Building a bridge to Eden

Fleeing Russia's pogroms, and England's snobbery, a group of Jewish farmers braved Canada's wilds.

russian jews pioneers 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
russian jews pioneers 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 1908 two new buildings were constructed in the province of Saskatchewan on a remote spot one mile north of the Carrot River. The first was a small shack that was to serve as a post office and the second a synagogue. These constructions were the first mark of success that came to a group of pioneers who were clearing the forest and draining the swamps to create land suitable for growing wheat. What brought these people here, to this cold, inhospitable tract of land? The answer lies in the confluence of three events. The first involves Russia, where the hardships heaped upon the Jews reached a new high in 1882 after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. In 1882 his successor instigated the infamous "May Laws" expelling Jews from many areas where they had previously been allowed, and encouraging and even instigating murderous pogroms. The result was a stream of fleeing refugees, and they went to England, South Africa and America. The second event was the decision of the Canadian government following Confederation to open up the land of Western Canada to agricultural settlement. The idea was that they would provide food for the Eastern manufacturing areas, and in turn would become a market for the goods manufactured in the east. The areas would be linked by a transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway. The decision was made to attract farmers from Western Europe by offering 160 acres of land for only $10. Provided the land was cleared and a minimum of 15 acres was productive within three years it became the property of the "homesteader." The third event was the shame felt by the settled British Jews as their poor brethren flooded into London. The Jews of England were similar to their compatriots in dress, speech and educational standards. This unruly mass of immigrants with their foreign ways posed a threat to the way that the gentiles perceived Jews. All these events converged at a meeting in February 1882 held at the mayor's parlor in the Mansion House, London, to discuss what to do about the Russian Jewish refugee problem. Attending the meeting was the Canadian high commissioner, Sir Tilloch Galt. He suggested that funds be collected to send out Jews to farm the lands of Western Canada. In one move it seemed all three problems would be solved. The Jews would leave London; they would be able to earn a living in their new land; the Canadian government would receive its farmers. With this in mind $15,000 was collected, Jewish families were found who were willing to take up the offer and 340 Jewish immigrants arrived in Winnipeg in June 1882. However, there was one factor that no one had taken into account, and this was the anti-Semitism of Canadian government officials, in both high places and low. PRIME MINISTER Sir John A. MacDonald had reacted initially to the plan to send Jews to farm the land by speaking of them as "the Old Clo move" referring to the role of poor Jewish immigrants earning a living by collecting and selling second-hand clothing. He said that once the Jews arrived in the Northwest, "they would at once go in for peddling and politics and be as much use in the new country as cheapjacks and chapmen." For two years the Jewish families were housed in a desolate wooden building, living off small amounts of money the men were able to earn in hard laboring jobs such as railway construction and the charity of the people of Winnipeg, Jews and non-Jews alike. Eventually, two years later, Galt was able to exert his influence and land in Moosomin was given to 27 families. The surrounding populace was reluctant to accept Jews in their midst and disparagingly labeled the place "New Jerusalem." It provided little in the way of help and support to the new arrivals. Not only that, but the very climate seemed to want to reject these Jewish settlers. Early frost, hail and drought all combined to prevent successful crops. Then six years later, in September 1889, when they were on the verge of success, fire destroyed all the crops. Arson was suspected but never proven, and the settlement was disbanded. This only reinforced the official view that the East European Jews were undesirable in Western Canada because they were unsuitable for agriculture. Even Galt, conveniently forgetting the delays in obtaining land and the hardships they endured, expressed his disillusion with the people he had tried to help by calling them "vagabonds." (Interestingly, no such derision was applied a to an earlier group of Scottish crofters, who had also failed to establish themselves upon the land.) The disparaging attitude to Jews, and more especially Jews as potential farmers, by prime minister MacDonald was carried over into the administration of Sir Wilfred Laurier. Parliamentary reports and official documents reveal many scathing remarks about Jews in general and their inability to settle the land in particular. IN SPITE of the failure of this first attempt, this was not the end of Jewish immigration to farm in Western Canada. Jews came singly and in groups. They came with some capital of their own, or they came under the sponsorship of charity groups or rich Jewish philanthropists. They came with vast experience of running farms for noblemen in Eastern Europe, or with no farming experience at all. Their determination conquered the hardships and in time the Jewish farm colonies were successfully established. These were Hirsh, Sonnenfeld, Wapella and Lipton in Saskatchewan, Rumsey and Trochu in Alberta, and Camper, Pine Ridge and Bender Hamlet in Manitoba. One of these groups who saw of the possibility of obtaining land for only $10 were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, then living in South Africa. When the possibility of owning their own land became known to them, they decided to make use of this opportunity. Leaving the mild climate of Cape Town, eight families boarded ship and left harbor on a spring day in 1906. More than three weeks later they arrived in England, where they spent about a month with family members. They once again set sail and eight days later landed in Quebec. From there they went to Winnipeg. Two members of the group, Herman Katzeff and Harry Woolf, were advised to go to Saskatchewan. Near the small settlement of Star City, they found a thickly wooded area on the banks of the Carrot River. They were pleased with the abundance of water and the rich soil and they sent for the rest of the party. This group of pioneers was fortunate in that they had helpful non-Jewish neighbors, Isaac Brass and George Ellis. With the help of these two Englishmen, they constructed log cabins and learned how to survive that first winter in a cold, inhospitable land. The pioneers soon found that clearing a forest for farmland was no easy task. The winters, when no such work could be done, were long and the summers were short. The marshes created swarms of mosquitoes and the distance between the houses meant that travel from one to the other involved fording deep sloughs and finding their way through dense, dark forests. Money ran out and the men had to work for others to have some capital. They worked as laborers on farms and in road building. The women were left alone with the children, caring for livestock, chopping wood. By the time their men had sufficient funds and they returned to their homesteads, there was little left of the summer to engage in the necessary backbreaking work of "scrubbing," the term for clearing the land for agriculture. In the fall and winter of 1907 the men were able to earn some extra money helping to build the steel bridge over the Carrot River. However, in spite of the hard conditions, Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, the slums of the East End of London and the tenements of New York came seeking the promise of land. By 1908 the Canadian authorities found that the population was sufficient to establish a post office. This was housed in the wooden shack home of David and Sam Vickar. A discussion took place and Sam Gordon describes the event in his autobiography. "So far as I can remember, we all wanted to call it 'Jewish bridge' but we thought that perhaps the postmaster general might not agree with it. We read through names of post offices in the Canadian postal guide and found many names beginning with Eden, (which sounded like 'Idden) so we made the quick and unanimous decision that the name of the new post office should be Edenbridge." In time that became the name of the settlement itself. The synagogue was built in 1908 and an advertisement was placed in the Winnipeg Jewish weekly for a spiritual leader. In 1909 Rabbi Max Shalit arrived in Edenbridge. He acquired a homestead and then sent for his wife and children in London to join him. Mike Usiskin writes of the family: "His children, two boys and a girl, are very well brought up. This farmer, who is also the shoichet [ritual slaughterer], moyl [circumciser], the teacher, sales agent and writer... had made himself just enough money to build a (one roomed) 'palace' out of boards." In spite of the hardships in the developing land, Shalit wrote to a newspaper in London in praise of his new life. "Flee my friends from the London fogs and the chaos that eats your hearts... and the bosses that live off your blood, sweat and tears. Flee from the two-faced society where politicians don't say what they think and don't think what they say. Come to Edenbridge. Come where the air is fresh... Come and help us tame this wild land. Come help us settle our colony... we need you. Come please! You will not regret it." Some read his words and followed his advice. Edenbridge grew and prospered. By 1920 swamps had been drained and forests cleared and 7,500 acres were under cultivation. By 1931 some 90 families of the settlement gathered to celebrate the silver jubilee. At this time they had not only the post office and synagogue, but also a community center and two schools. Cultural activities included a lending library, a dramatic society, young people's clubs and a newspaper. The men took an active part in the surrounding community, serving as honorary officers in the local municipality and farmers' cooperative societies. However, the difficult years of the Great Depression and the desire to give their children a better education resulted in many families leaving, and by 1964 only five families remained. From that time the synagogue was no longer used as a house of worship. In October 1968 a group of more than 200 people made a pilgrimage to the synagogue site and erected a cairn and historic site plaque. It would seem that the story ends here. However, on June 25, 1976, as a result of the efforts of Norman Vickar, a member of one of the original farm families and at that time a representative of Melfort in the Saskatchewan legislature, the Department of Tourism and Museums declared the synagogue a historic site, and 500 people arrived to take part in the dedication ceremony, among them premier Allen Blakeney. So though the colony of Edenbridge no longer exists, there is a museum housed in the synagogue building, a reminder of the brave Jewish pioneers, who created wheat lands from forest and marshes. The writer is author of historical fiction works including Scattered Blossoms (2008), based in Edenbridge, Canada.