The name for the finely crafted pull-out bed couldn’t be more appropriate. The guidebook identified the lofty perch, piled high with blankets and quilts, topped with a cover embellished with hand-made lace, as a ‘himmelbad’ or literally a ‘heaven bed.’
An exaggeration, perhaps, but only a slight one. In affluent homes the himmelbad could almost reach the ceiling.
And the setting for the himmelbad was equally appropriate. Created around 1920 in the Rosthern area of Saskatchewan, the beautiful pine bed is ensconced in the groote stow – or great room – of one of the historic homes in Neubergthal, a Mennonite street village three kilometres south of Altona in southern Manitoba.
Across the room the glausschaup, or built-in wall cabinet, lent another elegant touch to the room, with its scalloped-top edge and glass-fronted display shelves.
Underneath the window on another side of the room, a wooden cradle on half-moon rockers sat ready for another wee babe – no doubt many a little one has been tucked up in this sweet cot with decal application typical of the Russian settlement from which the cradle was brought in 1924.
I came across this intriguing exhibit of Mennonite furniture and floor patterns while taking in the Manitoba Sunflower Festival in Altona in late July. The exhibit, put together through the efforts of the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation, is on until Oct. 11, offering a compact and appealing history lesson on the Mennonites who fled Eastern Europe and their imprint on their new homeland on the Canadian Prairies.
One of the clocks ticking away in the great room came from 1865, made by the Mandtler family, clockmakers for several generations. The hanging corner cupboard shows the skilled grain-painting techniques, black trim, pin-striping and applied decals typical of this type of Mennonite cabinet.
A look at the floors upstairs and down in the Friesen Housebarn Interpretative Centre that houses the exhibit shows another slice of days gone by. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, many Mennonite women painted the floors of their housebarns, and some of these patterns have been unearthed from under layers of linoleum.
Pre-1920 the patterns were floral but geometrics took over after that, “because of the lino patterns,” says Margruite Krahn, an artist who lives next door to the Friesen housebarn and who is chair of the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation. Upstairs in the attached barn Norma Giesbrecht, a member of the heritage board, was busy showing visitors around her former home. She grew up in that housebarn with her siblings and parents Abraham and Margaretha Friesen, so she knew the ins and outs of the place.
“This door leads to the loft (of the barn),” she said, opening what looked like a closet door on the second floor of the house.
The ‘veranda room’ – one of the upper bedrooms with a balcony leading off it – was “always a bit of a bonus for whoever had it” because it was “huge, nice and sunny.”
These days it is home to a slew of handcrafted toys; the showpiece being a full-bodied rocking horse carved about 1910 by John Peters of nearby Gnadenthal. Although showing its years – the saddle is well-worn from many generations of children clambering off and on – the original black and green paint remains. Split sections of a buggy wheel form the rockers on this well-turned out item.
Other interesting pieces in the exhibit include:
Raft bench – a plain, rough bench made by Bernhard Penner from the raft that transported his family down the Rat River when the family immigrated to Manitoba in 1875.
Immigrant trunk – not made by Mennonites, this and other trunks hand-made in South Russia nonetheless are key to Russian immigrant history. This chest has the iron handles, criss-cross tin strapping on the lid and two tin panels on the front. Elaborate floral designs decorate each panel.
Spice box – a rare find, made from pine about 1925, with three pairs of small drawers arranged vertically with one long drawer at the bottom. The rectangular body curves to an arrow-shaped top.
Coffin bench – made to lay out the deceased in the groote stow for visitation before the funeral. Shows typical mortise-and-tenon with decoration by way of scalloped edges in the skirt.
The exhibition is entitled Himmelbleiw, which is Low German for heavenly blue, a favourite colour for walls and furniture because it expresses hope and joy.
More on Neubergthal – Considered one of the best-preserved Mennonite street villages in the world, Neubergthal is both a National Historic Site and a working village. Eight intact housebarns remain.
The village came about when the entire Bergthal Colony packed up and moved from Russia in the mid-1870s, with many settling in the newly created Province of Alberta.
The Friesen Housebarn, built in 1901, and now the interpretive centre for the historic site, is a classic example of rural Mennonite architecture. A large, central, brick heating oven highlights the main floor. Norma Giesbrecht (nee Friesen) says she had mixed feelings on learning her childhood home was being turned into the interpretive centre. The housebarn, built by her grandfather Bernhard Hamm, of one of one of the founding families, was “this close to being mowed down” because it was so rundown. During my visit I experienced a pleasant Mennonite custom – faspa. For this afternoon coffee, I ate fresh bread baked from the brick oven at the Friesen Housebarn.