From West Lynne through the West Mennonite Reserve

A journey over the rich meadow lands of Manitoba, in the great Northwest, the enjoyment of the fresh breezy air, (nowhere purer than on the wide open prairies of the west), will infuse new life into the constitutions of the most delicate. Your correspondent is aware of no more efficient way of producing appetite and making the fattest of pork palatable than such a trip. However, a good appetite with a relish for fat pork is needed in case it should be your lot, (or misfortune), to strike bad roads. Then the rich, dark soil of the prairies, stirred up by the continual travel, becomes a sticky mud, a regular black paste. The words of the old song “Put your Shoulder to the Wheel”, often have been literally fulfilled when someone is called upon to pull their vehicle through and out of such mud after its wheels have sunk to their axles. Such excursions make it a necessity, at all camping grounds, to replenish the inner man with a solid nourishment in which salt pork and beans oft form a most luxurious fare.

On a beautiful Sunday morning in the beginning of May not a mile distant from your own thriving town of West Lynne, on just such roads as described, it was our good fortune to fall in with a party of immigrants who had left Emerson on the previous day, westward bound to the Turtle Mountains.i It should be noted that nowhere on our entire trip west of over 200 miles can a worse piece of road be found than the first twelve miles west of West Lynne.

The immigrants were a large party of late arrivals from England, with ox teams and wagons, new outfits complete. As this was their first introduction to the driving of oxen, the “back!”, “whoa!” and “gee!” often got mixed with something that sounded a good deal like “tarnation” and “darn it”. Of course, before this older settlers and older drivers than these have got themselves badly mixed in their language while addressing their cattle and ox teams when stuck in a mud hole. Some idea of the labour undergone by these people, and the worry to their teams, may be imagined when we state it took them three whole days to make a journey of twelve miles over the bad roads immediately west of your town.

In comparison to what the provincial government has yearly expended on the route west of Winnipeg via Portage la Prairie, a small sum would be sufficient to make it possible for our great western highway to be kept open in all seasons of the year.ii What an inducement it would be to settlement and what an immense saving at a trifling cost to the immigrants hauling their effects westward!

However, the experience gained by the newcomers on the first three days of their journey was not lost to them. On the contrary it was an opportunity to learn from the experienced gentleman in charge of the party, Mr. L. O. Armstrong, Government Land Guide, many ways and means of getting around difficulties, and that no matter how badly they might get stuck, there was always some plan that could be devised to get out.iii

Arriving at what is known in West Lynne as the Twelve Mile Village, the roads became much better.iv The next morning, after camping here for the night, we bade adieu and a bon voyage to the English party. Now fairly embarked on a 600 mile journey across the prairies of our most beautiful province, with a genial companion and a spanking new team of Quebec horses, we were bowling along in our light buckboard.

As we passed Mennonite village after village, we were forced to acknowledge the work of these people who have wrought such a great change in such a short period of time on the woodless tract of country lying between the Red River and the Pembina Mountains.v In their eagerness to locate amongst the wooded lands of the Pembina Mountains, but a few years ago the hardy Canadian pioneers passed these lands as worthless. Now hundreds of peaceful and industrious Mennonite families have located thereon, changing the scene as if by magic. The cultivated fields extending in all directions yield an untold wealth to the tillers of the soil. From our buckboard we could see men and teams busy at work in the fields and large droves of cattle peacefully feeding in the rich grass and we could hear the sound of the steam whistle issuing from the busy mills on the plain.

Twenty-five miles from West Lynne we arrive at the Central Hotel, so called by our friend Brown, the genial and corpulent proprietor, on account of its central position between West Lynne and the Pembina Mountains.vi Parties travelling the road will find it a good stopping place, clean and well kept, and will receive all attention for either man or beast. A short stay for dinner and on for Mountain City where we arrive at seven in the evening, after driving over some of the most beautiful land in the province.

i

. (10). EMERSON 1-1-2e, In the spring of 1873 the founders of Emerson, Wm. Fairbanks and Thomas Carney, initiated contacts with Manitoba’s Lieutenant-Governor Archibald which soon led to their receiving a large grant of land just north of the border on the east side of the Red River. In September 1874 the Dominion Land Office was relocated from Fort Dufferin across the river to Emerson and the town’s first buildings were constructed with 60,000 board feet of lumber purchased off a flatboat tied up to a stump on the east bank of the Red. The growth of the first town in southern Manitoba was gradual until November 1878 when the arrival from the south of a railroad link with the rest of the civilized world quickly made Emerson “the Gateway City” joined to all points west via THE POST ROAD, (die Post Wajch” to the Mennonites of the West Reserve), and the COMMISSION TRAIL.

(11). WEST LYNNE 2-1-2e, Montcalm Municipality. Laid out in 1879 on the land surrounding the NORTH PEMBINA Hudsons Bay Post, West Lynne was incorporated as a town in 1882 and the following year became part of Emerson. Since 1889 it has been, once again, part of the 5000 acres officially constituting the Emerson town property.

ii

. Our friend “Buckboard” is here referring to the Portage Trail that linked Winnipeg with Portage La Prairie along the north bank of the Assiniboine via High Bluff and Poplar Point. Portage Avenue received its name as the eastern section of this route west. For a fascinating description of travel along “the Portage Road” in September 1880 see Nellie McClung’s, Clearing in the West, Chapter VII, On The Trail.

iii

. For further information on Mr. L. O. Armstrong, Government Land Guide, please see Volume I, Meet You on the Trail or West Before the Railroad, A Biographical Note.

iv

. (13). EDENBURG 2-1-1w, Rhineland Municipality. This settlement was well known to English-speaking travellers as the TWELVE MILE VILLAGE. Rev. Heinrich Wiebe, one of the original Mennonite delegates to America in 1873, was one of the pioneers of Edenburg.

v

. The first Mennonites, Anabaptists from southern Russia with their roots in East Prussia and Holland, arrived in Winnipeg in July 1874 and settled on a reserve east of the Red River in the vicinity of Niverville and Steinbach. Here they soon discovered that much of the soil was too poor to make a decent living and in 1875 they began moving west across the Red River.

Among the first records of their presence west of the Red River are notations made during the summer and fall of 1875 by the surveyors working in the townships west of the Red River. Their maps indicate several “Mennonite camps” established as early as July. By fall these new settlers were living in 17 villages when the Free Press noted that each village sent two wagons to Emerson to bring back flour for the winter.

On 25 April 1876 the Mennonites were allotted 17 townships west of the Red River, land which became known as the West or Boundary Reserve. Although most of it was the treeless plain of the Red River Valley, it also included several townships of heavy bush as a source of building timber and fuel.

In the spring of 1876, the road these settlers established through the center of their reserve was marked with guideposts at regular intervals. It was these posts which soon gave their name to this trail, the Post Road. It soon became the principal link between the Red River, (initially the Hudsons Bay post at North Pembina, then Emerson and later West Lynne) and the settlements of the Pembina Mountains and all points west. By the late 1870s, although well used by the Mennonite farmers of the reserve, the majority of its travellers, sometimes totally several hundred a day, were settlers on their way west.

As it often took several days to cross the reserve, it soon became a common practise for settlers to stop, either for meals or overnight accommodations, in the Mennonite villages along the Post Road. Almost without exception, the two groups met on the best of terms. Travellers along the trail accepted with gratitude the hospitality so graciously offered by the residents of the West Reserve and the thrifty Mennonites were happy to get the cash that came their way from these guests. By our standards charges were exceedingly modest. Some homes charged as little as five cents per person for a place to sleep and something to eat in the morning. Others chose “eine slupp”, (literally “a sleep”) a group rate, 60 cents for the whole family with stabling and feed for the horses or oxen included.

vi

. (17). BROWNS GRAND CENTRAL HOTEL 11-1-3w, Rhineland. In March 1881 Mr. Wm. Brown, previously manager of the Davis House in Winnipeg, took over management of this establishment and it soon became a great favorite among the more affluent travellers along the trail who did not care to partake of the hospitality offered in the nearby Mennonite homes.

Located on school land, in the heart of the West Mennonite Reserve, Mr. Brown’s hotel was a sore point with the leaders of the Mennonite community who repeatedly petitioned the authorities to close down these premises and force their proprietor to move elsewhere. However, other petitions signed by patrons carried a greater weight until finally in January 1888 Mr. Brown was able to purchase the property.

Early records make many references to the warm hospitality enjoyed by the guests of this establishment but only one makes mention of the rates. Writing in Cornerstone of Empire, (page 110), Mrs. Jas. McGregor recalled, “The return trip to Emerson would take a week, and any time spent in Emerson would be over and above that. Later there was a good hotel set up 25 miles from Emerson, which was called ‘Brown’s’. This was a good house and at that time considered pretty steep at $2 a day.”

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