Archive for the ‘Countess Country Museum’ Category


There is the official history of the world, and the land. There is religious history. There is political history. There is geo-political history. Some would even class colonialism, and other epochs of history (Reformation, Enlightenment, and Romanticism). Each human prairie-memoirsmovement and people cling to an official history of what they distill down to be the most important aspects for their legacy. The meta-narratives of history can be boiled down to the local communities’ yore, and then the tales of the people. This is the jurisdiction of family journals, scrap books, photo albums, and if one family is lucky, publishing of a memoir. This is the journey that Margaretha Wilms …and the Meadowlark Sang –Prairie Memoirs- (2011) takes the reader through. It starts with Mennonite Migration to North America, after laying out who Mennonites are, then comes down to her local family unit on the Prairies (when it was still the Northwest Territories).

A tale familiar to many of a family structure to accomplish shared goals, this being farm life, communal meals, shared religious upbringing, tight community with kith and kin. It also shares some of the struggles, what it was like to be in a world shaped by certain points of view. The fun of Crokinole (and yes it is fun, if you make it to Countess ask for a game). The importance of family, chosen and by blood, for that is what a healthy supportive community becomes, a family chosen. Sharing stories of roles that seem antiquated through today’s lens and child rearing that would not be considered but it was her reality that shaped her life.

The joy of Christmas and the arrival of the Eaton’s and Simpsons catalog for ordering  gifts from, and as we have learned through the exploration of the Countess Bible School, a time when the winter Sabbath from the farm would bring different opportunities.

Through it all, she ties to scripture of her heritage, Hebrew Bible prophets and wisdom. The familiar (to the Birds fans) refrain of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 of a time for everything, and the prophet Joel, to a reminder of why sharing our stories matter:

Tell it to your children,
    and let your children tell it to their children,
    and their children to the next generation. (New International Version)

Willms (p.116) shares of the personal renaissance, as she grew in life and moved from shame to embracing of her heritage and who she was as a person. She writes of being a Saskatchewan farm child in the grasshopper infested-dust bowl of farm life of the Dirty Thirties, how her parents modeled values she still holds dear of the intangibles, or as Willms phrased it eternal over material.

Her journey takes her through Prairie Bible Institute and Caronport, as she discerns whom she is. The narrative shifts into the Russian Mennonites who came later to Canada. For Mennonites had enjoyed very good autonomy, and a strong control of the flourmill industry under Tsarist Russia, but between 1917 (Bolshevik Revolution) and 1925 (when the last would try to flee) the tide would turn as they were seen as enemies of the state (p.234-35). These immigrant’s to Canada became known as Russlanders, as only their country of origin was Russia (p.236).

meadowlark-memoir-image-1.jpgCP Rail loved the work ethic of Mennonites that were coming in this later wave, and brought them to the prairies to work (Countess, Gem, Rosemary and Duchess) with each family being given ¼ sections of land originally managed by French Settlers (p.236). Willms’ husband, John was part of this wave of immigration. They were a hearty bunch that built a church in Gem fairly readily, with many choosing to gather in the Clemenceau School in Countess because it was closer in the cluster (p. 237). The influx of Russlander Mennonites doubled the size of Mennonites in Canada and brought 176 new congregations, this is important as the church was the hub of communal life (p.237). In 1924, 8,000 Mennonites came to Canada, and CP Rail negotiated to sponsor another 3, 772 in 1925 (p. 239). Some newcomers found Canada to worldly and wanted to go to Mexico or Paraguay to avoid what they viewed as a “sinful” nation; while others wanted to dive in to Canadian life taking further education, rising in leadership and building a new world (p.238-9).

John’s parents were part of the 1925 wave of immigrants from Russia. By 1926 Stalin had stopped the flow out of the Motherland (p.239). John was born to his parents in Ontario, they went on to settle a farm in Manitoba before finally coming to Countess, AB in an irrigation arrangement with a few other Mennonite settlers (p.240).

John Willms met his wife Margaretha, in Alberta, in the Irrigation District of Countess, part of what is known as the Palliser Triangle the driest patch of land in Canada (p. 241-242). John had remained in the area when his parents had returned to Manitoba.

The irrigation district from Calgary to Medicine Hat was the property of CP Rail, and built to facilitate the railway (p.242). It was tax exempt from 1921 and was to be irrigated but this idea was quashed instead to use a Dam system of the Bow River by Bassano (p.242).  The French settlements were mostly in tact when the Russlander settlers came and moved in. They had originally been settled by Quebecois and Francophones from Eastern USA between 1917-1919 but after years of almost freezing to death, and few crops they left to head east back to Quebec (p.242). This is why CP Rail sought out the Russlanders to make the hamlets viable for their endeavour.

John attended Clemenceau School for his education, it was originally a Francophone school named after a VIP French General (p. 242-3). It was a one-room school house, with a rectory-style house on the same land for the teacher (who was also expected to function as janitor) (p.243).

As we move into the betrothment, wedding, and settlement back into Saskatchewan with Margaretha and John. Teaching around the province, children, staying connected with the family diaspora, the CCF, oh and a nice wrap up as an appendix with the recipes mentioned throughout the book.

It makes one reflect if they were to pause, and write the story of their family, what would it look like?

What is our story?

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For some this weekend is Epiphany, in Orthodox churches (Ukranian, Greek, Russian) it is a Christmas celebration of food and family. We have just come back from a potluck in our own church where many shared their memories of celebrating Christmases when they were young, for one it was farm life in Saskatchewan, another in the Netherlands, and another in Venezuala. Sharing stories, food and song.
It felt like a very Prairie night of learning about one another. This is what we are hoping to have in Countess, and on this Facebook page (Countess Country Museum). What we are already seeing happen. Neighbours and those who have grown up around the area sharing their stories, snippets of pictures or journals or news clippings. It is what we have found on the web, in archives, and from memoirs. Memoirs are a great resource, it is not just for the powerful or rich and famous, but to share one’s story, their family history, so it is set down.
As we enter into 2019, I encourage everyone to take time to share about the life they have lived, how things were, how things are and the dreams for the future. For is that not the true gift of history and Our stories within history, the foundational building blocks for the next generation?
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Image may contain: sky and outdoorThe Vee Bar Vee Ranch is part of the history we have discovered, maybe not formally associated with Countess, Alberta it is apart of the lost history of the prairies. I note lost history as when digging for more information things from a similarly named outfit in Arizona come up.
Anecdotally we have heard it was a large ranching outfit that stretched across Alberta and British Columbia. Also with searching, discovered a short note that when the North West Mounted Police first came west to eliminate the Whiskey Traders, the ranch was used as barracks.
Does anyone have any information available to share about this prairie ranch?
Thank you.
Image may contain: sky, ocean, outdoor, nature and water
Image may contain: sky, cloud, outdoor and nature

Apprenticeship is a brilliant design for most fields. It is the direct application of knowledge in real time. That is we learn, we serve. It is something that I have contemplated many times during my decades of service. There are some ministry or social work programs that build in practicum or service hours during each semester, which in my mind is brilliant. One can learn from a book and faculty sure, but there is something about seeing what works with the transfiguring or shadowed human before you. How do you facilitate the true self emerging? Other programs, wait until near the end to allow for practicum experience and I have found this can be a stumbling block for they are so filled with theory, and heady knowledge there is an unwillingness to learn from colleagues, elders in the field and those they serve for they are filled with knowledge and know it all best…but lack in the heart wisdom.

Most know of the apprentice models through the trades, which makes sense. How does one become a Master Tradesman in their field? Education and practice going hand in hand. Applied knowledge becoming wise. I write this reflecting on being the son of an Electrician. Trust me, I was part of the only SAIT class to need to write the tool exam, so I am not of the handy variety (at least my wife finds me cute, to invert Red Green wisdom). But in spite of my own inaccuracies there are some basics I learned along the way on job sites helping out, and doing paperwork. It aided in discerning where I was meant to be.

But what does this have to do with the Countess Country Museum or a Countess Bible School? It is amazing what happens when you peel an onion of lost prairie history. What we knew was that it was a CP Rail stop, a Hamlet built for that. What was discovered in its 104 year history was a story of discovery, migration, building, and connecting. Community across lines, where for a while, denominational distinctions did not matter. Where Buddhists and Mormons shared land, where Mennonites came and settled after French Settlers left (my hypothesis is the French farmer-ranchers left in the early 20th Century the Alberta area due to the Conscription Crisis that led to our first National Referendum in Canada).

The Mennonites settled the Royal Line, and from 1929-1940 met in Countess, AB out of Clemenceau (Francophone) School. In peeling the onion I discovered something intriguing about the land for 2019. It will be the 80th anniversary of the Countess Bible School (ran for 5 months in the winter of 1939-1940).

What is a Bible School?

T.D. Regehr in Mennonites in Canada 1939-1970: A People Transformed (1996) writes:

Bible schools typically offered a `Bible-centred, intensely practical, lay-oriented program of poste secondary theological training.’ (p.233).

There were 3 objectives:

  1. Equip the laity with basic Biblical Knowledge and understanding.
  2. Equip and train preachers, teachers, choir directors and other church workers.
  3. Preserve a distinct Mennonite Identity

(Paraphrased from Regehr, p. 233).

Winter was obviously chosen, as on the Prairies it was the slow time, and also the darkest time. It supported not only learning but community for it connected neighbours. Truly it was the original Small Group in the modern world if you will. For the leaders learned and discovered their vocation while rooted in community practicing. It was spiritual apprenticeship, preparing those that served the intangibles of life and community. It was learning the knowledge during the Sabbath time of winter on the Prairies to apply in the new spring. Knowledge becomes wisdom when lived and applied. A life vocation is discovered through practice and community.

In 2019 we celebrate this scant 5 months of history on the prairies, as a place of discovery, learning, growth and wisdom. Much like what the Museum is, and will be for Alberta. Happy Anniversary Countess Bible School, 80 years on.

Reference:

Regehr, T.D.(1996) Mennonites in Canada 1939-1970 A People Transformed.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


farminSharing the story of community, through preserving prairie history. It is a small Hamlet, Countess, that had been part of the “Royal Line” (Duchess, Patricia, Rosemary, Gem, Empress, Bassano and Countess).  It is a family affair that has seen through Parades in 2013 and 2014 a “re-launch” of the Royal Line, raising over $11,000 for the Alberta Children’s Hospital and over $13,000 for Children’s Wish respectively. It has hosted family reunions, birthday parties, anniversaries, and community gatherings. Oh and even fun wedding shoots.

free reignThe Real Canadian Joe’s sponsored our cabins. The Guns of the Golden West celebrated our Playin’ 4 Keeps (Alberta Children’s Hospital Tour).

It has a relocated CP Rail Caboose to honour the rail heritage. A little know fact is that Countess was part of a stage coach line in Alberta that came out of Bassano. In fact, the stage coach driver was from Countess, and had been in the Calgary Stampede parade circa 1912-1919. In 1928 the Mennonite settlers of the area with other believers from Rosemary and Gem planted a church. From 1939-1940 the Countess Bible School flourished.p4k9

The historical artifact floats (Stage Coach, 1923 Pumper Truck) as well as the Playhouse float are award winning.

pumper truck

The dream has even been featured in local media: BRO-Edition-Nov-18-2008-Section-B-Page-1

It is a fun place, where kids of all ages and abilities can freely explore. Whether it is a moment of watching the horses, or when there was Llamas and a Rooster, fun is fun. The tee pees allowed our children to connect early with recapturing their Aboriginal roots; and the parades showed how much fun it can be to help others through philanthropy and community. (Check us out on Facebook).