by Vera Novokshonoff, Lucy Reibin & Marion Obedkoff
Woven into the fabric that is Grand Forks are many different nationalities, and, with their personalities, their skills and their culture, they have enhanced “the Boundary” and given to this city a character all its own. Of all these nationalities, the Doukhobors, by their very numbers and distinctive culture have had a more profound effect on the character and life of the community than any other group. The following article by Vera Novokshonoff (Kanigan), Lucy Reibin (Plotnikoff) and Marion Obedkoff (Grummett) outlines the history and settlement of the Doukhobors at Grand Forks in the Boundary region of British Columbia. Reproduced by permission from Boundary Historical Society, Report Nos. 3 and 4, 1964.
The Doukhobors comprise a large percentage of the population in the Boundary District. A religious sect of Russian origin, their history dates back some 300 years. Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say of their religious background:
“The name Doukhobor was given by the Russian Orthodox clergy to a community of non-conformist peasants. The word signifies “spirit-fighters” and was intended by the priesthood to convey that they fight against the Spirit of God, but the Doukhobors themselves accepted it as signifying that they fight, not against, but for and with the Spirit. The foundation of the Doukhobors’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him. They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teaching and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The whole teaching of the Doukhobors’ is penetrated with the Gospel spirit of love; worshipping God in the spirit, they affirm that the outward Church and all that is performed in it and concerns it has no importance for them; the Church is where two or three are gathered gather, i.e. united in the name of Christ.”
“They hold all people equal and brethren. Obedience to Government authorities they do not consider binding upon them in those cases when the demands of the authorities are in conflict with their conscience; while in all that not infringe what they regard as the will of God they willingly fulfill. They consider killing, violence and in general all relations to living beings not based on love as opposed to their conscience and to the will of God. They are industrious and abstemious in their lives, and living up to the standard of their faith present one of the nearest approaches to the realization of the Christian ideal which has been attained. In many ways they have a close resemblance to the Quakers.”
Their renunciation of rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church, as worshipping man-made images or ikons brought upon them persecution by Church and state in Tsarist Russia. This was intensified by their refusal of military service. Influential humanitarians, particularly the famous writer Tolstoy and the Society of Friends in England interceded in their behalf, and arrangements were finally made and some 7500 Doukhobor immigrants came to Canada in 1899, settling in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Group of Doukhobor immigrants aboard the SS Lake Superior, 1899. British Columbia Archives E-07233.
Subsequently, a majority of them refused to comply with the swearing of the oath of allegiance under the Homestead Act, and lost their lands which they had worked on. These were taken away from them. They then decided to move to move to British Columbia, where by purchasing land, instead of accepting grants, they avoided the necessity of swearing to swear the oath of allegiance. They settled predominantly in the West Kootenay and Boundary Districts.
Arrival in Grand Forks
Land was purchased in 1909 by their leader Peter Lordly Verigin. John Sherbinin, Sr., who in later years established Boundary Sawmills Ltd., was his interpreter at the time. John Sherbinin learned the English language in Swan River, Manitoba where he worked in a store the year these people came into Canada. Another associate during the purchasing was Nick S. Zeboroff.
The purchases consisted of the Coryell Ranch (the site of the Brick Yard) from the Coryell family; Murray Creek (presently Outlook) which was open range; the Vaughan Ranch (at the foot of Spencer Hill) from the Vaughans; 4th of July Creek (Spencer) from Hoffman; and the Collins place from H. W. Collins. This involved a total of 4,182 acres.
In March 1909, 12 men came over to Grand Forks by train, with two women accompanying to cook for them. These people amongst the Doukhobors were known as postniki, ones who wished to be abstemious to the point of not eating butter to eliminate the necessity of keeping cows, which would lead to having to sell calves for butchering.
The first group managed to house themselves in rough dwellings that were on the property. Until the warm weather opened up, they were occupied cleaning things up on the place. Another group of 14 came in April.
They put up a small sawmill just below the site of the present Doukhobor cemetery, and started to produce rough lumber (there was no planer) for the construction of their communal dwellings. Later, when a factory was established a brick siding was put on these buildings.
Logs were cut in the vicinity and were brought to the mill on horse-drawn dollies. In the winter sleighs replaced the dollies. Soon as the supply of logs was exhausted on the place, the sawmill would be moved to another suitable location. William Fofonoff was the sawyer; Alex A. Wishloff, the engineer and Philip P. Stoochnoff, the fireman.
The same year, spring of 1909, they planted fruit trees – apples, pears, Italian prunes, cherries, and other plants, such as currants, gooseberries, raspberries, etc. George C. Zebroff and Andrew J. Gritchen were in charge of the orchards. The wives and families of the men-folk came over in the summer of 1909, to join in the communal effort.
Production of bricks began the same year (1909) beside the clay pit where the Coryells had run a small plant. The same crude machinery was used. Horses supplied the power to turn the clay mixer. Bricks one at a time, were taken by hand and put in rows to dry, which took two weeks. They were put in a pile leaving air space between each brick, old bricks piled around them and covered with clay so there would be no air space. A big fire was built on both sides to burn until the bricks got red hot. Air was let in from the top to make the fire burn stronger. This went on for about a month and had to be under constant watch to make sure the fire did not get too hot for the bricks to melt, nor too cold for them to turn black. After this process, the bricks were put under a roof for further drying.
Doukhobor community brick factory at Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01714.
As early as 1910, the workers produced 22 to 24 thousand bricks a day. Even at that slow pace, 2 million bricks were produced during the summer. William Razinkin was the original man in charge. Later on, Mike Demoskoff and John Gritchen were prominent in the making of bricks. In time, machinery replaced horse-power, and the operation was put on a more efficient and productive basis. Bricks from the plant were widely sold. Their good quality established a wide and well known reputation.
The Flour Mill was put up in 1910, with two men handling its operation. Wheat, grown in the valley, was brought to the mill and milled by grinding on a large stone without refining or discarding anything in the process. Bread made of this flour was dark, but very healthy. William Fofonoff (the original sawyer) was the miller, later replaced by his brother Peter. In 1917-18 production of linseed oil was started at the flour mill. This became a favourite product with the Doukhobor people. They were and still are particularly fond of using it with sauerkraut.
The work of the first settlers that came in 1909-10 was to prepare living quarters and other primary facilities for those that were to follow. The lumber produced by the first sawmill was used in building communal dwellings, the first of which was built in 1910 near the site of the Flour Mill just below the present Doukhobor cemetery at Sion, formerly known as Fruktova.
Also in 1909, work was started on building an irrigation pipeline. A trench 2 to 3 feet deep was dug from First of July Creek to Sion following a line above the roadbed of the Great Northern Railway, and pipes were laid extending for about 2 miles to bring water to the newly planted orchards and gardens. A few years later when the Great Northern dismantled the railway track, the pipes were relocated to follow the road bed and enlarged to 6 inches in diameter to carry more water. Later another pipeline was built to supply homes with drinking water, taken from a creek running halfway up the mountain at Sion. Water was also piped at the Outlook settlement for drinking as well as for irrigation purposes.
In 1911-12 there followed more Doukhobor settlers with their families, so that by 1913 there were approximately 1000 souls living in the vicinity of Grand Forks.
With more people, the work of development progressed more rapidly. In those years there were built approximately 24 large communal dwellings by the newcomers. At the same time, the planted trees started to bear fruit, so that besides supplying the local needs, fruit was also shipped to other markets. A fruit packing plant was built in 1920. In those years a total of 120 to 130 carloads of fruit – apples, pears, prunes, etc. were shipped annually to outside markets, as well as some berries such as strawberries, black currants, raspberries, etc.
Doukhobor community blacksmith, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01735.
The lumbering industry also expanded, sawmill operations were extended, tracts of timber stands taken and worked, so that about half of the men were employed in the lumbering industry. At that time most of the heavy work such as plowing and cultivating the land was done by horses, for which purpose every communal village had a team of excellent work horses, hay and feed for which were grown on communal lands.
Altogether the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd., to which the first Doukhobor settlers belonged, notwithstanding the fact that they lost their lands in Saskatchewan and had to go heavily into debt to buy land and other necessities, by dint of hard work and frugal living had built a thriving economy in the first two score years of life in Grand Forks, which continued to grow and increase in value.
It was still growing when in 1935 a canning factory was built to process tomatoes and other small fruits such as strawberries and raspberries. Unfortunately, this factory was burned down in the same year. Then came years of economic depression, starting in 1929 and continuing for a decade which had a serious effect on the economy and which was one of the reasons that brought the foreclosure on the mortgages held by financial companies, The Sun Life Assurance Co. and The National Trust Co. and the subsequent buying of the land by the Government of British Columbia to prevent mass evictions.
We deem it proper to return back and look on some other facets of Doukhobor life.
Communal Way of Life
At the head was the central administration under the leadership of Peter Lordly Verigin. The people were split up into villages represented by the large apartment-like houses, where from about 35 to 40 members resided. Each village operated separately, with particular tasks assigned to its members. Where necessary, the men were sent out to earn money outside the community, while the rest including the older folk, women and children had to do the work at home. In charge of each village was an appointed “Elder.” All the members contributed to the community according to their capacity, and were doled out equal portions according to their needs. In other words, you put into the community what you earned or produced, and received in equal measure with the rest of the members, what you required. Concentration was on a pure and simple life, without luxuries.
A policy of austerity was in effect both for spiritual and economic reasons. During the wartime in 1914, children were not fed any bread and ate a thick noodle soup instead. The rest of the folk were on a frugal diet of mamalyha made of beans, peas and wheat cooked together. At the time the Community had food in abundance, but it was not indulged in out of compassion for the suffering by the rest of the world.
A regular .pattern persisted in the building of homes. The main floor of the two storey brick houses contained the large communal kitchen and social centre or living room; the bedrooms were upstairs. In the kitchen, a long table or two stood alongside the windows with a special table for the children. The stove was in about the centre of the room, and there would also be a brick Dutch oven. The living room was used for occasions like a marriage, prayer meetings, singing group, a funeral or for visitors. Adjacent to the large brick house, there was a U-shaped unit of one floor rooms. These provided room for the older folk to sleep in, as well as washing and storage facilities.
Doukhobor community home, Grand Forks, BC. British Columbia Archives C-01729.
For each large communal house, two women, interchanging weekly had to do the cooking, and the baking of the large round loaves of bread in the Dutch oven. Children ate at a separate table from the adults. Four persons ate out of the same bowl using wooden spoons. This may sound unsanitary, but the fact remains that in those years there were few illnesses among the people and they were very healthy.
After everyone sat down at the table, a hymn would be sung. After saying grace, everyone would eat quietly, without making a racket with the utensils or idle chatter.
The most well-known Doukhobor dish is borshch – a type of vegetable soup. Other dishes were rice soup; cereal made from wheat; cooked halooshki, (dumplings in soup); blintsi (a sort of pancake); vinigret (a salad of beets, apples, beans, dilled cucumbers and sauerkraut); kvas (grated cucumbers and green onions thinned with water); vegetables and fruit. Tomatoes and cucumbers (as well as cabbage for sauerkraut) were salted in big crocks for winter use. Bread was dried, (like crumpets) for eating with rice soup. The main beverage was a fruit juice made from dried apples, prunes and other fruit.
Prayer meetings in the early years were held early in the morning (before breakfast) on Sundays, as well as on some other days. It was the custom then to attend prayer meetings attired in homemade linen clothes, and in the summer months barefoot. Persons entering the meeting greeted the congregation with the words: “Glory to God!” To which those gathered replied: “We glorify and thank God for His grace!” At the meeting the women stood on the right side and the men on the left; in the center between them stood a table on which bread, salt and water was placed. Each person recited a psalm standing before the table. After recitations three psalms were sung and the Lord’s Prayer was said, the end of which all present bowed touching the ground, and said that they bow to God, His Son, Christ and the Holy Ghost. There followed the singing of hymns and discussion on any important matter that happened to come up.
In later years with the coming of Peter P. Chistiakov Verigin, the form of the prayer meeting reverted back to that practiced by Doukhobors in Russia in times past, as follows: On entering the meeting hall, a person greeted those present with the words “Glorious God is praised”, and the congregation answered: “Great is the name of the Lord and His glory is throughout the world.” Some of the men, women as well as children recited psalms, after which the congregation sang psalms at which time the second man in the first row came up to the first man, they clasped each other’s hand and bowed to each other two times, then kissed each other and bowed once more, then the second man turned and bowed to the women and they bowed in reply. After a number of men performed this ritual, which denoted their reverence for the spirit of the divine life that is part of man, their forgiveness and love for each other, the women performed the same ritual of reverent bowing. This being accomplished, a man stepped out near the table and recited the Lord’s Prayer, at the conclusion of which he said: “Here we kneel in reverence to Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” and the congregation bowed to the ground. The reciter then said: “Christ has arisen,” and the congregation answered: “In Truth He has arisen.” The second time they bowed to the ground they said: “Eternal memory to Witnesses of Truth.” The third time they bowed saying: “God grant the living good health, forgive us and strengthen us in Your ways.” After this a few hymns were sung and time was devoted to discussions on matters of social and spiritual significance.
When a young couple decided to get married, the boy, along with his parents, went to the girl’s house to ask her parents for the hand of their daughter.
In the ceremony that followed, everyone read prayers and then someone would read the Lord’s Prayer. The parents gave the couple their blessing and wished them luck. Then the couple kissed both his and her parents and bowed to their feet.
Doukhobor women haying on community land, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01721.
The wedding took place two or three days later, for there were no engagement parties or rings given. The bride gathered her belongings together with the bedding and tied them up in a bundle (there were no hope chests at that time).
On the wedding day, the groom, along with his parents, went on a horse and buggy after the bride and her parents. When they arrived at the groom’s place, everyone exchanged greetings and wished the couple luck. Only the 30 to 40 members who lived in the big house, where the lived, attended the wedding. The food served was the same as a Sunday dinner. There was borshch, plove, and atvar (a beverage made out of fruit). The clothes which the bride and groom wore were their best Sunday clothes.
The dead were not taken to a mortician but were bathed and dressed at home. The coffin was also made at home. People came during the daytime as well as in the evening to share the grief with the mourning family. Prayers and psalms were sung in honour of the dead person. There were no dinner lunches served as there are now.
The dead were buried two and a half days after they died. On the next day the family and close relatives went to the grave to pay their respects to the dead. They sang hymns and other songs.
After a period of six weeks, the friends and relatives gathered once more at the grave in memory of the dead person. Once again they read prayers sang hymns. This ritual was repeated after a year was up.
No special outfits were worn by the children when they went to school. Both boys and girls up to twelve years of age wore a dress-like garment. They wore no shoes and had nothing on their heads. The school age was limited to the age of 12 years, so very few children went to school; mostly boys.
Each district had a school to which the children had to walk. During the winter months, the children were taken on sledges pulled by horses.
The children were taught reading, writing, grammar and some arithmetic. They only went as far as grade five or six. Due to the fact that the children were always speaking Russian, and often had to stay away from school in order to help at home, their progress in English school was quite slow.
One of the first schools called “Carson School” was built close to where the Hill View Store is presently located. Later there was a school built at Fruktova.
At home the children were taught to read and write in Russian.
Skills and Crafts: The Process of Making Linen Cloth from Flax
The flax seeds were planted very closely together, in the Spring time. When the seeds were ripe, the whole plant was pulled out and tied into bundles. These bundles were set upright, in the sunny fields, so that they would dry thoroughly. Wooden clubs were used to thresh the flax so that all the seeds fell out.
Doukhobor children in flax field, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01745.
The stocks were then soaked in water for about two weeks. When the stocks were saturated with water, they were put into bundles and once again dried in the sun. Then, the stocks were put into a block of wood (that had been hollowed out), and were threshed by a large wooden hammer to soften the cellulose. They were then put through home-made combs dividing the stock into thin fibres (by now, all the waste materials had fallen off). The thin fibres were put through a spinning wheel and put tightly on a wooden roll. After the yarn was taken off the wooden roll, it was put into a solution of hot water and flax seed in order to make the yarn slippery. It was wrung, pounded and hung out to dry. When it was dry, the yarns were separated and put on a home-made machine for weaving. There were about 30 yards in one weaving. The cloth was then ready for bleaching.
White ash (taken from burnt weeds and sunflower stems) was gathered and put into boiling water. After this solution stood for a while, it was strained through a canvas sheet. The cloth was placed in that solution and stayed there for two days. A thorough washing was given to the cloth after it was taken out of the solution; and it was placed in the sun to dry. When the cloth had dried, it was placed on a wooden roller used for ironing, and pounded with a flat stick which resembled a scrub board. Then the cloth was ready to be used for sewing.
After the sheep had been sheared, the wool was washed, dried and combed with home-made combs. It was then spun into a yarn on a spinning wheel. The yarn was placed in a paste made out of hot water and flour. After the yarn was dried, it was put on a home-made weaving machine. The cloth was washed with soap and water in a process of preshrinking. It could be dyed with different colours. The woolen yarn was also used to knit stockings, mittens and sweaters.
Other Skills and Handicrafts
The women busied themselves with other handicrafts such as embroidering, and crocheting various pieces. The men carved wooden spoons, salt and pepper shakers and various pieces of furniture. They also made spinning wheels as well as different of machines for weaving cloth. Harnesses were made out of leather, which was bought in bulk. There were shoemakers who made fine quality shoe of leather.
It seems proper to note that in October of 1924 the Doukhobor Community was bereaved by the tragic loss of Peter Lordly Verigin, who was killed in a deliberately set explosion of a passenger car in a C.P.R. train while on his way from Brilliant to Grand Forks. The explosion occurred just after the train left the station at Farron, B.C. He was an outstanding personality and gave leadership in the spiritual as well as the economic life of the Community, which deeply felt the loss of their revered leader. His place as the leader of the Doukhobors was taken by his son, Peter P. Chistiakov Verigin, who came to Canada in October, 1927 and who died in February, 1939.
Doukhobor farm near Grand Forks, BC, circa 1930. British Columbia Archives C-02659.
After it became evident that the lands and property of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood would be foreclosed by the companies holding mortgages, he re-organized the Community under the new name of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, to which belong most of the Doukhobors living at present in Grand Forks. The name of Peter Petrovich Chistiakov Verigin is still revered by his followers.
The members of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, while living on an individual basis are still favour of establishing a communal or co-operative way of life. At the present time, they have in Grand Forks a large cooperative store and a service garage under the name of Sunshine Valley Co-op Society.
This brings to a close this short summary of the history of the Doukhobor people in the Grand Forks and Boundary area.
View Grand Forks, British Columbia Doukhobor Villages, 1909-1939 in a larger map