by Roger Phillips
In 1899, Doukhobor immigrant settlers from Kars, Russia established a sod dugout village in the bank of a small creek six miles west of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. They named it Gorelovka after the village from whence they came. The village existed for three years, after which it was abandoned and the Doukhobors formed two new villages, Bolshaya (Large) Gorelovka, a mile and a half north, and Malaya (Small) Gorelovka, three miles northeast. While the latter two villages are well-documented, extremely little information exists about the original dugout site from which they sprang. The following article outlines the research and fieldwork of Doukhobor descendant Roger Phillips and others to locate and record the site of the first Gorelovka village.
“By the time we arrived…it was late August. The Canadian winter was not far off. We had to build some sort of housing—huts. There were no streets laid out, it was like a village literally dug out of the ground. The wooden huts were covered with earth…We lived in these huts for about three years…It was a wild, desolate place. We felt isolated in a strange and unfamiliar land.”
So wrote John William Perverseff (my Grandfather whom everyone called Vanya in Russian) in a memoir describing how life for his family and fellow migrants began in Canada in 1899. He was 17 and his first years in this country were no picnic. With him were his wife Lucille (Lusha) along with his father William (Wasyl) and mother Elizabeth (Lisunya).
Here is where the Canadian experience began for our Gorelovka forebears in 1899. This winding ravine with a creek running through it lies approximately two miles northeast of Krydor, Saskatchewan.
John’s family was one of perhaps 40, more or less, newly arrived from Southern Russia. These immigrants had come from rail station debarkation at Duck Lake, some 40 miles to the east, in what was then the Northwest Territories. On foot and with a few horse and ox-drawn wagons, a cow or two in tow, they came with the few belongings they possessed to start a new settlement on the western plains.
Little is really known today of the village these folk established. Its location, based on oral tradition, was in a winding ravine in the southeast corner of what is now the SE ¼ of Section 26, Township 44, Range 8, West of the Third Meridian. By road it was approximately two miles northeast of the future town of Krydor, Saskatchewan, or as the crow flies, 55 miles north-northwest of Saskatoon.
There are three sources from which the village location is based: John’s writing which indicates that the migrants lived in this locale for about three years before moving to the Large Gorelovka Village we all know; information given this writer in the late 1980s by Sam Nichvolodoff, who farmed the land at the time; and a brief Nichvolodoff family history in the local history book, Bridging the Years: Era of Blaine Lake and District 1790-1980 published in 1984. Here Sam and his sister, Vera, wrote that he (Sam) and Olive (his wife) “live on the original homestead and can still find many artifacts on the site of the village.”
Lying northwest of the village site is a man-made water storage and flow system consisting of a dam and trenching. According to the late Bill Lapshinoff, village women dug a nearby trench to provide water to turn the village grist mill.
Grandfather said the original village was “literally dug out of the ground” and that poles were “covered with earth”. The earth would have been sod cut from a nearby slough and used to shape walls and cover roofs. Sam said he had found bits of leather perhaps the remains of door hinges. Grandfather referred to a lake nearby and one lies just west on Borisenkoff land, known locally as Borisenkoff Lake.
The walls of the ravine were steep and high in places making them ideal for housing dugouts into which poles were thrust to form the framework of “huts”. Grandfather wrote that these crude domiciles were not unlike those of some of their Tartar neighbours back in Kars, Russia.
Based on a study done late in 1899 by the Canadian Government’s Department of the Interior, these new settlers had eight horses, five cows, four oxen, four wagons and three ploughs. While not mentioned, they would surely have had chickens as well and sheep would soon have been added. Grandfather’s statement that the village functioned “for about three years” would have meant that agrarian life started immediately. Pictures of women—usually about ten pairs in tandem – pulling a single furrow plough to break bald prairie for gardens probably date from this time. While men who could be spared were away railway building or working on construction or for big farmers to earn money for settlement needs, the womenfolk broke ground for and planted gardens, managed the livestock, and kept the village going. Certainly these pioneering ladies were no strangers to hard physical labour.
Doukhobor researcher Jonathon J. Kalmakoff stands part way up the side of the creek bank that in places rises sharply steep and twenty feet or more high. Such topography easily facilitated the sod dugouts of the original settlement.
Back in the late 1980s, the late Bill Lapshinoff, who farmed in the Gorelovka (pronounced “Haralowka among many Doukhobors) area, showed a friend and myself where the village women had dug a channel to provide water flow to turn a grist mill wheel. About halfway between the lake on Borisenkoff’s farm and the village site, the channel lay in a copse of brush and poplar preserved from the effects of wind and water erosion. Bill thought the mill itself was east towards the village but did not know exactly where.
Something in Grandfather’s memoir that I had not stumbled on before now resonates. He wrote that when Peter “Lordly” Verigin arrived in Canada from Siberian exile in 1902, “we began communal life which we had not been living before”. Might not this new direction our Doukhobor forebears took – coming at the end of “about three years” – signal that our hut dwellers in 1902 built Large Gorelovka a mile or so north and a bit west, and Small Gorelovka some three miles northeast of the original settlement? There in the two villages our pioneering antecedents did indeed live communally for a few years more than a decade.
Presumably the first settlement provided the families for both villages although there may have been some “coming and going” with other villages this side of the Saskatchewan River. We just don’t know. In any event both Large and Small Gorelovka villages were deserted before 1920 with the communal dwellers becoming independent landowners. Grandfather Vanya and his father, Wasyl, had acquired several quarters by 1914 and after briefly living part-time in (or at least working from) buildings on the west side of the SW ¼ of Section 25, Township 44, Range 8, West of the Third Meridian in 1913, moved into a permanent home place at the northeast corner of the NW ¼ of Section 30, Township 44, Range 8, West of the Third Meridian in 1914.
I would be less than honest in saying the first hut settlement established by our ancestors was exactly where I’ve located it. I have no scientific proof that it was and the present owner states he, himself, has never found evidence of human habitation there. But based on what I’ve heard, seen, and read, I’m absolutely sure the first settlement site in the Gorelovka area existed as placed.
It is worth noting in passing that a son of the owner whose land the settlement site was on created something a stir at Haralowka School in the late 1950s when he told classmates about finding a human skull at the site. With this still vividly in mind, my cousin, Nick Postnikoff, who was one of the classmates, says that’s something he’s not likely to forget.
In preparation for this and other writeups, the author Roger Phillips and researcher and writer Jonathon J. Kalmakoff journeyed to the district west of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan on July 27, 2008 where they were joined by Nick Postnikoff (great-grandson of first Gorelovka village and Large Gorelovka village settler Wasyl Perverseff); John Lapshinoff (whose Great Grandfather Filat Lapshinoff was a first Gorelovka village and Large Gorelovka village settler); along with the owner of the land on which the first Gorelovka village was located. The site was digitally photographed, GPS coordinates were recorded and oral tradition was documented about the first Gorelovka village site and original graveyard used by the villagers. More items relating to Doukhobor history in Gorelovka, will appear from time to time.