Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village

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The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a short drive east of Edmonton on Highway 16 just beyond Elk Island National Park. It is an open-air museum telling the story of Ukrainian immigrants who settled in the region between 1892 and 1930.

Over thirty buildings including three churches, a fully functioning grain elevator, blacksmith shop, farms and burdei (sod hut) have been moved and rebuilt here in authentically recreated environments. The yards, pathways and gardens around each building are faithful recreations of its original site. The species of trees and grasses in the general forested areas, the roads and street patterns, fences, vegetables and field crops re-establish the pre-1930 appearance of east central Alberta.

The village is made up of three zones based on settlement patterns: the Townsite, the Rural Community (representing 1925-30s), and Farmsteads,divided into five separate farmsteads, with each one representing a separate topic in the history of farming in the region.

Limited space means distances between the buildings are reduced. It would have been unusual to have so many farmyards located as close to each other in the 1920s or so close to a townsite.

The houses are nearly all original buildings, which have been moved and rebuilt on the site. The museum only accepts buildings which have a full history of the families who lived there. All the staff are in role for the 1920s and are playing real people. They have learned their parts thoroughly (even down to the accent and broken English) and are completely in role. They are working the land, cooking, cleaning as if it was 1920. It is a bit disconcerting at first as you feel very much as if you are inviting yourself into someone’s house and stopping them from working. You also have to work a lot harder at asking questions. They can tell you all about the family history, where they came from in Ukraine, how many of the family came across, how long it took to get established and details of 1920s life. But you can’t find out anything about what happens next. I found this a bit frustrating in the grain elevator when I wanted to find out about later developments in technology. All questions were met by a blank look.

All staff stopped to talk. After the usual preliminaries about the weather there was the question ‘where do you come from’ with a blank look when we replied ‘England’. You can guess the next question ‘how did you get here’. How do you explain about an aeroplane to someone who has no experience of anything like this.

All the women had ‘Nora Batty’ wrinkled stockings (that may not mean anything if you aren’t from UK as it refers to a character in the TV series “Last of the Summer Wine”) and I was dying to find out how they held the stocking up but didn’t like to ask. It was too embarrassing and personal question to ask a stranger in their own home. It wasn’t until we were in the church, which is the only place the interpreters are not in role that I could find out the finer details of their underwear. (Liberty bodice and suspenders.)

Entry is into a large reception area with shop and interesting exhibition about the way of life. Most of the settlers came from Western Ukraine. In the 1890s much of this territory was within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was its most economically undeveloped part. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the farms were generally too small to sustain the people who worked them. Overpopulation, a shortage of work, and the constant threat of poverty drove people half-way around the globe in search of a better life. By 1930, a quarter of a million people from Western Ukraine had immigrated to Canada.

The first Ukrainian settlement in Canada was established north east of Edmonton between 1892-1894. Gradually the immigrants spread throughout Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Their Russian Orthodox Churches can still be seen around these areas.

From the centre it is a short walk back into the past. The early settlers could buy a quarter plot for $10 but would not gain ownership of the land until they had improved it and farmed it for several years. The first home was a temporary sod house (Burdei) which could be put up within a few days. A burdei has been reconstructed on the site and is the first stop.

The walls were made of earth and timber and there was a turf roof. Light was from a small window above the door and in the far wall. Inside there was a small stove providing heat and for cooking. In summer all cooking was done on an open fire outside. There was a hand made table, bench and a bed. The family have only just arrived in Canada. The husband was breaking the land around the plot and the two children were looking after the family cow and stop it from wandering. The family could not afford to let the children go to school – they were an essential part of the work force. Life was very much ‘on the edge’ and you suddenly realised how thin the line between success and failure was.

If successful, the family hoped to build a wooden house. Neighbours would help with this. Until then the cow would share their house during the winter.

Around the site are examples of later wooden houses each with their yard and barns. They show how wealth was used to improve the living conditions with a large range in the kitchen and more belongings. As more land was cleared and broken, farmers began to grow grain which commanded high prices after WW1. As well as cow sheds, large granaries were needed. The fields were ploughed using horses – a technique they had used in the Ukraine. Although the present occupants did not know it this was to lead to serious soil erosion problems in this semi-arid area a decade later.

The railways were built to carry grain from the farms and the grain elevator was built by the station. This was used to transfer grain from the carts into the waiting wagons. Each had the name of the settlement proudly written on the side and were to become the iconic symbol of the prairies.

In the town area is a small one room school, small grocery store providing dry goods needed by the farmer’s wife. The grocer lived rooms behind the shop. There was a hardware store, blacksmith shop, post office and hotel. This provided beds for travellers and there was a large livery A lumber company arrived providing welcome supplies for new buildings. There were catalogues advertising different styles of houses and the separate parts could be bought from the catalogue company for self build. There was a large livery barn for overnight stabling of horses.

This was a fascinating visit and we spent all day round the site, and could have done with even longer. It is the kind of place yo need to visit twice, to ask all the questions you didn’t ask first visit.

Information about visiting and downloadable map of the site can be found here

For detailed information of the village see here

Pictures of our visit are here:

We visited during a five week trip to Canada. There is an overall report of the trip here

I have written a series of detailed reports for some of the places visited for Silver Travel.

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