by Polly Vishloff
On October 2, 2004, Polly Vishloff (nee Verigin) was the keynote speaker at “Paths and Pathfinders”, a symposium honouring extraordinary women pioneers of Mission, British Columbia. During her address, she gave an account of her life as a Doukhobor over the past eighty years. Polly’s experience highlights the importance of hard work, strong family ties and community roots. Readers will enjoy her many heartfelt memories and rich experiences. Her address is reproduced below by permission.
…Thank you for this honour. When I was asked to speak about my life I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but after I thought about it, I said to myself, “My life is different and I should share my experiences with others.” So here I am. It’s not going to be easy to put 80 years into a short talk but I’ll try.
Polly Vishloff speaking at “Paths & Pathfinders: Women Pioneers of Mission, BC” in 2004.
You all know that I am a Doukhobor, but what does that really mean? So to begin, I have to give you a little bit of history: The name ‘Dukho-bortsi’ which means ‘Spirit Wrestlers’ was given to a group of dissident Russian peasants in 1785 by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Doukhobors adopted this name because they felt this meant they were struggling for a better life by using only the spiritual power of love, and not by using forms of violence or force. This was a practical commonsense religion that could help people live a contented, happy life on earth. But it was more than a religion; it was a way of life, or social movement. In living together as a closely-knit group for several centuries, they developed many unique cultural customs and traditions. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that when Doukhobors were living up to the standard of their faith, they presented “one of the nearest approaches to the realization of the Christian ideal which has ever been attained.”
In Russia the Doukhobors had one leader who was a woman (Lukeria Kalmykova), she took over after her husband died. She lived in a different village from where the Verigins lived. She took, into her home, a young man named Peter Vasilyevich Verigin to train him for leadership. She died 5 years later and he took over as the new leader.
Peter Verigin asked the Doukhobor people to start living cleaner lives. First he asked them to share their wealth with those less fortunate. The Verigin family was quite well off. Then he asked them to quit smoking, drinking and eating meat. My grandfather was a brother to this man.
Then he asked them to say “NO” to war. This and other messages were sent by Verigin while in Siberian exile to his followers in the Caucasus through faithful messengers. The ones that were already in military service did just what their leader asked and were beaten. Many died and the rest were sent to Siberia where the authorities felt they would parish from the extreme cold. Doukhobor understanding says, ‘we are all God’s people and it is wrong to take a life.’ The faithful in the 3 separate Doukhobor settlements got all their guns together and at the same time on the same day, built huge fires and burned all their guns. Cossacks and soldiers entered one village and beat those people as they stood around the fire singing. The date was June 29, 1895. Many of the faithful were driven away from their homes.
My grandfather Vasily Verigin – Peter Verigin’s brother – was one of the messengers and knew his life was at stake, but he did it anyway. When the authorities found out, they were going to shoot him but a follower of Leo Tolstoy heard this. Leo Tolstoy was a famous Russian author and Doukhobor sympathizer. This man intervened and my grandfather’s life was spared and he was sent to Siberia instead. There was a lot of suffering going on due to these bold moves by the faithful. Leo Tolstoy heard of this and started working to get the Doukhobors out of Russia. Canada accepted them; Canada needed good workers and that’s what they were.
Doukhobor women feeding workers on farm in Saskatchewan. British Columbia Archives, C-01356.
With financial aid from Tolstoy and a group of Quakers who also supported their non-violent cause, they landed in Canada. The Doukhobors were given virgin land in what is now northern Saskatchewan and part of the Northwest Territories. My parents were about 6 years old when the move was made in 1899. My grandmother on mother’s side was a widow with 5 daughters. Their lives would have been very difficult had they not been in this community.
In Saskatchewan, the men had to go out and earn money so the resourceful women hitched themselves to a plow and broke up soil for gardens. In 6 years, they had worked a lot of land and planted crops. They had built homes, grew flax and made their own oil. They had a brick plant, flour mill, and brick ovens in which they baked their bread. At this point, the Government said they had to swear allegiance to the Crown in order to keep their land. Some did and became know as Independent Doukhobors. The rest said they serve “God only”. They had to leave.
This group bought land in British Columbia around Castlegar, Brilliant, and Grand Forks. Here they planted orchards, built new homes for themselves, built a flourmill and a brick factory. My Dad was a beekeeper and looked after about 100 beehives. Everywhere we lived after that, my Dad always had bees. Later they built a jam factory.
Each settlement had 2 large brick houses (where about 25 people lived) and included a courtyard and a few smaller houses in the back for older people. The women took turns cooking and everyone ate together. Everyone shared the steam bath. Once it was fired up, several men would go in at one time, then women and children would take their turns.
Polly in front of her mother Polly with aunts Dunya Anutooshkin (seated)t Nastya Verigin at Shouldice, Alberta, c. 1927.
Wheat for baking bread and other delicious foods was grown in Saskatchewan which was far away, so in 1915 land was purchased in the foothills of Alberta and several families moved there to grow wheat. This is the area where my husband grew up. I don’t know what year my parents got married. They were living around Brilliant, British Columbia, and after several years, I came into the picture. Sister Mary was 13, my brother Peter was 6 and then there was me. I was born on June 25, 1923. Mom said it was “at strawberry time”.
After the tragic death of Peter Verigin (who was the leader), my parents and about 25 families moved to Alberta under the leadership of Anastasia Holoboff. I was 3 years old.
There are several other Doukhobor groups. Besides the Independents, some are called Canadian Doukhobors, and the largest group is the Spiritual Communities of Christ, and of course you’ve all heard of the Sons of Freedom. They make up about 5% of the Doukhobor population.
Under Anastasia’s leadership, a colony was established two miles from Shouldice, Alberta. There were several other Doukhobor families already farming in this area. A prayer home was built and Doukhobors from around the area gathered for prayers on Sunday mornings.
In this colony, every family built their own individual homes. My dad had to be different. He put in a bay window and that’s where my mother kept her geraniums. Everyone had a half-acre of land where they planted their own gardens. There were 2 rows of houses with a street down the middle. Families with older parents built a small house in back of the larger family home and all meals were eaten together in the main house. Each backyard not only contained a garden but also a brick or clay oven for baking bread, a steam bath, and an outhouse further back.
There was a lovely spring at the top of the colony property and water was piped down, through the street, with taps placed along it after each 4th house. Water was brought into the homes by pail and it kept us young people busy. We had wood stoves, no electricity, and used coal oil lamps. Young people had to bring in the wood and the coal.
At the very bottom of the street was a water tank and train tracks. The train, which was both, a passenger and freight train, would stop here and replenished its water supply for the steam engine. Once in a while, I would go for mail. In those days girls didn’t wear slacks but I would dress up like a boy in my brother’s clothes and climb onto the train and stand behind the engine and get a ride into Shouldice, pick up the mail and then walk the two miles back home along the railway track. The colony was three miles from Shouldice by road and sometimes I’d come back that way hoping for a ride but sometimes I’d have to walk the three miles back.
Polly on tractor at her sister Mary’s farm, Nanton, Alberta, 1940.
Our colony was called “The Lord’s Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood”. There was a big barn, half for cows and half for horses. Families took turns milking the cows. There was a room in this barn where the milk was shared. Just outside its door was a large metal triangle with a straight rod for striking it. When the milk was ready for distribution, the triangle was struck and the sound carried throughout the village. That meant it was time for me to grab a syrup or honey pail and run to get our milk. The bigger the family, the more milk they got. When it was time for your family to do the milking, the kids would go from house to house to gather the vegetable and fruit peelings to feed the cows.
At one end of the village was the school. In summer we went to school barefoot and ran home for lunch. Parents took turns doing janitor work here, which also included bringing firewood for the central stove.
There was one couple that had no children so they had us kids coming in the middle of the week to teach us songs. Sunday morning was prayer time and singing at their place for us young kids (our very own Sunday School!). I loved to sing. That was at 6:00 in the morning. Prayers were taught to us at home by parents or grandparents. I had no living grandparents, so I loved to go to my friend’s place, the Tamilins. Their grandparents lived in a small house in back and they all had meals together. And it looked so nice seeing a big family at the table. That’s when I decided I wanted to have a big family, like six children but I settled for four.
We all celebrated “Peter’s Day” on June 29th. It was a big picnic by the river and everyone came from all around. On this day we commemorated the burning of all firearms in Russia.
At school we played softball a lot. I loved it. I remember weeding with Mother in the garden and I felt like my back was breaking and it was just so hard for me to weed. Then someone would come along and say they were organizing a softball game. I’d ask my mother if I could go and she always said, “Yes” and all of a sudden, everything healed and I would run off to play.
Verigin family. Back L-R: Mary, Peter, and Polly. Front L-R: Peter W. and Polly Verigin, c. 1940.
During the Depression, my dad took a job on a farm to look after cattle. He was paid $15.00 for that month. Being vegetarian, we had great gardens and plenty of food. We grew lots of sunflowers and sitting around and eating them was a great past-time. Sometimes, we would take something from the garden, like a lettuce, and give it to the conductor on the train and he would let us ride in the coach. One day while riding in the coach, there were two ladies sitting there looking out the window and saying, “Look at all the sunflowers. They must have lots of chickens!” It made me chuckle to myself, because we were the chickens. Flour came in 98-pound cotton bags, so a lot of our clothing was made from flour sacks. Nothing was wasted. Everything was recycled. We wove rugs from worn out clothing and Mom planted her geraniums in any used tin cans. That’s where she started her bedding plants also.
After living together on this colony for about 14 years, a lot of people wanted to get out on their own. That would be around 1940. I would have been around 17 years old. My uncle and aunt had a married daughter living in Whonnock and she wasn’t well. They wanted to help her out and decided to leave the colony and move to that area. I think they were the first to leave the colony. My cousin Bill rode his bicycle around the area looking for property. He happened to be on Dewdney Trunk Road when he saw a place for sale and they bought it. This property had a house on it that had belonged to Mrs. King, sister to Cecil, Ted, and Jack Tunbridge.
Mother and I came out by train to visit our relatives. Our tickets were to Vancouver but I told the conductor we were getting off in Mission City. He called it Mission Junction. We got off the train and there was no one there to meet us. I asked the station agent if he knew where the Verigin’s lived and he hadn’t even heard of them. I began to worry that maybe we’d gotten off at the wrong place. We’d called it Mission City and here we’d gotten off at Mission Junction.
Then I spotted cousin Bill coming along on his bicycle. He told us to leave everything at the station and come along with him. He pushed the bike to Cedar Street with us walking along beside him. He said, “Now you start thumbing a ride and someone will pick you up.” He gave us directions on where to go and rode away. Someone did stop and give us a ride and we arrived at his home before he got there.
Auntie and cousin Peter were in Sardis picking hops. Within a day cousin Bill had arranged a ride for us and we got to Sardis and were hired on to pick hops too. What a great opportunity to earn some money. At home I’d have to go out and do housework and that was not my cup of tea. Even though hop picking meant long hours of work, I loved it and we had a chance to visit with each other while we worked.
Polly Vishloff (nee Verigin) in Mission, British Columbia, c. 1943.
The following year Dad came to Mission by car and was able to earn some money by picking strawberries. Now there were 3 other families from our colony living in Mission. Dad found a piece of property owned by Jack Tunbridge that was not far from Uncle’s place. It was all bush with a creek running through it and very swampy. The higher ground was very rocky and there was a gravel pit at one end, close to the road. The municipality had extracted gravel from this area but it wasn’t good enough and therefore abandoned it. Dad bought the nine acres for $100.00. The year was 1940.
Now we had to sell our own house to finance the move to Mission. The next spring our house sold for $175.00. We then moved to my sister Mary’s home in Nanton, Alberta. They were renting a farm there and could use help at harvest time. In the meantime, Mother and I wove rugs and sold them. Dad found work on other farms. At harvest time, Peter and I worked on binders. That was the way wheat was cut. The binder tied cut wheat into bundles, and then we lowered the bundles in rows. We also watched to be sure the binders didn’t run out of twine. These two binders were pulled by a tractor.
In the fall we were ready to move to our new place. We came by car and I remember Mom’s spinning wheel tied to the back of the car. We got a lot of attention along the road. At that time there was no Hope-Princeton Highway so we came down the Fraser Canyon (which was an amazing experience for people born and raised in the prairies!). We drove between 20 and 25 miles an hour. Dad would be driving along this narrow windy trail of a road saying, “Look at the river down below, just look.” We were all frightened and kept reminding him to watch the road.
And here we were in Mission City and at our Uncle’s and Auntie’s place. This was November, 1941. We arrived late in the evening. Auntie had a beautiful bouquet of dahlias on her table. I asked here where she got them and she said from her garden. In Alberta, we had frost two months earlier that killed off all the flowers and I couldn’t believe that they could still be blooming. Early the next morning, I had to go outside and see for myself and sure enough, they were there. This was truly the land of opportunity; with berries to pick, canneries, just all kinds of nice ways to make a living. We lived at our relatives until Dad and brother Peter had cleared some land and partly finished our new house, then we moved into it. There was still a lot to do inside but by summer, we had moved in. During this time I picked strawberries, then raspberries and then went to work at the Alymer cannery, which was located along the Fraser River at the Railway Bridge. I really enjoyed my work there. The following year Mrs. Lacroix promoted me to supervisor.
My uncle Larry came later with 2 sons and 2 daughters and they built and started the Cedar Valley Store, which still exists. By now there were over 30 Doukhobor families living in Mission, most of them in the Cedar Valley area. Later my Uncle Larry and his family moved to Creston.
A few years later, while enroute to Alberta to visit my sister and her family, I stopped in Creston to visit my cousins. While visiting there, I met John Vishloff. He had come from Nanton to visit his folks who had moved there from Alberta. We seemed to have a lot in common and got along very well. In March of 1947, he came to Mission and we were married in April.
Wedding in Canyon, British Columbia, 1947. (l-r) Agnes and Mary (nee Verigin) Ewashen, John, Polly and Alex Wishlow.
First we lived with his parents in Creston, then came to Mission and lived with mine were I worked for the cannery and John worked for the Coop where they made jam. We went back to Creston at the end of the season and in April of 1948 our son Paul was born. Although both my mother and John’s mother were both Midwives, I wanted to be modern and had a doctor and the baby was born in the hospital.
After the summer harvest was over, we decided to move to Mission for good. There were more opportunities here for John to work. My Dad said, “I have started building a garage and because John is a handyman, if he wants to finish it, you can live in it.” Maybe they were tired of us living with them. John finished building our one room house and we moved in. We were very happy in this one room house. At last we were on our own. Our couch made into a bed at night and there was still room for the crib. Mother baby-sat Paul while I worked at the cannery. When Paul was a little over a year old, mom suffered a heart attack and died. I felt quite guilty about her death because she had been looking after Paul for me while I worked. I found her death very hard to bear. But about a year later we were blessed with a beautiful daughter. We named her Naida, which in Russian, means ‘hope’. Now we had two cribs in our little one room house, that also had a kitchen and everything else. I was able to use Mom’s washing machine and we all used their steam bath.
We bought half an acre of land and John built us a 2-bedroom house on it. It had a kitchen, living room, a small storage room, a bathroom and 2 bedrooms. John prepared the plans for the house. I said to him, “We’ll have a bathroom in the house? That’s just for rich people!” I’m glad he didn’t listen to me.
Polly, John and son Paul, 1950.
For entertainment, we used to go to a drive-in theatre and the children still remember getting treats. We always brought along a quart of milk. Pop was expensive.
John also built a holiday trailer that we pulled with our car when we visited our relatives each summer. We traveled to Creston and to visit my sister in Alberta. My brother never married so my sister’s children were the only close relatives that I had and they meant a lot to me. I still have a very close relationship with them.
Most of the time, John drove to Vancouver to work. He worked hard because he had to work on our house after he came home from work. People gathered in homes on Sunday for prayers and everyone sang together. Even without the modern conveniences that we have now, they still had time to socialize. Our old leader, Anastasia came over to visit one time and suggested that the Doukhobors buy up some cemetery plots. That makes me feel good, knowing that my family is all there in one area.
In 1952, our son Lawrence was born and in 1957, Tom was born. With 4 healthy children we felt so rich, but now the house was getting way too small.
My dad died in January 1959. We inherited half of his property and now we could build a bigger home. The municipality said that in order to subdivide, we had to build a road and that’s how Vishloff Street came about. We built a bigger house and the children helped too. Maybe that’s why they are such capable adults. In those days, the building codes were different and we could move into our house long before ‘final inspection’, which we did. Our window openings were covered with plastic but we had so much more room. By winter we had installed real windows.
All our children went to Cedar Valley School and came home for lunch. Both John and I grew up in Doukhobor communities and never felt discrimination. We didn’t realize that our children could be discriminated against. There were some tough times for them but they grew up and we’re very proud of them.
Family photo, 1960. (l-r standing) Lawrence, Paul (l-r seated) Polly, Naida, John and Tom.
When Paul graduated from high school, he went to Abbotsford to get his grad picture taken. He was walking with a friend and was hit by a car and died instantly. The driver of the car said he was blinded by lights from an oncoming car. My greatest consolation was that we had 3 other children. Because Paul excelled in Chemistry, the school presented a trophy in his memory. It was won by Glen Randal that year. They gave this trophy for several more years.
Graduation time was always very painful for us and I was very relieved when all our other children graduated. But life must go on. The support we felt from the community was wonderful. One of our neighbours, Glenys Szabo got me involved in curling. I loved that sport but always felt a little guilty about the work I should be doing at home, while I was out curling.
I worked at Berryland Cannery in Haney and then started working for the Fraser Valley Record, one day a week. The women I worked with were just great. I worked with the paper for 20 years.
One day I told the girls I had some extra time and wanted to do some volunteer work to give something back to this great community. Margery Skerry steered me to Heritage Park. There I helped make blackberry jam and quilted. The quilts were raffled and I made more good friends there.
The children grew up and got married. Naida and Marcel bought my brother’s house next door to us. It was just wonderful watching the grand children grow up. Lawrence was a little further away with his 2 boys. Tom settled across the pond and we saw their children often. The grand kids would come over and help me kneed bread and roll out dough for some specialty Russian foods we make. One day Brittany came over to help. She picked up the rolling pin and held it and I asked, ‘where’s my rolling pin?’ and she said, “I don’t know, I’ve got mine.” When she was out of flour, she’d say, “I need more powder.” They moved away later but I was glad I was there for them when they were small. Peter would come from next-door carrying his blanket, early in the morning. Most of the time I’d still be in bed. He’d lay down beside me for a few minutes, then say, “Okay Baba, get up and make kasha.” He’d have breakfast with us and then go home and have another breakfast. I can still see in his blue pajamas, wearing his red boots, carrying his blue blanket, his ‘bunnies’. I grew up without grandparents and I really missed not having them and I really relished my role as grandma, or Baba.
Grandchildren Brittany and Autumn baking with Baba. .
I forgot to mention our pond. It used to be a swamp and John turned it into a beautiful pond by engineering and building a dam. When our children were growing up, all the neighbourhood children came to swim in this pond. It is now more like a wild bird sanctuary with water lilies, ducks, geese, and blue herons.
We suffered another tragedy 3 years ago, when our son-in-law from next door was killed in an accident. We miss him very much. Now the grandchildren from next door are all married and gone from here, but I feel a great bond with them all. One grandson, David, visited recently from Saskatchewan. He said, “I’ll never forget the Christmases we celebrated here at your place.” On Christmas Eve, the whole family would come over for a vegetarian meal, sing Christmas carols, and exchange gifts. At times even Santa would show up.
I am still puttering around keeping myself busy. We still plant a garden every year, it just keeps getting smaller. I make jams, borsch and bread. I also spin, weave, knit and embroider. I could go on for a long time, but I think I’ve shared enough.
In closing I’d like to say that Doukhobor beliefs about living clean healthy lives seemed radical 60 years ago – we didn’t smoke, drink or eat meat. When I was a teenager, smoking was very popular, now everyone knows how harmful it is. We all know excessive drinking leads to no good. When I was young, vegetarians were unheard of. Now there are many vegetarians. There were very few pacifists in this country, then. But when George Bush was talking about going to war with Iraq, people were protesting not only in the US and Canada, but all over the world.
Polly and John in front of their pond, 2004.
According to my Doukhobor teachings, violence cannot be overcome with more violence; it can only be overcome through understanding and love. Where there is love, there is God. Yes, I’m very proud to be a Doukhobor and proud to be living in Mission, where we’ve come in contact with so many wonderful people.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my life with you. I would like to end my talk by reading this poem written by Ann Verigin of Grand Forks, British Columbia called ‘I am a Doukhobor’. Then we will end this presentation by having my friend Vi Popove and my daughter, Naida Motut, sing a Russian folk song.
I am a Doukhobor
I cannot deny there is a higher power
That helps me face every moment and hour
Whose love flows through each man and each flower
I am a Doukhobor
I search for truth and strive for perfection
I believe that Christ showed the perfect direction
For a life of peace a life without question
I am a Doukhobor
In the spirit of love I search for the light
And try to live to the highest sense of right
That I can perceive through the day and the night
I am a Doukhobor
I am a Doukhobor I sincerely feel a love for my brother
And because we all have one heavenly father
It makes sense to me to love one another
I am a Doukhobor
I long for the day when all wars would just cease
When man could continue to toil while at peace
When the love in all people would greatly increase
I am a Doukhobor
I know love is right so I must take a stand
I’ll reach out to my brother, I’ll give him my hand
There is room for us all in the bountiful land
~words by Ann Verigin nee Wishlow ~