I have a real fascination with old black and white pictures. I am especially interested in photos of people I know, but can spend days looking into any antique photo collection to learn about how people lived their lives generations ago.
I expect this is a familiar feeling for anyone who has looked through old family pictures and wished that there was someone still around to explain who was in the picture and what was happening on that day. Was it a birthday? A visit to a relative? Or just a walk in a park to share good news? The black and white photos tucked away in shoe boxes so quickly become anonymous faces staring out at us from another century with stories that are rooted in imagination instead of fact.
If I had to settle on a single reason why I wrote Ravenscraig, it would have to be this interest in old pictures.
Ravenscraigis a novel that tells the story of some of the major events in Winnipeg during the height of the immigration boom that began in the 1890s. Two families– one Jewish, poor and struggling to put down roots in the New World; the other rich and resistant to the foreigners among them–together provide a view of what life was like in a booming frontier city in Canada at the turn of the 20th century.
The research for the story was a most gratifying journey that included wide ranging resources from scholarly works and rare books to archived collections of rare documents, private letters and microfilmed court testimony. Online sources included such favourite websites as the Manitoba Historical Society, the City of Winnipeg Department of Planning, Canada Census Records and the online newspaper archives like the Manitoba Free Press.
The inspiration for my desire to learn about the early days of Winnipeg grew out of a fascination with my own family roots. My family came to Manitoba in 1896 from Zalischiky, Galicia, which is now part of the Ukraine. They were “Stalwart Peasants in Sheepskin Coats” as Clifford Sifton the minister responsible for immigration had called them. They came to Canada to farm, answering the invitation for free land in Canada’s determination to populate the prairies.
It is a most gratifying journey to learn about one’s past. What pictures are in your shoebox?
This blog celebrates the history of Winnipeg, my hometown, and occasionally allows me to indulge in some wider observations of the world that catch my interest.
Here you will find stories about Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century when the Manitoba capital declared her glory as one of the fastest growing cities in North America. The research behind the stories you will find on this site was done over many years and became the basis for the storyline for my novel, Ravenscraig. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. Email me at: email@example.com
The early years in Manitoba were very exciting, with Winnipeg recognized as the gateway city for people and goods traveling west to the new frontier. From these years of rapid growth in Winnipeg, 1874-1914, there developed a large group of millionaires and the crop of mansions they built to impress each other.
Historian, Dr. Alan Artibise, referred to these captains of industry as “the commercial elite” and truly Winnipeg was seen by those “down east” in Ontario, as the place to be for those seeking to make or increase their fortunes at the dawn of the 20th century.
But not everyone had a shot at the big money in Winnipeg.
On the other side of the tracks, newly arrived immigrants struggled to overcome the horrors of poverty, disease and anti-foreigner sentiments as they fought to put down roots in the New Country. It is from this determination of the newcomers to survive and prosper that the famed Winnipeg North End came to be.
To help understand the rich mosaic in this colourful history, I’ve included a selection of films, featuring such topics as Jews in Winnipeg, life in a Ted Baryluk’s store in the North End, and a terrific NFB film about a man whose job was to keep the tracks clean for the Winnipeg street cars.
Titanic, I must say, is my true love in research topics so you will find a number of postings about Winnipeg’s Titanic connection, and Titanic in general. In all there were more than thirty passengers on the ship who were on their way to Winnipeg to return home, stay for a visit, or like survivor Eva Hart’s family, to settle in Manitoba as immigrants.
I was a child when I first learned about the Titanic. My dad took us for a drive to point out Mark Fortune’s house on Wellington Crescent and told us about the six people from the Fortune family who were on their way home to Winnipeg when the great ship struck an iceberg and sank. I was horrified, and instantly hooked.
Ravenscraig, the blog, (and title of my novel) is taken from the name of a fictitious home, Ravenscraig Hall, in Winnipeg’s Armstrong’s Point and owned by Rupert Willows, the lead character in the book.
About the novel:
Ravenscraig is about two families: the Willows—wealthy, powerful and anti-Semitic, and the Zigmans—newly arrived Jews, struggling to put down roots in Winnipeg’s North End.
Click on the image below to see the book trailer for Ravenscraig.
Ukrainian-speaking peasants from Eastern Europe were not anywhere near the preferred list of immigrants wanted by Canada in the early 1890s. English, French and American farmers were the top choice. But, the government had a huge problem. Not enough of these “acceptable” people were interested in breaking the land in the Canadian West, and the Americans were expressing a keen interest in annexing the vast open land.
The government decided it had no choice but to look to less attractive immigrants to solve the problem of populating the prairies.
When I speak of quality I have in mind something that is quite different from what is in the mind of the average writer or speaker upon the question of immigration. I think that a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality.
~ Clifford Sifton
One man, Clifford Sifton, Canada’s Minister of the Interior and charged with the responsibility of immigration (1896-1905), drove the campaign to open Canada’s doors to Central and Eastern Europe. The country needed to establish farming on the prairies, and they needed people who could survive on their own to do it.
Among the first to respond to Canada’s invitation for free land were peasants from Galicia and Bukovinia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were poor farmers who were being crowded off of their meager farms. As their families expanded, the land they had available to share with their children was being divided down to nothing. Facing a bleak future and deep poverty, the idea of being given 160 acres of land they would own, with bush that would provide wood for fuel and animals for food, became a powerful force in motivating them to strike out for the new opportunity.
In the summer of 1896, the first Ukrainian-speaking settlers arrived in Manitoba. They were a group of 27 families from Galicia, who had sailed on the SS Sicilia from Hamburg to Quebec City. From there they took the train to Winnipeg, before making their way to their allotted lands, 75 miles southeast of Winnipeg at Stuartburn. Among this group of immigrants were Petr Strumbicky and his wife Irena Goyman, and their five children from Zalischiky, Galicia. They sold everything they had, and brought only what they could carry. Their worldly goods, upon arrival at Winnipeg, amounted to little more than some seeds in a handkerchief and the equivalent of seven dollars.
The eldest child, Nikola, would marry Aksana Shmigelsky, a girl he knew from the old country who arrived with her family some years later. Aksana’s family was from the village of Blyschanka. Aksana and Nykola were exactly the kind of people Sifton spoke about. They would raise six children and live out their lives on their land at Vita.
The following story is an excerpt from my novel,Ravenscraig. This chapter tells the story of Nykola and Aksana, and is inspired by family stories and other accounts that I have read about the experiences of the these early pioneers. I am humbled by their resilience and their success.
I am posting this chapter in honour of the 80th birthday of my mother, Mary Krawchenko. Aksana and Nykola were her grandparents, and my mother’s childhood was spent on their farm at Vita.
My sisters and I have hands like our great grandmother. I know this, not because I remember her so well, but because I can see her work-worn hands resting quietly in her lap in a photograph that was taken in 1936. It must have been a Sunday, according to my mother, because they never worked on Sundays, and because she was wearing shoes. Her name was Aksana Shmigelsky and she was married to Nykola Strumbicky, who loved her with all of his heart.
Aksana is sitting in a kitchen chair outside her house at their farm near Vita, Manitoba. Nykola, is standing next to her. They were Baba and Gedo to their many grandchildren and great grandchildren. But to my mother, Mary and her cousins, Aksana was affectionately known as “Fat Baba”, to distinguish her from the other babas: Aksana’s mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were thin.
Kind and hard working, Aksana was barefoot all summer long, unless she was in church. She was known for making bread, cranberry jam, and whiskey, which she only served on special occasions or to important company. The bread was made in an outdoor oven called a pich.
I look at the photos and I think of the work that passed through Aksana’s hands in the harsh winters and blistering hot summers of Manitoba. In the picture with Nykola, she is the same age as I am now.
Some of the work she would have done is familiar to my brothers and sisters and me. Our hands have comforted children, planted marigolds in May, and have even kneaded dough for bread. But her hands were talented in ways that ours are not. Baba’s hands could pluck a chicken, plait garlic pulled fresh from the earth, and make intricate cross stitch patterns in a white cloth for an Easter basket.
My mother was 5 years old in 1936.
She was raised on this farm with her older sister Elsie. Everyone spoke Ukrainian. Mom learned English only when she moved to Winnipeg. The first home she lived in had a thatched roof and a mud floor.
Her grandparents had lived in the traditional Ukrainian style of shelter for more than 30 years before they built their “modern” house when my mother was a little girl. She remembers the new wooden house being built.
She also remembers how wonderful summers were at Vita because her cousins, Bob and Lug Harcott, who were close to her age, would come from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, with their mother, Ann Harcott, to spend the summer at the farm with her.
Canada was deep into the depression in the 1930s, and there were no luxuries on the farm, but there were plenty of good times and they never went hungry.
Some years later, the little brothers would come along to join the gang, Bill Harcott and Bill Bachynsky.
Their mothers, Tillie Bachynsky and Ann Harcott, seen here in 1928, dressed for the camera, remained very close all of their lives.
Aksana and Nykola married in Vita. They had both come to Canada with their families. In the “old country” they were from villages a few miles apart, Zalischiky and Blyschanka in Galicia, Austria, now in the westernmost part of Ukraine.
Nikola came to Canada before Aksana did. He was the eldest of five children and a young adult when his father Petr Strumbicky, then 60, heeded the call of the Canadian Government, offering free land to immigrants with hopes of putting a large “producing population” on the prairie lands of Western Canada. The government was anxious to establish a grain industry, and more importantly, to populate the prairies to prevent the Americans from annexing the region. Free land was offered to the immigrants. For a ten dollar registration fee, each family was granted 160 acres of land.
Petr Strumbicky, together with his wife, Irena Goyman, and their children came to Manitoba with the first group of 27 Ukrainian pioneer families that settled at the Stuartburn Colony, an area more familiarly known as Vita, today. The group sailed on theSS Sicilia, which docked in Quebec City in late July. They traveled by train to Winnipeg and spent a week at the immigration shed on the east side of the CPR station. By the time the exhausted colonists trekked out to their homesteads they had been traveling for two months. It was August and too late to plant a crop. These resilient people put their faith in God and each other. They carved homes out of the earth, and hunkered down to get through the winter with little more than their fierce determination to make it in the new country.
The land they settled had to first be cleared of stones and bush before they could plant crops.
All of the children worked alongside their parents, pulling rocks from the soil.
They suffered many hardships, but they stuck it out. Success was measured by mere survival, and in the small joys of laughing children, hearty meals, and time to visit to sing and tell stories with family and friends.
To this day, Mary, Bob and Lug share stories of their shared childhood. They consider themselves to have been blessed with memories of kindness, generosity and the strength of their grandparents.
In 1993, my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. I interviewed my mom and her cousins about those summer days long ago, for a family history film, called Korinchikeh. In this segment we get a glimpse of their special times together at Vita.
My mother, Mary (Bachynsky) Krawchenko, turned 80 on April 2. In honour of her birthday, I posted an excerpt from my novel, Ravenscraig. It is a chapter called “Stalwart Peasants in Sheepskin Coats” and is inspired by the story of Aksana and Nykola and their start in Canada.
(Click here or on the movie window at the bottom of this page to hear the Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton sing Mnohaya Lita.)
When I was a little girl on Gallagher Avenue in Winnipeg, every wedding, shower and birthday celebration involved people standing and singing Mnohaya Lita. Generally it was sung in a sad way, with a slow tempo, and occasional harmonies. Women wept and hankies appeared to wipe their tears and blow their noses. Someone was always blowing their nose at these affairs. It seemed odd to me, to have such a sad song at such joyous occasions, but it was very clear this was a tradition that was not to be questioned, so I didn’t ask.
Though Ukrainian was the mother tongue of my parents, and who knows how many generations before them, my brothers and sisters and I did not grow up speaking Ukrainian. This, despite the fact that our home was rich with Ukrainian culture, food and celebrations. We attended church, sporadically, at St. Mary’s the Protectress, a Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church in Winnipeg’s North End. My parents, Carl and Mary Krawchenko, were married there. They brought five “boomers” into the world to be Christened at “Sobor”. You could always count on hearing Mnohaya Lita at the Church. I loved it, and as I grew older, I started to weep, too, when I sang it.
Because the five of us children were born after the Second World War, Carl and Mary had limitless dreams for our success, and by their choice, we were not taught Ukrainian. It would not serve us. We were fifth generation Canadians and we were to be assimilated for the sake of opportunity. We were taught that we were as good as anybody else, including “The English”.
Years later, visiting at my Mom’s kitchen table, I asked what the words of Mnohaya Lita meant. When she told me, I was genuinely surprised that this was a happy song.
My Mom will turn 80 in a couple of weeks, so I went in search of Mnohaya Lita to be able to practice singing it. To my utter joy, I found this version from the Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton. Now this is the way to do a choir rehearsal. You will find the transliteration and translation of the words at the bottom of this posting.
Not a hankie in the bunch. How wonderful that these men have a passion for Ukrainian music and a heritage that runs deep in my blood. My thanks to the Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton for sharing their joy. Click on the window below to see the video of them singing.
In the photo at the top of this post: My mom, Mary Krawchenko (nee Bachynsky), and Baba, Tillie Bachynsky (nee Strumbicky). The children are me and my sister Margaret and the photo was taken at our home on Gallagher Avenue. I believe this picture was taken on the occasion of my grandmother’s 50th birthday party. Mnohaya Lita was most certainly sung that day. Baba was born on March 24th, 1909. I was born March 24th, 1956.
I miss saying: “Happy Birthday to you, too, Baba!”
Update on March 21, 2011
My friend Chris Mota in Montreal sent me a link to this wonderful choir singing the version that is more familiar to me. The information posted on youtube with this item is as follows:
МНОГАЯ ЛІТА, Державний академічний Волинський народний хор, 2009 рік, Луцьк, українська народна пісня, колядка, щедрівка, фольклор,http://proridne.com