Mennonite Settlement in Essex County

When Mennonite immigrants to Ontario arrived from the Soviet Union in 1924, they were required to work on farms for one year. For many, this was also their desire. The settlement at Reesor, Ontario was the purest attempt to preserve the Mennonite culture as they knew it in the Soviet Union. But they also explored other rural locations.

Clay digging

Clay digging at the brick yard near Coatsworth, 1927. Photo courtesy Essex Kent Mennonite Historical Association.

One that became very successful was Essex County in southwestern Ontario. Competition for jobs was not as great as in Waterloo County or other places. Within months of arriving in Ontario in summer 1924, Herman C. Enns, Jacob M. Barkowsky, Noah Snyder (a member of the Waterloo Mennonite Church committee that assisted immigrant settlement), and another person (name not recorded) explored the options in Essex County. They made contact with farmer Edmund Wigle, who lived near Kingsville. The delegation was impressed enough to commission the Jakob W. Lorenz family to establish residence in the county. Prior to immigration Jakob Lorenz had studied in England in preparation for mission work, and thus he could serve as a translator for German-speaking immigrant families who moved to the Essex County area. Unfortunately, the Lorenz family left for Kansas the next year.

About thirty families moved to Essex County (including Pelee Island) in 1925. These included Jacob M. Barkowsky of the exploratory committee, along with his wife Maria. Because families were widely scattered, it took time for the Essex County Mennonites to find one another. The initial employment opportunities on the mainland were of two kinds: brickyards near Kingsville or Coatsworth, or on local farms. Essex County in the 1920s was a major Canadian producer of tobacco, a very labor-intensive crop. Many of the new immigrants found employment on these farms either for wages or as sharecroppers. A few ventured to the automobile factories in Windsor or nearby Detroit. The financial success experienced by some of these immigrants began to attract others, not only from Ontario but also immigrants who had first settled in western Canada. By 1927 the Mennonite population in Essex County had reached four hundred, compared to zero in 1924, when even the word Mennonite was unknown in the area.

Spudding tobacco

Bernhard B. Konrad spudding tobacco on their Pelee Island farm, 1934. Photo courtesy Essex Kent Mennonite Historical Association

George Cruickshank, a U.S. citizen who owned ten tobacco farms on Pelee Island, sought sharecroppers to work them. Six immigrant families moved there in April 1925, including Gerhard and Katharina Thiessen, who lived on Pelee Island until 1943. Gerhard served as the Mennonite minister there in the last years of the island’s Mennonite settlement. The Peter A. Driedger family, who arrived on Pelee in 1925, paid off its travel debt and saved $3,000 by the end of 1927 and was able to purchase a combined dairy and tobacco farm on the mainland in early 1928. However, isolation on Pelee Island was always a problem, especially in winter months, and some years as many residents left as moved to the island. At its height the number of Mennonites on Pelee Island reached one hundred, or about 10 percent of the population. Over the years the permanent population of Pelee Island gradually decreased, and it has totaled less than three hundred since 1970. The last regular Mennonite worship services were held before 1950, and the last Mennonite farm family left the island in 1953. Some Mennonite individuals and families have lived there for stretches of time since then.

If you want to learn more about Mennonites in Essex County, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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