Restored barn a link for East and West Reserves

Jordan Ross, The Carillon, August 2, 2018.

If you think moving a barn is hard work today, try doing it 140 years ago.

That’s the reminder Shaun Friesen likes to give during tours of the newly restored Commons Barn in Neubergthal, a small community southeast of Altona brimming with Mennonite history.

Friesen chairs the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation (NHF), a non-profit established in 1997 to oversee preservation and restoration projects at the National Historic Site, which is considered the best enduring example of a Mennonite single-street village in Canada.

A half-dozen occupied housebarns, unique hybrid structures with living and livestock quarters attached end-to-end, make a stroll through the community feel like a walk through time, and attract about 1,000 visitors per year.

The structure originally known as the Klippenstein Barn was built shortly after the first Mennonite settlers arrived on the East Reserve in August 1874.

The following two years were harsh, Friesen said, and it wasn’t long before a desire to find better farmland prompted the pioneers to number the beams, disassemble the barn, and move it to a patch of bald prairie 100 kilometres away on the West Reserve.

Today, the 2,700-sq-ft. structure stands as a unique and tangible link not only between the past and present, but between the two land reserves on either side of the Red River where Mennonites put down their transplanted roots.

An hour’s drive is now all that separates the East and West reserves today, but in 1876 oxen hauled the Klippenstein Barn, as horses weren’t yet used by Mennonites, Friesen said.

Still, the transporting of such a large structure wasn’t uncommon in pioneer communities. Log homes were moved from Emerson to Sommerfeld, just east of Neubergthal, in the 1880s using horses and rollers, Friesen said.

“They were undaunted by moving stuff.”

A good barn was a necessity on such an exposed plain, but the migrating East Reserve families couldn’t simply build an- other identical Klippenstein Barn on the West Reserve.

As Friesen explained, tamarack, the dense wood used for the barn’s distinctive tapered beams, was an ideal framing material, but didn’t grow in the West Reserve.

But oral histories and the 2015 Historical Atlas of the East Reserve indicate strands of the hardy, slow-growing conifer did grow in swampy areas throughout the East Reserve, including near Bergthal, an early Russian Mennonite community northwest of Steinbach settled between 1874 and 1876.

The hand-hewn beams and curved timberframe joints also illustrate pre-sawmill construction methods on the prairies, Friesen said. It would be 1879 before the first sawmill arrived on the West Reserve.

“It’s extremely hard work to hand-hew a beam,” said Graham Schellenberg, a University of Winnipeg student serving as NHF’s summer assistant who is researching Neubergthal’s nine founding families.

Once the barn was reassembled, Peter and Elizabeth Klippenstein used it for dairying, adding an attached house in 1910. While the barn saw continued use until the 1990s, its condition slowly deteriorated as the century wore on. A windstorm even deposited a tree onto it, Friesen recalled.

“It was a wreck. I do not know how it didn’t fall over.”

With the barn’s future in jeopardy, the NHF board started planning a major overhaul.

The redubbed Commons Barn opened in late May following an $860,000 restoration project, half of which was funded by a federal grant. Multi-year pledges mean NHF owes less than $100,000 on its share of the mortgage, Friesen said.

Crews essentially reduced the building to its posts, beams, and roof. Engineers designed special trusses to strengthen the barn’s skeleton, while sandblasting removed layers of old manure and whitewash. Cedar shingles were added to what was once a thatched reed roof, though several original windows were preserved.

With a poured concrete floor, geothermal ventilation system, accessible bathrooms, and public address system, the Commons Barn now functions as a multipurpose venue.

“I think it’s pretty awesome,” Friesen said, when asked how it felt to see the heritage structure brought back to life.

The NHF board hopes the barn becomes a hub for cultural preservation, “a place where improvised conversations can happen” and knowledge can be transmitted before it’s lost forever.

“We’ve said all along that stories matter,” Friesen remarked.

A National Aboriginal Day event on June 21 featuring Loretta Ross, Manitoba’s treaty relations commissioner, and elders from Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation, saw the barn function as a space for fostering intercultural understanding.

Friesen and Schellenberg said the event was a way of remembering the act that allowed Mennonites to obtain land in Manitoba in the first place: the signing of Treaty 1 in 1871.

As for the Klippenstein homestead attached to the barn, Friesen hopes a future grant will allow NHF to give it a similar restoration treatment, and transform its main floor sitting room into a historical library.

In the future, the board also hopes to raise the funds necessary to refurbish the neighbouring Altbergthal School and H.F. Hamm House, which together with the Klippenstein Barn sit on a four-acre property called Neubergthal Commons.

A Thursday evening workshop series is occurring at the Commons Barn through late August, and on Sept. 15 it will host Neubergthal Culture Day, a special event featuring housebarn tours and live music and comedy.