Doukhobor Development in the Ebenezer District

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Few people would associate Ebenezer, Saskatchewan with the Doukhobors.  After all, no Doukhobors have ever lived in the small farm community located ten miles north of Yorkton.  However, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) played a significant, if little known, role in the history and development of the village.  Between 1910 and 1920, the CCUB built the first railroad through the district, which led to the formation of the village; constructed the village’s first grain elevator; owned a large portion of the village site; and erected a number of buildings in the village and surrounding district.  Drawing upon a broad range of unpublished sources, Jonathan J. Kalmakoff sheds light on the Doukhobor connection to Ebenezer.

Early Contact with Ebenezer District Settlers

In the early days of settlement in Saskatchewan, the CCUB purchased goods and supplies at the Town of Yorkton, the main trading and distribution centre in the region.  To get there, the Doukhobors followed the old Fort Pelly Trail which ran in a south-westerly direction from their village settlements in the Veregin district, through the Ebenezer district, to Yorkton.  As there were no roads and few bridges in the area at the time, the trail, with its deep ruts made by the Red River carts of Indians and fur traders, was an important transportation route.  The thirty mile trip by horse and wagon took a whole day each way.

While passing through the Ebenezer district, the Doukhobor teamsters became acquainted with many of the settlers living along the trail.  Oftentimes, they stopped at their farm houses to rest their teams of horses, and when night overtook them, to secure food and lodging.  Elder residents of the district still recall the fine horses used on the Doukhobor wagon teams.  

The Fort Pelly Trail circa 1907.  The ox-cart trail ran in a south-westerly direction from Fort Pelly, through the Doukhobor village settlements and the Ebenezer district, to Yorkton.

The Doukhobors developed a particularly strong rapport with the German Baptist settlers who had arrived in the Ebenezer district from Russia between 1885 and 1897.  Like the Doukhobors, the Baptists were persecuted by Tsarist authorities and many had fled Russia to avoid military service.  Most still spoke Russian and were able to converse with the Doukhobors in their own language.  Their relations were marked by mutual respect and cooperation. 

For instance, in October 1911, Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin donated land owned by the CCUB to the German Baptist congregation living in Yorkton for a church site at Betts Avenue and Darlington Street.  Prior to that, they had to travel ten miles by horse and wagon to attend services at the West Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Building the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway

In the fall of 1909, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway announced its plans to build a branch line from Yorkton, north through the Ebenezer district, to Canora.  The contract for the right-of-way clearing and grade construction of the thirty mile line, valued at over $70,000.00, was awarded to the CCUB in March 1910. 

The Doukhobors were well positioned to carry out the contract. According to the report of the general meeting of the Doukhobor Community held at Veregin in January of 1910, the CCUB had a workforce of over one thousand, five hundred men, four hundred teams of working horses and five hundred yokes of oxen living within a day’s travel of the work.  

In mid-May 1910, after completing their spring sowing, Doukhobor work crews assembled in Yorkton to commence construction of the line.  They supplied their own tools, equipment, horses and food for the work.  A portable camp was set up for shelter, cooking, eating and sleeping.  At the camp, Doukhobor women cooked for the crews and boys tended the horses.  Water was hauled from nearby wells and feed oats were purchased from settlers along the line for the horse teams.   

Doukhobor workers on the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway line between Yorkton and Canora, 1910. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Following the route surveyed by the railway engineers, the Doukhobors cleared the right-of-way for the grade.  This arduous work involved draining sloughs, filling in low alkaline areas, chopping out trees and stumps, moving large rocks and cutting through knolls and slopes over which to construct the grade.  Much of this work was done by hand, using spades, pick-axes, saws and hatchets. 

The Doukhobors built up the grade using two-horse slushers and four-horse fresnels.  These large scrapers had handles attached to the back end.  As the teamster drove the team, a second man held the handle allowing the sharp front edge to cut into the ground and fill the bucket or scoop.  This load was then hauled to the grade and dumped, gradually building the grade up and forward, resulting in a solid and level embankment above the ground surface on which to lay ties and rails. 

Grading the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway line prior to laying track, 1910. Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada.

Labouring from daybreak to dark, the Doukhobor grade crews passed through the Ebenezer district in early June and reached Canora by late July 1910.  The track-laying, fence-making and telegraph crews followed close behind.  The Doukhobors then returned to their villages for the harvest season.  Shortly thereafter, in mid-August 1910, the first steam locomotive rolled over the new line.  By June 1911, regular freight and passenger service was established.  The Ebenezer district was now connected by rail to the rest of the Province!

Establishment of the Village

The arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway marked the beginning of the village of Ebenezer.  Following its established practice of laying out townsites at regular intervals along the line, in early June 1910, the railway company purchased 24 acres for a village site on the NW 1/4 of 25-27-4-W2 located ten miles north of Yorkton.  Railway engineers then surveyed and subdivided the site into lots, which sold for $150.00 per business lot and $50.00 per residential lot.  A building boom followed, bringing goods and people into the village. 

Plan of the Ebenezer village site.

The village site was initially named “Anoka” by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, possibly after the city of the same name in Minnesota.  However, the German Baptist settlers preferred the name “Ebenezer” as taken from the Bible in 1 Samuel 7:12 meaning “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us”.  In the summer of 1910, they successfully petitioned railway officials to rename it “Ebenezer” to correspond with the name of the post office and church used west of the village since 1891.

Surrounded by a well-settled and flourishing agricultural district, the village experienced rapid growth, prosperity and development.  Within six months, the village boasted a railway station, two grain elevators, two general stores, two lumber yards, an implement dealership, two blacksmith shops, as well as rows of houses and outbuildings.

Ownership of Village Lots

Following the establishment of the village in 1910, the CCUB purchased eight residential lots (Lot Nos. 27 to 34 of Block 2) along 1st Avenue. They purchased an additional twelve business lots (Lot Nos. 1 to 12 of Block 2) on Main Street between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue. It would appear that the Doukhobors planned to resell the lots for profit. A 1912 advertisement by the CCUB in the Manitoba Free Press lists them for sale. Over the years, a number of the lots were sold. Those lots which the CCUB retained were eventually sold for taxes in 1938 to the R.M. of Orkney No. 244. Thereafter, they were resold for residential development.

1916 tax roll for the R.M. of Orkney No. 244 showing Doukhobor-owned lots in the Village of Ebenezer.

The First Elevator in Ebenezer

Ebenezer became a grain delivery point on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway when the CCUB built its first elevator in the summer of 1910.  In return for erecting a “standard” elevator, the railway company granted the Doukhobors free land rental along its right of way and a guarantee of a monopoly at that point.  The elevator would receive, store and ship grain in bulk quantities from the surrounding district.  Prior to that, local farmers had to haul their grain ten miles by horse and wagon to Yorkton. 

Unidentified woman and child sitting in front of Doukhobor-built elevator c. 1930.  It was the first of four elevators built in the village of Ebenezer.

A Doukhobor work crew built the 25,000 bushel capacity elevator of wood crib construction on a concrete foundation.  It was about 30′ x 30′ wide and 70′ high with a pyramidal roof and a centrally located pyramidal-roofed cupola.  Attached to the elevator was a driveway and receiving shed built of frame construction.   An office and engine shed was built about 20 feet from the elevator.  Near the office, the Doukhobors dug a bell-shaped well lined with unmortared brick for watering horses.

Once the elevator was operational, local farmers brought loaded wagons into the receiving shed where they were first weighed on the scale and then lifted using hand operated crank hoists to dump the grain into a receiving pit below.  The grain was carried from the pit to the top of the elevator by means of the “leg”, a continuous belt with carrying cups.  From the top, the grain was dumped into a bin.  To ship the grain, the bin was emptied into a hopper and back down into the pit where it was then carried back up the “leg” to the direct spout to the waiting rail cars.  The equipment was powered by a stationary gasoline engine in the engine shed.

Unidentified woman and children standing in front of the Doukhobor-built elevator in Ebenezer c 1930.

The CCUB operated the elevator for a short time and then sold it to the Minneapolis-based Atlas Grain Company in June 1911.  Later, in August 1917, it was bought by the Winnipeg-based N. Bawlf Grain Company.  The elevator ceased operation in 1932 at the height of the Depression.  Following its sale to the Calgary-based Alberta Pacific Grain Company in 1941, it was dismantled.  The concrete foundation still stands, a reminder of the structure that once dominated the Ebenezer skyline. 

Building Construction in Ebenezer and District

The village of Ebenezer experienced its biggest building boom from 1910 to 1920.  During this period, the CCUB hired itself out as a building contractor to local businessmen and residents.  The CCUB enjoyed a competitive advantage over other building contractors because it had a large, readily mobilized pool of free, willing labour and produced most of its own building materials, including lumber from its sawmill at Thunderhill and brick from its brick factories in Yorkton and Veregin.  Moreover, the Doukhobors’ reputation for fast, quality construction was well known and they were trusted for their fair and honest business ethics.  They were contracted to construct a number of buildings in the village and surrounding district, some of which are still standing today.

Doukhobors on construction work, circa 1910. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Interestingly, when the Census of Canada was taken on June 1, 1911, a work crew of eight Doukhobors were enumerated at the Ebenezer townsite. Headed by Alex Cheveldaeff, it included John Cheveldaeff, George and Alex Ostoforoff, Peter Zaitsoff, William Shishkin, Mike Zibin, William Sherstobitoff and Wasyl Dootoff. Their occupations were listed as carpenters and labourers.

The Border Block

In May of 1911, local businessman Robert Border contracted the CCUB to build a large general store, adjoining business building and residence on Main Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue.  All buildings were of wood frame construction with brick exterior.  The general store was approximately 30′ x 35′ with a flat roof and full concrete basement.  The adjoining business building was approximately 25′ x 25′ with a flat roof.  The residence was approximately 15′ x 25′ with a gable roof and full concrete basement.

The general store was leased to Mr. Wallman, then Mr. Fiddler, and later to Mr. Margulles.  The adjoining business building was a pool room and a restaurant.  The pool room was managed by Adam Lehman and Julius Wegner followed by Fred and Albert Betker.  The restaurant was managed by Mr. Malcolm from 1917 to 1926.  Robert Border lived in the residence, also the real estate office, until 1928 followed by Mr. Linden from 1928 to 1930.  A fire of unknown origin destroyed all of the buildings in 1930.

The Goulden Farm

In circa 1911, local farmer William Goulden contracted the CCUB to build a large residence and barn on his farm on the SE 1/4 of 4-28-3-W2.  The residence was of wood frame construction with a brick exterior.  It was 26′ x 26′ with a hip roof, verandah and full concrete basement.  The barn was 28′ x 56′ of cinderblock construction with a gambrel roof.  The Doukhobors also dug a bell-shaped well lined with unmortared brick for a water supply.

The Doukhobor-built Goulden residence c. 1942.

The Goulden family lived in the farmyard until the Thirties, when it was sold for taxes.  Thereafter, it was leased to several families.  In 1942, it was bought by Reynold and Edna Bohn who lived in the farmyard until 1947.  In 1949, the residence was dismantled and the materials were used to build several new buildings in the village.  The barn burned down in 1997. 

The Doukhobor-built Goulden Barn, c. 1990.  It was constructed of timber from the CCUB sawmills in British Columbia and brick and cinderblock from the CCUB brickworks in Yorkton, SK. Photo courtesy Al & Bernice Makowsky.

The Janzen Block

In June of 1920, local businessman Wilhelm Janzen contracted the CCUB to build a large hotel, two adjoining business buildings and residence on Main Street between 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue.  All buildings were of wood frame construction with brick exterior.  The two-storey hotel was 22′ x 35′ with a flat roof and full concrete basement.  The two business buildings were each 25′ x 25′ with a flat roof.  Finally, the two-storey residence was 15′ x 25′ with a gable roof and full concrete basement.

The Doukhobor-built Janzen Block c. 1940.  (l-r) residence, business building, hotel and second business building.

The hotel was originally leased to Toys Restaurant.  Later, Wilhelm Janzen operated a general store there.  In 1929, Wilhelm’s son Dave took over the store and one business building and operated them until 1967.  His son and daughter-in-law David and Betty Janzen then took over the business for one year.  In 1968, the buildings were sold to Martha Dreger who operated the store until 1988.  At this time, the business building was dismantled.  In 1992, the store was sold to the village.  The now-vacant building remains one of the most prominent structures on the village Main Street.

The Janzen Block today.  It remains one of the most prominent structures on the village Main Street.

Wilhelm Janzen and his wife lived in the residence until 1947.  His son and daughter-in-law William and Violet Janzen then lived there until 1999, when it was sold to Brenda Murray.  The second business building accompanied the property.  Both buildings are still standing and in use.

The Barn at Deckert’s Farm

In 1914, the CCUB obtained the permission of local farmer Samuel Deckert to build a barn on his land on the SE 1/4 of 27-27-4-W2 where the Fort Pelly Trail crossed the Little Whitesand River, a tributary of the Whitesand River.  The barn would be used as a stopping place where Doukhobors could rest their horses and take shelter while traveling in and through the Ebenezer district.

The Doukhobor barn in 2005.  It once served as a stopping place for Doukhobors travelling on the Fort Pelly Trail through the Ebenezer district.  The lean-to at the north end was used as an office of Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin.

The two-storey barn was built of timber frame construction on a concrete foundation.  It was 30′ x 45′ with a gambrel roof.  It had twelve box stalls for horses.  The loft provided overhead storage for hay and bedding.  A 15′ x 45′ lean-to attached to the west end of the barn was used as a blacksmith and tack room.  A 15′ x 30′ lean-to attached to the north end of the barn was used as an office by Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin when he travelled through the area.  Inside the barn, the Doukhobors dug a well lined with unmortared brick for watering horses.

By all accounts, Deckert was a good friend of the Doukhobors, particularly Peter “Lordly” Verigin. Fluent in Russian, German and English, he often acted as an interpreter for the Doukhobor leader during business transactions in Yorkton. As well, Deckert made regular visits to the Doukhobor settlements in the Veregin district.  

Violet Janzen, daughter of Samuel Deckert, recalls that Peter “Lordly” Verigin often visited the Deckert household, located on the adjoining quarter-section, when he stopped at the barn.  On one such occasion in about 1920, he brought the family a wooden barrel of apples from the CCUB orchards in British Columbia – a rare treat on the prairies in those days!

Another view of the Doukhobor barn in 2005.  Built in 1914, it is the oldest barn in use in the Ebenezer district until its destruction in 2009.

The barn was used regularly by the CCUB as a stopping place into the 1920’s.  Following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, the general managers of the CCUB offered to sell the barn to Samuel Deckert.  When he declined to purchase it, they abandoned it outright.  Thereafter, Deckert utilized the barn in his farming operation.  In 1946, his son Sam S. Deckert took over the farm and operated it.  In 1986, the farm was bought by Doug Fairhead.  The barn remained in use until 2009, when a “plough wind” blew through the yard, destroying it. The well, formerly within the barn, is still in use today. 

Conclusion

By the mid-1920’s, the commercial activity of the CCUB in the Ebenezer area came to an end.  The reasons for this are several.  First, following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, the CCUB organization went into decline, ceasing many of its commercial and trading operations.  Secondly, a post-war depression had set in, causing prices for lumber, bricks and other output of CCUB enterprises to collapse.  Finally, as Ebenezer’s building boom ended, the demand for construction materials and labour dropped sharply.  In the years that followed, the connection between Ebenezer and the Doukhobors faded into memory. 

However, looking back today, within a short space of time, the Doukhobors made a lasting contribution to the history and development of Ebenezer, helping to create the transportation, agricultural and business infrastructure that defines this small farm community to this day.

Bibliography

  • Barry, Bill, “Geographic Names of Saskatchewan” (Regina: People, Places Publishing, 2005).
  • Barschel, J.F. Paul, “A History of Canora and District” (Canora, Saskatchewan: Canora Golden Jubilee Committee, 1960).
  • Bohn, Edna. Telephone Interview. July 11, 2005.
  • Celebrate Saskatchewan Committee, “Reunion ’80, A Time to Remember Ebenezer, Saskatchewan” (Ebenezer, Saskatchewan: Celebrate Saskatchewan Committee, 1980).
  • Donskov, Andrew (ed), J. Woodsworth (trans), “Leo Tolstoy and Peter Verigin: Correspondence” (Ottawa: Legas, 1995).
  • Fairhead, Clifford. Telephone Interview. July 11, 2005.
  • Hluchaniuk, Laurie & York Colony Research (Association), “Yorkton: York Colony to Treasure Chest City” (Yorkton, Saskatchewan: Yorkton Centennial Committee, 1982).
  • Janzen, Violet. Telephone Interview. June 24, 2005.
  • Library and Archives Canada, Census of Canada, 1911, District 210: Mackenzie; Sub-district 9; page 1.
  • R.M. of Orkney No. 244, Tax Rolls. 1916-1939.
  • Tarasoff, Koozma J., “Pictorial History of the Doukhobors” (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Modern Press, 1969).
  • The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2000 edition. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1999.
  • The Canora Courier, “G.T.P. Trains Are Now Running.” (1911, June 22).
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  • The Yorkton Enterprise
    • “All the District Happenings.” (1911, May 26).
    • “All the District Happenings.” (1911, June 8).
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