WINNIPEG — In the early 1900s, a group of Lithuanian Jews, fleeing persecution, heard about a land of freedom called Canada. They applied and were allowed to settle in western Canada.
Former residents celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Edenbridge farm colony. Seated, from left, are Norman Vickar, Ike Vickar and Freda (Fenster) Baron. Standing, from left, are Sam Gordon, Fanny (Gordon) Lewis, Harry Reiss, Harry Vickar, Marsha (Gordon) Corrin, Ida (Reiss) Alpert, Frank White, Sam Reiss, Anne (Tabak) Mellon and Tom Springman.
While many got off the train when it stopped in Winnipeg, 15 adults and one child continued on to the end of the line, at Star City, Sask. From Star City, they walked into the bush as far as the Carrot River and set up a community. In 1908, the federal government recognized the new community and established a post office. That marked the official birth of Edenbridge.
On Oct. 26, 65 descendants of those early settlers and later arrivals gathered at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Winnipeg to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Jewish farm colony and to share memories of growing up there.
Sam Gordon, one of the members of the committee that organized the celebration, recalled how the original group of men who settled Edenbridge worked for the first few months in nearby Star City to make enough money to buy food and the tools to clear the land. They built the synagogue in 1908 and a public school in 1929. At its peak, he said, the community numbered 68 Jewish farm families.
After high school, though, he noted, many of the second generation left the farm. Some residents left to enlist in 1939. The population continued to decline until, by 1970, there were few people left in what had been western Canada’s largest Jewish farm colony.
Freda (Fenster) Baron, a second-generation resident of Edenbridge, published a book seven years ago about growing up on the farm. At the gathering, she read excerpts from the book, recalling that her parents and older sister came to the settlement in 1908. Her older brother, Harry, was born shortly after.
“My mother used to wrap the baby [Harry] in a towel and hang the towel from a tree while she helped my father clear the trees,” Baron recalled.
She told of a serious incident in which two-year-old Harry stuck a scissors in his eye. “In those years, the closest doctor was 12 miles away and the only form of transportation was by ox cart or sleigh,” she said. “My father somehow got Harry to Winnipeg. It was a three-day trip by cattle car. He took Harry to the hospital, where he was initially turned away because he didn’t have any money with him. He insisted on leaving Harry at the hospital. My brother lost his sight in that eye, but the doctors were able to save the eye.”
Ike Vickar spent his first 25 years in Edenbridge. He recalled that the school’s student body was 90 per cent Jewish. “The school was closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he recalled.
He compared his bar mitzvah to more recent ones he has attended. “I was at one bar mitzvah that I was told cost $30,000,” he said. “My bar mitzvah cost $10. It was a bitterly cold January day in 1936. We had it in our kitchen. My dad brought a Torah home. We had a minyan, including a visitor from Winnipeg. There was enough whisky left over for my cousin Harry’s bar mitzvah.”
Ike Vickar said that he returns to visit Edenbridge every couple of years.
Tom Springman and his wife, Hope, were back to visit two years ago. “Everything seemed so much smaller now than how I remembered it,” he said.
Springman was a third-generation Edenbridge resident. He recalled families working hard under harsh conditions. “It was a time and a place where honesty and integrity were important,” he said.
Entertainment was in the form of country dances, picnics and sports days.
Springman left Edenbridge in 1953 and moved to Winnipeg to pursue a teaching career.
Harry Vickar loved living in Edenbridge. He recalled that the two Vickar families – consisting of ten boys and one girl between them – shared a duplex.
“On long winter evenings, we would be outside playing hockey,” he recalled. “We made our own hockey sticks and pucks.
“There were always a lot of chores to do. And we had a Hebrew teacher who would come to our house three times a week after school to teach us.”
He said that his dream was to become a veterinarian, but that didn’t work out. Instead, he became a car dealer, first in Melfort, Sask., then later in Winnipeg.
“My first love was always farming,” Vickar said.
Harry Reiss and his family were among the last Jewish families to settle in Edenbridge. The Reiss family fled Poland in 1939, just ahead of the Holocaust.
“We barely got out of Poland,” Reiss recalled. “We arrived in Edenbridge in early April. It was a cold and dreary spring. But the neighbours were warm and welcoming.”
Reiss recalled the hard, sweaty work clearing the land in the summers and milking the cows. He fondly remembered berry picking and playing softball.
The Reiss family stayed in Edenbridge for eight or nine years. “I was 17 when we left,” Reiss said. “I was sad to leave. I have a lifetime of fond memories and made many friends there.”
Harry Reiss’ brother, Sam; Marsha (Gordon) Corrin; and third-generation Edenbridge residents Frank White, Carol (Abramsky) Kravetsky and Hadda (Abramsky) Medjuck also spoke at the celebration. Norm Vickar served as the master of ceremonies.
While almost all the homes of Edenbridge are long gone, the synagogue is still standing – as a historic structure – as is the cemetery.