My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

COMMENTS are very welcome. You may reach me by clicking on the "view my complete profile".

Friday, March 1, 2013


“Three landscapes confront the visitor to the western interior of Canada:  The prairies, which roll seemingly without end west and north from the Red River toward the Rockies and the Arctic: the parkland, where a profusion of birds and lakes, gentle hills and valleys, and fertile soil suggest a crescent-shaped oasis at the northern edge of the prairies; and the boreal forest, with rock outcroppings, cold lakes, and miles of spruce and pine as little traveled today as they were 400 years ago.”
                                                            Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History[1]

 Gerhard Willems, my great-great grandfather, died in the community of Rosthern, Saskatchewan in1900, a year after his immigration from Minnesota.  The town of Rosthern and the farms around it lie on a peninsula of land formed by the converging of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers.  The land north of the North Saskatchewan River is boreal forest, a region of ice-scoured rock, myriad lakes, poplar, spruce and pine trees that covers the northern two-thirds of the province.  Just below the boreal forest is the narrow strip of fertile soil classified as parkland, a land of rich black soils with high organic content.   This parkland, the best farmland in the whole province of Saskatchewan, is the land five of Gerhard’s children chose as their new home.  As someone has said, Mennonites have a nose for good soil.

This good land is the reason why so many Mennonites decided to pick up and move hundreds of miles north, move from one place with extreme weather to another that was even colder.  And much of this land was almost free.  Canada had Homesteading policies similar to those in the U.S.  All that was needed to acquire a quarter section of land—160 acres—was a ten dollar registration fee, construction of a home and the clearing of at least ten acres within three years.  And people could file on another quarter section after these conditions were met.  Of course, this “free” land required a lot of work, but Mennonites were used to that.  And it required money to develop, but all farming involved financial investment.  Here at least, the Mennonites from Mountain Lake were getting in just as this region was opening for settlement, before all the good land was taken.  And they were not going into a completely unknown land.  Mennonites from Russia were quite well settled into the place by the time Gerhard Willems’ children began arriving in 1899. 

             Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: “Rosthern Mennonite Settlement”

“A compact reserve consisting of as many as twenty villages was established south of Rosthern …by Old Colony Mennonites from Manitoba in 1895-1905.  The social organization of the conservative colonies in south Russia was systematically duplicated in North-central Saskatchewan: Wide streets (a custom developed in Russia due to the possibility of thatched roofs catching fire), a Schult (village overseer), and German language schools and churches.  These adjoining Mennonite settlements then expanded into a single vast settlement with the establishment of additional communities and congregations by Mennonite Brethren from the American Midwest (particularly Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma), directly from Russia, or via Manitoba, in 1898-1918.”                                                                                                            

Eleven miles west of Rosthern is the town of Waldheim, another Mennonite enclave.  In the fields near that town is where the Mennonite Brethren built their first church, the church known in my family as the Brotherfield Church.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia: “Brotherfield Mennonite Brethren”

     “The Brotherfield Mennonite Brethren congregation near Waldheim, Saskatchewan began services in 1900, and formally organized in 1901.  The first building was occupied in 1902, with a subsequent building program in 1911. …
   “The Brotherfield congregation was one of the first Mennonite Brethren congregations in Canada.  During the years 1897-1899 a number of families from Minnesota and South Dakota pioneered in the Waldheim area.  They met in homes until the formal 1901 organization.”             

            Cornelius Willems, my great-grandfather, was the first person buried in the Brotherfield Church cemetery.

~ ~ ~

[1] University of Toronto Press, 1984.