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Jul. 20, 2019 | Saturday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: The Mennonites’ long road to Virgil
Niagara United Mennonite Church. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

The Mennonites are considered a fairly recent addition to the community of Virgil, having arrived in 1934, mainly from the Ukraine.

There is another Mennonite settlement close by, in Vineland, but that community had Swiss or southern German origins. They came via Pennsylvania in 1663 shortly after the American Revolution.

The history of the migration of the Ukraine Mennonites is complicated. They first lived in Holland, which was a province under the control of King Philip of Spain (1527-1598).

They were not Catholic and the reign of terror by the Spanish king drove them from their lands. They fled to Poland and Germany where Protestants were not persecuted. The Mennonites lived in peace for over two hundred years.

By the 1780s, the Mennonites found they were once again being persecuted for their beliefs. Being pacifists and refusing to participate in any activity that supported an aggressive power, they found themselves slowly being pushed off their lands.

This sudden loss of land was resolved when Catherine the Great (1729-1796) of Russia wanted to settle large areas of land taken from the Turks and Tatars. The skilled Mennonite farmers offered a land deal that was beneficial for all. They moved once again, this time to the region of Russia called Ukraine. They became known as “Russlaenders.”

The Russlaenders were industrious, successful and prosperous farmers and business owners, which eventually put them in a difficult position when the Communist regime was firmly in power in 1920. The government decided to take away ownership of their lands and businesses, elimimate their private communities and to conscript all young men into the Russian armies.

Among the Mennonite community there was a great divide. Some leaders wanted to conform to the Communist regime while others decided to leave. By 1923, a large number of the Russlaenders left Ukraine and set out for a new life. The Canadian government accepted them as farmers, settling them in the Prairie provinces.

But the economics of the time and many years of drought on the Prairies, the Russlaender Mennonite community migrated to Ontario. Many found welcome in the three established Mennonite communities of Kitchener-Waterloo, Vineland and Markham. However, they craved their own land and their own Russlaender culture.

Enter Peter Wall with his business acumen and his desire to help others succeed.

Jakob Peter Wall (1870-1922 and father of Peter Wall) was a successful Mennonite businessman with an ethical sense of how all people should be treated. He amassed a fortune in Ukraine that included 10,000 acres of land, flour and paper mills, and a glass factory.

His ethical treatment of his workers helped him during the early days of the Russian Revolution. Under pressure from the local community
Jakob Wall was successfully released the first time he was imprisoned by local Communist officials, but eventually the goodwill of the people could not save him. Jakob Peter Wall, at the age of 52, died of starvation in a Russian prison.

Jakob’s oldest son, Peter, was now responsible for his entire family. They had lost everything, were under constant threat of arrest and had to be on the move repeatedly for their own safety and for those who were harbouring them.

In 1924, the Wall family found themselves on their way to Canada with many other Russlaenders. They ended up in St. Anne’s, Man., where for three years they attempted to sustain the family on a farm. The conditions were appalling, with years of drought causing crop failure after crop failure that eventually beat the family down.

Wall’s mother, youngest brother and one of his children died during this time. Not to be thwarted, the family packed up their belongings and returned to Ontario. They settled in Hamilton, where the three of the brothers found work as labourers on farms in Vineland.

Toward the end of the 1920s, the economy was declining at an alarming rate and farm property values plummeted. Wall saw this as an opportunity and found a 38-acre fruit farm in Vineland, with three houses on it, for sale. He managed to make a deal to purchase the property with $1 as a down payment. The farm grew peaches, cherries and grapes, all crops with a good cash value.

Other Russlaenders, who had also returned from the Prairies, approached Wall asking for his help in purchasing farms. Wall found a few other farms in Vineland that were under financial stress and was able to assist his fellow Russlaenders in their purchases of land.

In 1933, Wall turned his business sense toward the village of Virgil where he managed to secure 110 acres on Niven Road that had been a wheat farm. He divided the acreage into smaller parcels of 10- to 15-acre lots and sold these to the Russlaender Mennonites.

They planted orchards of peaches that would give a good profit in five years. In the meantime, between the trees, crops of strawberries and tomatoes were planted to be sold as cash crops. Word of the success of the Russlaender Mennonites in Virgil spread and soon many who had stayed out west in the Prairies migrated to Virgil. The community was growing.

Unlike the Mennonite communities of Ukraine, Wall reached out to gentiles (outsiders) as well. He understood that a healthy community is one that accepts and works together for the benefit of all.

Wall realized that seasonal crops could not sustain a community. In 1939, he devised a business plan whereby people in the community bought shares in a canning factory – the Niagara Canning Company. The first crop to be canned was peaches but later during the Second World War, tomatoes were added to the production line. Within three years of operation, in 1942, the cannery was making a profit. Then, in October of 1948, the cannery suddenly closed.

Several theories were circulated as to why the cannery collapsed. Rumours abounded: Were contracts with the British government to supply food after the war suddenly cancelled to protect the British economy? Was there an overproduction of canned tomatoes and juice, through mismanagement, that could not be sold? Or did competitors join forces and drop the price of their canned tomatoes so low as to bankrupt the Niagara Canning Company? All of these were just speculation; the true reason was never revealed.

The sad fact is that many people lost money, including Peter Wall. Talk scurried about the community claiming how Wall mismanaged their money, pointing out that he still had a big house and a fancy car. What they didn’t know was that Wall had mortgaged everything he owned to salvage the cannery, but still it failed.

In the end, the very people whom Wall helped to resettle in Virgil turned on him. He and his family were no longer welcome. Wall stopped going to the church he so proudly supported; he cut all social ties with the community and moved to St. Catharines. In his new community in St. Catharines, Wall established a successful property development business for his family.

The Mennonites did overcome the great and tragic loss of the Niagara Canning Company and they did continue to prosper in farming as well as new business ventures in Virgil.

* I would like to thank Bob Augustine, posthumously, for his book on the Mennonites of Virgil. A thank you to David Hemmings for completing the book after Bob Augustine’s death. Thanks as well to Ron Dale, whose knowledge of the community is a source of wonderment.

The book, Mennonites of Virgil “Gott hat uns gegeben, um diese Ruhe,” is available at the Niagara Historical Society and Museum.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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