Neufeld describes the situation in the United States at the time, “Adverse public opinion and outright harassment caused many to seek refuge in Canada or go into hiding in their own country.

In Canada, however, “members of Mennonite churches and various other denominations, who claimed exemption because of their religious convictions, could stay away from getting involved in any direct military activities.

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“Identify certificates were issued to them by a bishop or elder of the church was evidence enough to keep them from being subjugated.”

Imagine, leaving your homeland, everything familiar, and moving to a new country, and pioneering.  Add to that the fear, mistrust and outright hatred many Mennonite settlers faced and the impacts of the 1918 influenza and it is not surprising that many chose to leave once the war ended in 1918.

1918 Mennonite Certificate (source Canadian Encyclopedia)
1918 Mennonite Certificate (source Canadian Encyclopedia)

April 27, 1918 Mennonite Settlement in Vanderhoof

J.V. Neufeld continues, “They started out with a great deal of enthusiasm, worked hard and achieved much but not without frustration and discouragement.  Throughout the first year (1917) quite a few more Mennonites came to the area.  Some bought land and some pre-empted homesteads and made an attempt to get a start.  Others could not adapt themselves to the hard life of pioneering and waited until the time would come when they could again return to the haven of their former existence.”

April 27, 1918 Vanderhoof Mennonite Church service

Peter Neufeld lists early Mennonite settlers attending church services, which were held in family homes on a rotating basis as there was no church.  “The people who were present at this service were: the whole Suderman family, all our family (Neufeld/Voths), the Warkentins, the whole Manman Family, Mr. Renz and Mr. Klaus and a Mr. Hildebrand.  Jake Wiens and Jake Balzer had not returned from their trip and Hilda, very anxious for them, had remained at home.

May 7, 1918 Discrimination

From Peter Neufeld’s diary, “Mr. Johnson almost has the entire trade with the Mennonites.  His prices are a little lower than those of McGeachy, his rival and the owner of by far the largest store in town.  We patronize his store chiefly on account of this and not on account of the fact that (George) Hildebrand (a Mennonite settler) is working for him.  McGeachy is angry, according to Hildebrand, that Johnson has hired a Mennonite settler as clerk.  He had said, if Hildebrand’s words can be relied upon, that he would cause the Mennonites a great deal of trouble yet.  All the merchants seem to charge exorbitant prices.  We intend to order many necessary things from farther east.”

June 10, 1918 Loneliness

Describing a visit “across the river” (from Engen to Braeside), where Peter Neufeld’s family stayed with the Donovan’s, Peter writes, “Mrs Donovan had said that at one time she hadn’t seen a women for five months at a time while Mr. Donovan hadn’t seen anybody for nine months.”  In 1918 access to Braeside was canoe or boat between Engen and Braeside, and crossing was dangerous.  A scow was built in 1918 and a ferry soon after, making crossings much safer.

July 25, 1918 House Building Innovation

Summer 1918 was busy with settlers building their homes.  Cornelius (could be Reimer, Neufeld or Dick) “invented a device by which the pins for holding (house) logs together can be cut with greater dispatch and less exertion.  It consists of a small pipe inserted in a short log of wood.  By pounding through this a short length of wood, the piece is cut into the proper shape.”

 July 25, 1918 Braeside School

With the Province of BC promising a ferry between Engen and Braeside interest in property and settlement in the two communities grew.  Dissatisfied with how they were treated in Vanderhoof, Mennonite settlers planned and built a store and post office in Engen and the Goldies, Neufelds, Ludwigs and Sudermans started a new school district, built a temporary school house and hired a teacher for the new Braeside school.

August 23, 1918 Alleged Alien Enemies – German Mennonites

The Daily Colonist newspaper, following up on complaints from Vanderhoof, published this article:

Alleged Alien Enemies

Action by the government was also urged by the. deputation In the case of alleged German Mennonites, who, it was stated, are being deported from the United States and are being brought to British Columbia and are settling upon government lands, especially in the vicinity of Vanderhoof, on the line on the G. T. P. railway.

The deputation intimated that It thought the Provincial Government was remiss in permitting such alien enemies to take up land here.

Premier Oliver pointed out that the Province has no status in dealing with aliens, a matter which, he said is one solely for the Federal Government. But he could say that no such aliens as ‘ alleged have settled upon government lands at or near Vanderhoof, for no such lands are open for settlement.’

Recently he had received communications from concerns evidently anxious to locate Mennonites on British Columbia land, such concerns having inquired as to the status of such Immigrants In regard to military service. He had replied that while British Columbia is anxious to acquire experienced settlers at the same time none but those ready to fulfil the obligations of citizenship in the fullest possible manner are desired.

But the Premier suggested, the deputation should put its representations in writing and forward them to him. when he would take the matter up with the Ottawa government.
This the deputation promised to do.

Impacts of these ‘concerns’ soon reached Vanderhoof.

September 21, 1918 Complaints about Mennonites in Vanderhoof

Due to complaints from residents in Vanderhoof, the Government of Canada advised that no more Mennonite settlers should be brought to Vanderhoof, BC.  The complaints? Mennonite religious services were being conducted in German and Mennonite settlers were overheard speaking in German in town.

1918 End of the Vanderhoof Mennonite settlement

With the end of WW1 and the return of veteran soldiers conditions for Mennonite settlers worsened.  The Veteran’s Land Act, providing pre-emption property to veterans and excluding Mennonites due to complaints, the Mennonite settlement in Vanderhoof folded.

The passing of Henry Voth, the “father of the new colony that was born last April in the Braeside district” likely also contributed to end of the settlement.

Henry Voth, father of Vanderhoof Mennonite Settlement in 1918
Henry Voth, father of Vanderhoof Mennonite Settlement in 1918

Authors J.V. and Peter Neufeld describe some of the issues Mennonite settlers in Vanderhoof, BC faced.  “They often became objects of suspicion and hatred.  This became especially evident when exempted individuals did not, in practical life, follow the instructions of the Bible or the precepts of the church and just used their cards conveniently to escape military pressures.”

Likely, many were not using their cards “conveniently to escape military pressures”, but as humans, didn’t always succeed in making their actions match their beliefs.

J.V. Neufeld continues, “Despite the many favourable aspects of the Nechako Valley and the solid caliber of the settlers themselves, the settlement folded up gradually and completely within a few years just as a Dutch settlement at Engen did several years before.

I must admit that it was quite difficult for me to write the paragraphs dealing with the breaking up of the settlement.  I tried to point out that the economy was the major, responsible factor and yet I strongly feel that the hurts, the discouragements, the turmoil and the anxieties that were experienced by these wonderful people had also much to do with weakening their desire to continue.”

Mennonite settlers lasting impact in Vanderhoof, BC and region

While the planned Mennonite settlements in and around Vanderhoof didn’t last, many Mennonite families stayed and their descendants still live in Vanderhoof, BC.

In addition to founding the Braeside school, petitioning that led to the Engen ferry and homesteading in Engen, Braeside and Mapes, early Mennonite settlers operated farms and businesses that supported Vanderhoof’s growth to what it is today.

These founding farmers and business people paved the way for those that followed, proving Vanderhoof, BC as a region where successful farming and sawmilling was possible.

Welcoming and Inclusive Communities

Has Vanderhoof (and British Columbia and Canada) become more welcoming and inclusive in the last 100 years?  Would immigrants to Vanderhoof face the same discrimination, mistrust and hostility as the Mennonite settlers did in 1918?  Have Canadians learned from history?

Want to be part of a community group working to make Vanderhoof, BC welcoming and inclusive?  Check out the Good Neighbours Committee.  Membership is open to all.  Visit the Good Neighbours Committee website, Facebook page or email lstriegler@csfs.org  Read about recent Good Neighbours Committee projects.

The book and play Saik’uz and Settlers written by Lisa Striegler provides more information on early Vanderhoof, BC settlement.

Learn more about Vanderhoof, BC history and read local book reviews.