Doukhobor Farms Supply All Needs

by Victoria Hayward & Edith S. Watson

Photographer Edith S. Watson (1861-1943) and her traveling companion, writer Victoria Hayward (1876-1958) spent the bulk of their careers traversing and documenting North America.  In 1918, after a lengthy correspondence with Peter ‘Lordly’ Verigin, they received permission to visit the Doukhobors in their communes in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.  Edith and Victoria spent much of the next three summers with them in 1918, 1919 and 1920.  They shared the Doukhobor way of life and recorded that life, through written word and photograph.  Their subjects were very often women and they captured their female subjects in moments of reality that might otherwise have been overlooked.  The following article from their visit is reproduced from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (November 22, 1919).  The accompanying photographs are reproduced by permission from “Working Light: The Wandering Life of Photographer Edith S. Watson” by Frances Rooney (Carleton University Press: 1996).  Taken together, they capture a sense of time and place among the Doukhobors through the eyes and lens of the outside world.

Doukhobors – those people who came from Russia into Canada years ago and attracted attention by their peculiar religious belief – are now conceded to be the best all-round farmers in the entire Dominion. They prove and exemplify that they can win their own complete living, including cloths, from their own farms. They grow flax, spin and weave it themselves, dress in clean linen, and are independent of the dry goods market. They raise everything they need for the table from their own fields. They build their own bugalows with wooden framework from materials chopped, hewn, dug and mixed on their own wood lot and in their own dooryard. Put a Doukhobor community down, some spring, with nothing more than ordinary farming tools, on a homestead a thousand miles from any town, and they would not starve nor freeze, nor seek help from anyone. They would go to mother earth for all they needed – and knowing how, they would get it.

A young Doukhobor girl picking up a dropped stitch while knitting, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

The hum of “things doing” is in the atmosphere at all Doukhobor settlements just now. Works of all kinds are in progress. From whatever angle the limelight is turned upon their communities, there in the glow, are to be seen star workers – at real work. Whether the stage be set at Verigin, Saskatchewan or at Brilliant, British Columbia, the theme of the drama is practically the same. The settlement on the plains or in the mountain valley is a hive of production.

The different settlements illustrate the varied nature of this production. For these Russians, taken as a whole, are not so much specialists in one line as general farmers, although of course, with them, the crop must, as with any other farmer, be determined by the nature of the soil.

Victoria Hayward picking fruit with Doukhobor women, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919. Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

Whenever one happens on a village, coming into the big yard or passing along “the street” that runs through the length of the village, as at Vernoe in Verigin settlement, it is to have unfolded before the eyes a variety of industries, all of which spring from the tilling of the earth.

One may see a Doukhobor woman sifting homegrown clover seed for the next year’s crop. Behind this simple process of winnowing the seeds stands an army of women and children at work on the uplands, gathering the ripe clover heads into their wide aprons. Every morning the seed is brought out and spread on the quilt to dry in the sun. When it is thoroughly dry, Mme. Konkin takes the sieve in her hand, in the case of the most obstinate husks she finds the palms of her own strong hands the best kind of a mill. The outfit for this industry is very simple – a good sunny spot in the orchard behind the village where the wind is just strong enough to carry off the husk and yet not fierce enough to lose a single tiny seed. For everyone of these seedlings is precious, since clover seed raising has become a Doukhobor industry.

Harvest time, Grand Forks, BC Doukhobor Community, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

Another favorite side crop of the Doukhobors in British Columbia is millet. The feathery heads of this grain may be seen nodding in the breeze everywhere by the roadside, in patches, and its waving plumes border orchard and dooryard flower gardens with equal ease. Millet is a favorite porridge and vegetable with the Doukhobors. Served with milk and sugar or with butter it is equally delicious. On account of the natural oil it is considered very nutritious and rich in food values. These women may be seen sifting millet to separate the seed from the husk. A larger mesh of sieve is used for this work than for the clover seed.

“High cost of living” is a meaningless phrase to the Doukhobor growing everything for the home table even to the morning dish of porridge. We feed millet to our canaries, but not one in ten knows it as a breakfast food for ourselves and our families.

Her load of beans, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919. Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

The British Columbia Doukhobor no less than the plainsman raises large quantities of beans. The community lockers in each village are full of them. For each village has its bean patch. But in no sense can the Doukhobor be said to live on them. As a vegetarian he must not eat pork and beans.

The beans are women’s work. In every dooryard the picture of the woman and the drying beans is reproduced. The beans are shelled by pounding them with a billet of wood.

The Doukhobor housewife is never idle. At Brilliant, the community runs a large jam factory, and you may buy the product almost everywhere in the stores, but still there is no Doukhobor women but has her own idea of how jam should be made and fruit dried for home use. And too, she fancies the fruit that grew on “her own house” trees. So in every village the women of that village preserve most of the fruit for home consumption, and groups of them are to be seen in every yard cutting up barrels of home grown apples.

The Doukhobor community owns a large commercial jam factory, but each housewife likes to make her own jam and dry her own fruit, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

Evaporation is here a force aided by two giant forces, the sun to begin with and the huge hand made brick ovens in the great kitchens which “finish the job up brown.”

The Doukhobor is a champion flax grower. Out of the flax comes eventually the mujik’s (Russian peasant’s) linen blouse, the woman’s full gathered linen skirt. But between the growing flax and the woven fine linen of the Sunday garment lies much spinning and weaving in the winter.

The clean flax fiber, after its final washing, is hung on the clothesline to dry. At this stage the flax very strongly resembles wool and cotton fiber in the wet state. The women are particularly skillful hands at the flax washing and drying, which requires skill in the fine handling of the fiber. Once the flax is dry the problem of smoothing out the snarls proves too much for any but an old hand. The old lady with her spinning wheel has the secret at her fingertips.

Harvesting flax, Verigin, SK, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

There is a Doukhobor device for solving the water question. Up and down a strong wire, anchored out in the river bottom many feet below, the water pail makes its frequent “slide for life”. The Columbia and the Kootenay are both made to give of themselves after this fashion and help with the irrigation of nearby fruit trees and vegetables. In addition to these hand made affairs the Doukhobors own several heavy steam pumps used for irrigation purposes.

Much of the success of the Doukhobor farms as a whole grows out of the fact that they are able to shift men from one front to another as they are needed. Thus in harvest time men are drawn from the fruit farms of British Columbia to the grain fields of their prairie farms.

Plastering a ceiling. Plaster is made out of dung and sand and is applied by hand and when dry is very artistic in color, c. 1919. Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

With the progress of the times new houses are being built as Doukhobor homes. Brick buildings in many instances are succeeding the wooden ones, as they in turn succeeded the old lath and plaster home of pioneer days. Prince Albert is one of the oldest of the villages at Verigin. The sides are plastered or mudded, and are of marble whiteness from many coats of whitewash. With a new roof it is still a good house. The Doukhobor love of colour is shown in the bright blue of windows and doors.

But from an architectural point of view nothing can beat the charms of the little one-story Old Europe cottage with its mud walls and overhanging sodded or thatched roof seen at Vernoe. One is struck by the resemblance of this roof to the French habitant roofs of rural Quebec, and it is evident that the early gallerie no less than the French pioneer who antedated him in Canada by several hundred years. These homemade houses made over a framework of logs appealed in the early days because of their inexpensiveness, all being made with material at hand. They appeal today because of their artistic lines, etc. standing, too, as proof that beauty in a house depends not so much on money as on taste.

An apple paring bee, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

The Doukhobor women can be seen sitting on a handmade bench in the large room of their community house. They call this room “the church”. It answers more closely to our idea of parlor or living room – a place to meet the family and receive callers. Meals are served to visitors in “church”. But it is also entire family gathers here to pray and sing their wonderful old chants. As a rule, Doukhobor women wear kerchiefs over their heads, but when at home, they remove the plotok (kerchief) and then their close-shaven heads are revealed. The floor of “the church” is usually bare, but this must be from choice since the Doukhobor women weave very handsome rugs, and we have seen several handsome Turkish rugs owned by them.


For more Doukhobor writings and photos by Edith S. Watson and Victoria Hayward, see The Doukhobors: A Community Race in Canada, excerpted from their 1922 book, Romantic Canada (Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, Ltd., 1922), which examines the communal village life of Doukhobors in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. 

Hilliers Communal Farm was Short-Lived

by Andrei Bondoreff

In 1947, Sons of Freedom leader Michael “the Archangel” Verigin and 200 of his followers established a 348 acre communal farm at Hilliers, British Columbia. There, the colonists cleared and tilled the land, set up apiaries, planted orchards and large vegetable gardens. While it lasted, the small communal farm was quiet, peaceful and industrious. Nonetheless, it set off a firestorm of controversy and rumours and made many of their Islander neighbors nervous about the “potential danger” the Doukhobors posed to the region. Reproduced by permission from the Times Colonist (December 07, 2008), the following article by Andrei Bondoreff examines one of Vancouver Island’s most extraordinary communal experiments.

For six short years, the Vancouver Island community of Hilliers was home to a small peaceful communal settlement that made many Islanders nervous. In early spring of 1947, folks in the rural district about 60 kilometres north of Nanaimo noticed that a group of people had purchased and begun working 348 acres together.

The commune’s 200 inhabitants cleared and tilled the land, set up apiaries, planted hundreds of fruit trees and cultivated thousands of strawberry plants and raspberry bushes along with large vegetable gardens. They began building a small sawmill to provide lumber for barns, residences, a dining hall and a canning plant. They even built a school.

In May 1947, the Daily Colonist reported “an interesting sight is furnished by the women in their full white blouses, pulled down over their full skirts, and kerchiefs worn peasant-style on their heads, stooping low to the earth and putting every inch of soil through a sieve, making a picture reminiscent of Biblical times, silhouetted against the background of rolling hills.”

A group of “Spiritual Community of Christ” members working their communal gardens at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01624.

These “interesting” people were from the diverse Doukhobor community living in the Interior. They came from an offshoot of the fundamentalist branch known as the Sons of Freedom. Leadership issues and differing views of schooling led to a rupture that brought the breakaway group to Hilliers.

During the colony’s first few months, spokesman Joe Podovinikoff announced that “private property was the cause of world troubles.” He added, “not only do we renounce private ownership in matters of land and money; we also believe that private ownership of persons and families, including women and children, belongs to the old order.”

This set off a firestorm of controversy. It wasn’t long before the public was titillated with lurid stories of “wife-sharing” or “wife-swapping.” Churchmen were up in arms. Rev. Hugh A. McLeod, pastor of the First United Church at Victoria, said it was “degrading man and woman to the level of the beasts” and had “within it the seeds of slavery.” Dean Cecil Swanson, president of the Vancouver Ministerial Association, told the Daily Colonist that it was “tragic that these people should have been allowed to colonize in Canada and be given a sort of preferred status among us.”

Members of the Doukhobor community at Hilliers, BC, 1947; Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01625.

The Daily Times speculated that the “settlement may cause some concern to wealthy landowners at nearby Qualicum Beach. It is less than five miles from the famed resort where millionaires have summer homes and retired generals, titled gentry and high officers of the army, navy and air force have settled.”

Rumours of the possible migration of 3,000 Doukhobors to the Island inflamed the Parksville Board of Trade, which attempted to rally its counterparts in Port Alberni, Courtenay, Comox, Campbell River, Nanaimo and Duncan against the “potential danger” the group posed to the region. “If Doukhobors spread as they have in the Kootenays it is only a matter of time until they will reach your district,” wrote Parksville Board of Trade secretary Ron Thwaites.

It wasn’t long before the colony and the newspapers began battling. Spokesman Podovinikoff criticized the media for the ways it characterized the group. “We would like to protest to the newspapers and others against calling us ‘Doukhobors’… for us that name is an empty shell.” According to him, they had changed their name to the Elders of the Spiritual Community of Christ. He also added, “We beseech the public and all the Christian world to believe that we have come here not to transgress the law but fulfil it. There are no gross motives in this endeavour and all the reports of swapping wives are sheer misrepresentation of facts.”

Doukhobors bucking wood at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01628.

Provincial officials were calm. The attorney general’s department said: “We have not heard of any wife-swapping among the Island Doukhobors. If there is such a practice, it would give grounds for divorce — that is all.” Dr. J.B. Munro, the deputy minister of agriculture who owned property nearby and like the Doukhobors enjoyed beekeeping, said, “I know nothing of my new neighbours, haven’t heard of any lawlessness and haven’t missed any bees.” Neighbours of the commune said the communalists were “conservative and mild-mannered people.”

Real estate agent E.D. Thwaites of Qualicum Beach complained that too much had been made of the settlement and that publicity was unnecessarily affecting real estate sales on the whole Island. According to him, there was nothing wrong with the communalists and they made no trouble. “The trouble with Doukhobors is that they don’t mix … if anyone is living alongside two of them he may as well be without neighbours.”

In April 1951, Comox MLA H.J. Welch called the communal group at Hilliers “first-class citizens.” He said that women were joining women’s institutes and the men farmers’ institutes.

Michael ‘the Archangel” Verigin and a group of women who helped organize the Doukhobor Community at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01627.

When an “agitator” from a violent wing of Sons of Freedom in the Kootenays arrived at the colony and urged a new campaign of “bombings and fire raids,” he was “stripped, decked with a necklace of tin cans and ejected from the community.”

There were conflicting reports of stripping at the colony. In 1952, newspapers in Vancouver reported nude demonstrations. However, “surprised” RCMP officers told the Daily Times: “We have received no information to substantiate these reports … we have a man at Hilliers and I’m sure he would have reported a nude parade.”

By then, the colony was in decline. In November the Daily Colonist reported that it had “been losing residents for weeks and the RCMP stated that they had no idea why they were going.” “As a rule, the Doukhobors are close-mouthed with us,” said an officer.

[Hilliers Colony Map]

The fact that the group’s leader Michael “the Archangel” Orekoff, who assumed the name Verigin, had died in July 1951 played a big part in the colony’s disintegration.

In December the property was up for sale and by February, the Daily Colonist reported that the settlement was a “ghost town.” The group had all returned to the Kootenays, bringing an end to one of Vancouver Island’s most extraordinary communal experiments.