My husband, Randolph is a spitting image of his grandfather Harry, judging from a self-portrait sketched on the cover of Harry’s autobiography. Even our eleven-year old son, Joshua is fooled. “There’s a picture of you, Dad,” he says, thumbing through Grandpa Harry’s journal, filled with notations in Ukrainian.
Randolph’s grandfather immigrated to Canada in 1900 from the Ukraine and reading his memoirs makes us long to know more. We’ve come to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village on the day of their Harvest of the Past & Harvest Food Festival to catch a clearer glimpse of him and his experiences as a settler.
Our first stop is the burdei. Imagine something between a sod house and a log cabin. I remember Harry’s words: “We put up a hut from trees and covered it with grass, earth, leafy branches – and there was a house.” As we step inside onto the dirt floor, it’s easy to imagine the squish of spring mud between my toes and the pinch of frost in winter.
The little garden next to the burdei grows beets, beans and potatoes. Settlers relied on growing their own vegetable crops to feed their families through the winter months. The homes at the museum have heritage gardens that are appropriate to each era depicted.
From Surviving to Thriving
Harry and his family lived through some hungry years, but each year he cultivated more land and made more money. One of the first pieces of equipment he was able to buy was a horse-drawn binder to cut and tie the grain into bundles.
At harvest time, families came together to help each other reap the bounty of the land and Grandpa Harry wrote extensively about the threshing bees, which were a celebration of a successful harvest by the whole community. Our children were fascinated by the threshing demonstration and watched as the separated grain was loaded into a wagon to be taken to the grain elevator. I can imagine grandpa waiting with his load and hoping for a good return. Surviving winter on the Canadian prairies often depended upon a successful harvest.
Soul of the Settlement
Nearby, the open door of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church beckons us. Often one of the first buildings to go up in a newly settled community, churches provided a gathering point for significant events in the lives of pioneers, including successful harvests.
Close to the church is the Grekul House, built in 1918-19. Like the Grekuls, Harry built a proper house for his family once he began to prosper. Outside the house is a heritage garden and breeds of animals that would have been raised back then. Inside, the warm aroma of chicken roasting in the oven welcomes us. No doubt, one of Mrs. Grekul’s young Plymouth Rock roosters is on the supper menu.
The settlers brought their food traditions with them and passed those traditions down to generations that followed. Our day wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Village’s Harvest Food Festival for a hearty bowl of borscht and a plate of steaming cabbage rolls – as good as what my husband makes, and that’s high praise. We savour the traditional food, but we will savour our memories of this day long after our visit.