Last week I made a presentation to the Toronto Mennonite Heritage Club. After that meeting I had a fascinating conversation with Nicholas Dick about Peter Wall, a Mennonite entrepreneur in the Virgil area of the Niagara Peninsula. Nicholas had done an extensive interview with Peter Wall’s son, Alex. I also had recently received a nine-page typescript from Randy Klaassen on Peter Wall, written by the late Russian history scholar, Bob Augustine. It seemed time to write a bit about this Peter Wall.
Peter Wall (February 19, 1894–March 26, 1968) was the oldest son of Jacob P. Wall and Maria Albrecht Wall. Jacob and a brother had actually come to the United States as single young men to homestead in Nebraska in 1889, but they returned to Russia in 1890 because of lingering troubles between the U.S. Army and Native Americans. Jacob Wall then became a very wealthy estate owner near the Molotschna settlement, owning ten thousand acres adjacent to the even larger Wintergreen estate. He owned glass, flour, and paper mills, and he was an investor in and president of the Tokmak Railroad in 1910.
Son Peter, a member of the Kirchliche church (in Ontario they became United Mennonites), but not a pacifist, served six and a half years in the Russian Army through World War I and served in the White Army during the Russian Revolution where he reached the rank of colonel. Several times Wall family members were imprisoned, and twice Peter was almost executed. The Jacob Wall family lost its property in the chaos of the revolution and its aftermath. Jacob P. Wall died in March 1922. Peter and his brother, John, escaped Russia under false identity. The family, including Jacob’s widow, Maria, came to Ontario in 1924 but within five months moved to Ste. Anne, Manitoba, where Maria died in 1925.
In Canada Peter suffered from tuberculosis and while living in Manitoba was almost deported because of his illness. After their mother’s death and three crop failures, Peter and his brothers moved to Ontario in December 1927. After working for several years, the four brothers were able to purchase a foreclosed farm in Vineland in 1930 for a down payment of one dollar. The brothers farmed peaches, cherries and grapes, which initiated Peter to the possibilities in local agriculture. Peter gradually became involved in land development and helped many Mennonite families to get started in fruit farming. He began by helping a few farmers get land in the Vineland area.
Peter worked closely with the Toronto-based real estate firm Home Smith Company, purchasing foreclosed agricultural properties suitable for growing fruit and subdividing them into smaller 10-15 acre plots. He started his development in 1933 when he bought a 110 acre wheat farm on the outskirts of Virgil. He sold not only to Mennonites, but also to other immigrants settling in the area. By 1937 fifty families had purchased land in the Virgil area, many from Peter Wall, and begun to plant fruit orchards and vegetable crops.
A Mennonite Brethren minister, John F. Dick, arrived in the Virgil area in 1936. Another Mennonite Brethren minister and a United Mennonite minister came in 1937; this allowed the formation of two congregations that became influential in their respective conferences. By 1938 at least 350 Mennonites lived in the Virgil area, most of them fruit farmers. By 1937 the Mennonite farmers had formed the Niagara Township Fruit Cooperative to handle their produce, and at the end of the decade Peter Wall began the Niagara Canning Company owned by local shareholders, most of whom were also members of the cooperative.
The United Mennonites began construction of a building in 1937 and formally organized as a congregation in early 1938 under the leadership of Peter Kroeker, who had recently moved to the area from Hespeler. The Niagara Canning Company operated only eight years before going bankrupt in 1948 when markets in Great Britain for Canadian canned fruit suddenly collapsed. The bankruptcy had the effect of estranging the Wall family from the Mennonite community, although Peter Wall remained a member of the Niagara United Mennonite Church until his death. Peter Wall himself lost $70,000 in the canning factory failure. In 1949 Peter Wall and his sons formed a real estate company in St. Catharines.
The most detailed account of Peter Wall is found in Bob Augustine, “The story of Peter Wall.” It is hoped this will sometime be published with other Augustine writings.