By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
Following their arrival on the Canadian Prairies in 1899, the Doukhobors regularly grew crops of flax. The fibers of the plant were retted, spun and woven to produce linen, while the seeds were fried, ground and pressed to extract cooking oil. The following is a history of the mill erected by the Doukhobors of Petrovka (aka Petrofka) village on the North Saskatchewan River to manufacture flax seed oil.
In August 1899, 155 Doukhobor immigrant settlers arrived at the North Saskatchewan River, 12 miles south of present-day Blaine Lake, SK. There, on its west bank, they chose a site with a strong spring of clear water, rolling grassy hills and warm sandy soil that reminded them of their former home in the Kars region of Russia.[i] They named their village Petrovka (Петровка) after their spiritual leader, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, and his name day, Petrov Den, a Doukhobor religious holiday.[ii]
The village initially consisted of 24 crude half-dugouts built into the side of a ravine running down into the river.[iii] However, by the following year, the Doukhobors moved to a more level upland site, where they built 28 log houses facing into a single central street.[iv] Labouring under the motto, “Toil and Peaceful Life”, the Petrovka Doukhobors strove to improve their material circumstances.
Within a few short years, the industrious villagers increased their horse herd from 11 to 41, cows from 5 to 93, sheep from none to 38, plows from 6 to 15, and cultivated acreage from 30 to 1,257 acres.[v] In 1901, they established a water-powered grist mill for grinding wheat into flour on a creek 3 miles north of the village jointly with the villages of Troitskoye and Terpeniye.[vi] That same year, they began operation of a river ferry crossing[vii] and established a Quaker-run school in the village.[viii]
It was during this period of rapid progress and development that the Doukhobors of Petrovka decided to build a mill (Russian: mel’nitsa) for the production of flax oil in their village.
Building the Mill
The task of designing, building and operating the flax mill was given to Ivan Fedorovich Strelioff.[ix] Strelioff had established a reputation in the village for being a “very inventive and capable” individual with a knack for improvisation and innovation.[x]
For instance, Strelioff built a boat with a foot-crank-operated paddle wheel for crossing the North Saskatchewan River in half the time it took a boat with oars.[xi] Before there was a ferry crossing, and villagers had to walk 20 miles east to Rosthern for supplies, then carry them home on their backs, he assembled a wheelbarrow-like cart with a large, 4-foot diameter wheel, enabling him to easily push large loads of supplies over rough terrain to Rosthern and back.[xii] Strelioff also made a bicycle, using wheels from spinning wheels, homemade sprockets made from a spade and a chain with links shaped from wire.[xiii]
Harnessing his creativity, Strelioff designed a rolling stone crusher mill of the type used by the Doukhobors in the 19th century Russian Caucasus. Using a slab of limestone drawn from the riverbank, he dressed it by hand to fashion a large, circular 3-foot-diameter, 8-inch-thick millstone.[xiv] He dressed another limestone slab to form a 5-foot-diameter, 8-inch-thick circular concave base.[xv]
Standing the millstone upright on the base (which lay flat), he fixed a long horizontal shaft through the hole in the middle of the millstone. The horizontal shaft was fixed to a vertical shaft that freely rotated in the hole in the middle of the base. The millstone was thus held upright by the axis and the handle of the horizontal shaft could be pushed, causing the millstone to roll along the circumference of the base.
Strelioff also designed and built various ancillary equipment for the mill, including a frying plate and oil press, both of which are described in detail below.
A two-storey log structure with clay-plaster and a sod roof was erected in the village to house the grinding mill, frying plate and oil press. The millhouse was located at the northwest end of the village.[xvi]
With the flax mill operational, the processing and milling of flax (Russian: len) at Petrovka followed a fairly well-established routine.
In late summer, the women of the village harvested the flax fields. The flax was pulled up from the roots (rather than cut with a scythe or sickle) and tied into a bundle or sheaf.[xvii] The sheaves were then hauled to a hardened, well-trodden area of the harvested field, known as the ‘threshing floor’ (Russian: tok) where the women beat the heads of the sheaves with a hand-held wooden mallet (Russian: chekmar’), loosening the seeds from the seed heads.
Once the seeds were threshed, the sheaves were taken down to the river for soaking or ‘retting’. They were placed in 6 to 18 inches of water, anchored down by smooth river rocks so that the current would not carry them away.[xviii] After a week to ten days, the flax was cleared of its outer, wood-like straw, leaving the inner, cotton-like fibers. The fibers were given a final washing, then carried up the steep bank to the village, where they was placed on clotheslines to dry.[xix] Once dry, it was spun on spinning wheels into yarn, then woven on a loom into linen for sewing garments.
Meanwhile, the women and children rubbed the skins off the threshed flax seeds by hand at the threshing floor, then hauled the seed in bags to the village flax mill for processing.[xx] When there was a sufficient volume of flax seed for milling, Ivan Fedorovich Strelioff operated the mill as follows:
As raw flax oil has a flat, unpalatable taste, the flax seeds were first fried on a frying plate (Russian: skovoroda) set upon a stone base; the stone was plastered around to keep the smoke, fire and heat concentrated under the plate.[xxi] The flax seeds were roasted over a low fire and stirred frequently, until a certain taste was obtained.
The next step was grinding. A horse was hitched to the horizontal shaft of the grinding mill (Russian: mel’nitsa). Roasted flax seeds were spread along the track of the rolling millstone. The horse was then walked around the mill, causing the millstone to roll along the circumference of the base, crushing the seed.[xxii] Several rounds were made, with the seeds continually mixed to ensure thorough grinding. Once ground, the crushed seeds were removed and the process was repeated with more seed.
The final step was extraction. This was done by a homemade oil press (Russian: stupa) made of a hollowed-out log with grated metal filters at the bottom.[xxiii] The ground flax seed was placed inside the hollowed-out log. A second, upper log (that fit smoothly into the hollowed-out log, via a spiral screw drive) was then attached. The miller then walked around, turning this wooden spiral to create proper pressure; thus the oil was extracted and oozed through the grated metal filters at the bottom of the press into pails. To release the pressure and to take out the oil cakes left at the bottom of the press, the spiral lever was spun in reverse. Once the extracting process began, it continued day and night until completed.
The oil cakes, a nutritious byproduct of the extracting process, were fed to the village cattle.[xxiv] The raw extracted oil was run through a fine filter, then poured into bottles or cans for domestic use.
The flax oil (Russian: olifa or oleya) was used by the Doukhobors for frying potatoes and other foodstuffs, and for pouring over sauerkraut, a particularly favorite dish of their people.
Operation and Dismantling
The flax mill at Petrovka was the only one of its kind in the district; the only other plant in the Doukhobor ‘Saskatchewan Colony’ was operated by Mikhail Mikhailovich Chernoff, 16 miles north in the village of Spasovka.[xxv] The Petrovka mill was community owned and maintained, serving not only the village, but also the neighbouring villages of Troitskoye and Terpeniye. It operated for a decade, from 1901 to 1911, at which time most villagers moved out onto their individual homesteads.
Thereafter, the millhouse ceased operation and was dismantled for building material, with the millstone and base laid out on the ground beside. Peter P. Makaroff (1906-1997), whose family homesteaded the village quarter, recalled playing near the abandoned millstone as a young boy.[xxvi] Jeanette (nee Postnikoff) Lodoen (1936-2023), whose family later purchased the village quarter, similarly recalled playing near the stone in her girlhood.[xxvii] Indeed, the millstone lay at the former village site, half-buried and largely forgotten, for over seventy years.
In 1985, Gregory and Zonia Postnikoff, then-owners of the village quarter, donated the millstone and its base to the Town of Blaine Lake to serve as a commemorative historic marker.[xxviii] Peter Esakin excavated and hauled the stones to their new location. The stones were installed in a memorial garden on a concrete pad and enclosure beside the Blaine Lake Wapiti Public Library.
In 2012, as part of the Town of Blaine Lake Centenary, a bronze plaque was installed at the millstone marker, inscribed as follows:[xxix]
Today the millstone marker at Blaine Lake commemorates the industry, ingenuity and pioneer spirit of the Doukhobors of Petrovka and their expert miller, Ivan Fedorovich Strelioff. It also stands as a testament to what can be locally achieved, using the material resources at hand, when neighbours work together for a common purpose.
A detailed analysis by the writer of Doukhobor village grain-growing during the 1899-1912 period reveals that flax typically constituted 2-3 percent of total grain production.
For example, in the year 1900, Petrovka and other villages of the Saskatchewan Colony produced a total of 12,913.5 bushels of grain, of which flax comprised 2.6 percent of total bushels:
|Saskatchewan Colony Village[xxx]||Wheat (bu)||Oats (bu)||Barley (bu)||Flax (bu)|
|Pozirayevka No. 1||400||75||55||25|
|Pozirayevka No. 2 (Tambovka)||500||200||200||5|
|Kirilovka No. 2 (Bogdanovka)||186||94||7||33|
|Kirilovka No. 1||146||120||0||24|
|Kirilovka No. 3 (Pokrovka)||156||89||22||23.5|
Similarly, in the year 1904, the South Colony, Devil’s Lake Annex and North Colony produced a total of 191,480 bushels of grain, of which flax constituted 2.8 percent of the total bushels:
|Colony [xxxi]||Wheat (bu)||Oats (bu)||Barley (bu)||Flax (bu)|
|Devil’s Lake Annex||10,317||12,131||5,646||895|
The small volumes of flax relative to total volumes of grain grown by Doukhobor villages highlights the fact that Doukhobors only grew as much flax as they required for domestic purposes (i.e. linen and oil production). That is, the Doukhobors did not grow a surplus volumes of flax for commercial sale.
The flax mill at Petrovka village was built according to the model used by the Doukhobors in 19th century Russia. Numerous other mills were established in Doukhobor villages during the same 1901-1903 period which followed this same model. Other villages confirmed to have built flax mills include the following villages:
|Colony[XXXii]||Villages with Flax Mills|
|Saskatchewan Colony||Petrovka, Spasovka|
|South Colony||Blagoveshcheniye, Otradnoye, Nadezhda, Spasovka, Smireniye, Vernoye.|
|Devil’s Lake Annex||Moiseyevo.|
Clearly, not every Doukhobor village erected a flax mill. Typically, a flax mill established in one village also served the neighbouring 2-3 villages in the immediate vicinity.
Essentially the same flax milling technology was exported by the Doukhobor Community from Saskatchewan to British Columbia in the 1908-1913 period, where flax mills were established at Grand Forks (Fruktovoye), Ootischenia (Kamennoye), Pass Creek, Glade and Krestova.
This article was originally published in:
- The Shellbrook Chronicle, June 22, 2023.
- ISKRA (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ) No. 2189, August 2023.
[i] Peter J. Serhienko, “Settlement of the Petrofka Village,” in Bridging the Years, Era of Blaine Lake and District, 1790-1980 (Blaine Lake, SK: Town of Blaine Lake and Rural Municipality of Blaine Lake #434, 1984) at 23.
[iii] William B. Harvey, “Schedule of Doukhobor Villages and Statistics, November 1899”, Library & Archives Canada, Immigration Branch Records (RG 76, Volume 184, File 65101, Part 6), Microfilm Reel No. C-7338; Carl J. Tracie, “Toil and Peaceful Life” Doukhobor Village Settlements in Saskatchewan 1899-1918 (Regina: University of Regina, Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1996) at 86.
[v] Petrofka Village File, Library & Archives Canada, RG15V1164 F5391335; Tracie, supra, note 3 at 148.
[vi] John Ashworth, “Flour Mills Built by the Doukhobors” in Manitoba Free Press Home Journal, May 9, 1901; Jonathan E. Rhoads, “A Day with the Doukhobors” in Manitoba Morning Free Press, March 1, 1902; Peter J. Serhienko, “Radouga Creek” in Bridging the Years, supra, note 1 at 33.
[vii] Joseph Elkinton, “Work Among the Doukhobors” in Friends’ Intelligencer (Philadelphia, Seventh Month 26, 1902) at 474; Joseph Elkinton, The Doukhobors, Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903) at 36-38; J. J. McKenna, Dominion Land Surveyor, “Report” in Department of the Interior, Report of the Surveyor General of Dominion Lands for the Year ending June 30, 1904 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1904) at 112.
[viii] Michael Sherbinin, “From the Doukhobors” in Friends’ Intelligencer (Philadelphia, Seventh Month 13, 1901) at 441; The Friend, A Religious and Literary Journal, No. 19, Vol. LXXVI (Seventh Day, Eleventh Month 22, 1902) at 1; J.E., “The Doukhobor Situation” in Friends’ Intelligencer (Philadelphia, Eighth Month 16, 1902) at 521; “Petrofka S.D. #23” in Bridging the Years, supra, note 1 at 261.
[ix] Peter P. Makaroff, “Paul Makaroff” in Bridging the Years, supra, note 1 at 569.
[xiv] Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, field visit to Blaine Lake, July 27, 2008.
[xvi] Jeanette Lodoen, Interview with Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, October 20, 2020.
[xvii] Victoria Hayward, Romantic Canada (Illustrated with Photographs by Edith S. Watson), (Toronto: Macmillan Company Canada Ltd., 1922) at 234.
[xviii] Ibid; Victoria Hayward and Edith S. Watson, “Doukhobors Beat H.C.L. – Farms Supply All Needs” in Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 22, 1919; Alexei I. Popoff, “Childhood Memories” in Autobiography of a Siberian Exile (Eli A. Popoff, trans.), (Kelowna: self-published, 2006).
[xx] Fred J. Chernoff, The Brothers Chernoff from Azerbaijan to Canada (Winnipeg: self-published, 1992).
[xxi] “Extracting Oil from Flax Seed” in Blaine Lake 1912-1962 Golden Jubilee (North Battleford: McIntosh Publishing Co. Ltd., 1962).
[xxvi] Peter P. Makaroff, “Paul Makaroff” in Bridging the Years, supra, note 1 at 569.
[xxvii] Lodoen, supra, note 16.
[xxviii] Jeff Postnikoff, Interview with Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, June 12, 2023.
[xxix] Barbara Reban-Mascho, June 10, 2023.
[xxx] Saskatchewan Colony Statistics, December 31, 1900 Department of Interior. Library & Archives Canada, Microfilm Reel No. C-7338.
[xxxi] Letter, Peter Verigin to Alex Moffat, Acting Commissioner of Immigration, January 17, 1905, Library and Archives Canada, RG 76, Vol. 184, file 65101, part 7.
[xxxii] Doukhobor Village Files, Library & Archives Canada, Record Group 15, Volumes 754-758, File 494483; Volumes 1163-1168, Files 5391335, 5404640-5404692, 5412425-5412501, 5412973.