Larry Lavitt
 
Sonnenfeld Colony:
A Piece of Saskatchewan History

By Mottie Feldman of Ottawa

dq126 at freenet.carleton.ca
January 2002

Introduction

Sonnenfeld was one of a number of Jewish colonies that were established in the pioneering days of Western Canada. This report provides information on some of the history of Sonnenfeld, and its geographical location. The information is based on two references, and my own experience. One reference is a paper presented by Anna Feldman to the Canadian Jewish Historical Society. Anna is married to my oldest brother, Keiva. The second reference is a history book compiled from personal accounts obtained from most of the families who resided for some time at least in the Rural Municipality covered by the History Club that organized and assembled the extensive information. Sonnenfeld families were a component of that Municipality. In my own case, I was born on my parents' homestead in 1937, and lived there until I left to attend University in Saskatoon in 1955. I remain connected through the land that we still own there.

Sonnenfeld birth and development

Anna Feldman 1 described three phases in the growth of Sonnenfeld Colony:

The early years 1905 to 1911
Period of Consolidation 1912 to 1925
The JCA years 1926 to 1939

The early years began with a few young Jewish men, armed with some agricultural college schooling, and not much else, establishing homesteads close to each other. Although other Jewish colonies already existed in the West, a few graduates of Slobodka Lesna School were the first to work their way across the country, after immigrating from Europe, to become pioneers on the virgin prairies of Saskatchewan. Three such graduates who were among the first to file for homesteads and stay with farming, formed the core of the new Colony. Feldman 1 listed them according to date of filing for homestead:

Israel Hoffer 1905
Philip Berger 1906
Majer Feldman 1906.

Feldman 1 reported that by 1909, the population of the Colony had grown to 58 people on 25 farms. Significantly, 6 homesteaders had stayed on the land and advanced their farming activities sufficiently to obtain their Letters Patent in 1909:

Majer Feldman
Sussman Kostatzkof
Max Feldman (not related to Majer)
Samuel Braunstein
Israel Hoffer
Philip Berger

Esther Ghan 2.1 identified the settlers in the early years of Sonnenfeld Colony, by date of filing for their homesteads (* = graduate of Slobodka Lesna School):
R.M. of Souris Valley No. 7:

1906 Samuel Bronstein
1911 H. Besserman
1906 Philip Berger *
???? Max Buchalter *
1905 Max Feldman
1906 Majer Feldman *
1910 Harry Gertner *
1908 Aaron Gertner *
1911 Abram Feuer
1914 Harry Gottesfeld
1914 Mayer Kamel (Camiel) *
1906 Sussman Kosatzhof
1912 Louis Kessler
1908 Mike Gorin
1908 Max Zalik
1907 Moses Zalik

Other homesteaders, dates not stated: Charles Linden*, Louis Plotkin, Hiam Portisman, Isaac Rachmer, Dave Trapper, Isaac Gilman, Leib Gilman.
R.M. of Lake Alma No. 8
1910 Edward Feuer
1910 Solomon Feuer
1907 David Schwartz
1910 Louis Singer
Others: Sam Kobelnitsky, Jack Litman.

The Period of Consolidation saw the pioneers develop their farms and family life to establish the Colony as part of the surrounding community. Feldman 1 stated that Sonnenfeld's size peaked in 1916 and then declined. In 1912, the population was 98 on 34 farms with a total area of 8,320 acres. Size increased, by 1916, to a population of 147 on 45 farms with a total area of 11,040 acres, then diminished by 1925 to a population of 99 on 28 farms with a total area of 9.600 acres. Farms and community life advanced, while the farmers faced the economic and climate challenges always characteristic of agriculture in that part of Saskatchewan. The Sonnenfeld synagogue was completed in 1912, facilitating religious services, Hebrew school for the children, and a variety of community events.

The JCA years meant that the Jewish Colonization Association was the main player in acquiring land, and bringing new Jewish immigrants to settle on farms in Sonnenfeld Colony. But the unprecedented hardships of the drought and depression of the 1930's and resistance to Jewish immigration prevented the JCA from reaching its goal of expanding the colony to 150 families. Still, the Sonnenfeld farmers did not abandon their lands at quite as high a rate as the average for the remainder of the province. I won't add more detail here, but Feldman 1 provides much more information on this part of Sonnenfeld's history.

Usher Berger 2.2 described The Farm Laborers' Hamlet that was built by the JCA, probably between 1926 and 1928, on SW 27-2-14-2 (near the junction of Highways 18 and 35 at Oungre). It provided mini-farm accommodation for Jewish immigrants who had to acquire farming experience before settling on farms of their own. This service was an obvious advantage compared to the financial capacity and farming experience that the pioneers who immigrated some 20 years earlier had to acquire completely on their own. Still, the depression of 1929 followed by the drought of the 1930s reduced all of them to applying for relief. Whether pioneer graduates, or graduates of the Farm Laborers' Hamlet, many of the grim-faced farmers began to leave their farms. The Farm Laborers' Hamlet ceased operations after 1930.

Families from Europe who became residents in the Farm Laborers' Hamlet in 1928 included Hirsh Buchalter, Chaim Dresher, Abel Luffman, Shloma Sapirstein, and Israel Dubowski. The only members of the group who remained farming beyond the depression and the drought of the 1930s were Chaim Dresher until 1943, and Abel's son Benny Luffman until 1959.

Location of pioneer homesteads in Township 2, Range 15

Mapping the homesteads of the first pioneers of Sonnenfeld, using information from The Saga Of Souris Valley 2 shows how they were grouped in the same general area. (The numbered squares are Sections, one mile by one mile; a Township comprises 36 sections, so is 6 miles by 6 miles square; switchback numbering starts with Section 1 in the South East corner of the township and ends with Section 36 in the North East corner; the symbols show the locations of the section homesteads.)

Location of pioneer homesteads in Township 2, Range 15

Location of homesteads receiving Letters Patent in 1909:

Pb - Philip Berger (June 17) (S.E. of 10)
Mf - Majer Feldman (July 7) (N.E. of 4)
Sk - Sussman Kostatzkof (August 20) (N.E. of 10)
F2 - Max Feldman (not related to Majer) (September 2) (N.E. of 14)
Sb - Samuel Braunstein (November 24) (N.E. of 16)
(The synagogue was located on the N.E. corner of NE-16)
Ih - Israel Hoffer (December 17) (N.E. of 12)

(* The cemetery is located on the S.E. corner of S.E. of 15)

Location of 2-15 and 2-14:
Location of 2-15 and 2-14

  • Township 2 is located 6 miles from the USA border.
  • The numbers 18 and 35 identify the two Sask. Highways serving the area.
  • "CPR" shows the location of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the towns that were built alongside, near Sonnenfeld. Today, the railway track no longer exists.
  • C shows the location of the Sonnenfeld Cemetery (5 miles west of highway 35, and 2 miles south of highway 18).

Part of the Larger Community

Of course, Sonnenfeld's development was part of the development of the entire pioneering area. The Colony's residents depended upon, and participated in the visioning, construction, and utilization of critical nearby infrastructure, such as schools and towns.

Railway and Towns

Peggy Chapman 2.3 described the construction of the Estevan - Minton CPR railway line: The Southall to Lake Alma branch (which would also lead to the birth of the hamlets of Oungre, Hoffer and Ratcliffe), was buit in 1926 and 1927, and put into operation Aug. 16, 1927. The Lake Alma to Minton line was built in 1929-30, and was put into operation June 25, 1930.

In 1928, after the railway was in operation and the townsite was surveyed, and after some controversy, the future hamlet of Oungre was originally named Byrne, for an area pioneer and operator of a post office there. However, the land holdings of the JCA (Jewish Colonization Association) included the town site. The JCA offered to donate land for locating a school and community hall, along with $500 for the hall building fund, and asked in return that the hamlet be named after the JCA general manager, Dr. Louis Oungre. This offer was accepted by a meeting of the Municipal Council on Aug. 6, 1928.

Construction of the railway facilitated the formation of villages along its route to serve the Saskatchewan communities in the area. Members of Sonnenfeld Colony benefited from these developments and participated in them as well. Hoffer (presumably named after the Hoffer pioneers) was most central for Sonnenfeld residents, but many were also served by Ratcliffe to the west and Oungre to the east.

In Hoffer 2.4, Mrs. Rose Hoffer started a store in 1926. Mayer Hoffer was the first postmaster when the Hoffer Post Office opened in 1927.

In Ratcliffe 2.5, Sam Altman started a grocery and dry goods store, and built a small addition for a post office in 1926. He became the first Postmaster in Ratclffe, and also the first (temporary) Customs Officer when the first Customs Office there was opened in 1931.

Schools

Although "Jewish" schooling was provided in Sonnenfeld Colony during the years when the community was viable enough to have qualified teachers, Colony children attended public schools in the area along with their non-Colony neighbours. Some Colony children later even worked as teachers in those schools.

Dravland School District 2.6 was organized and the school built in 1912. Situated within the area occupied by a large number of the Sonnenfeld farms, many Jewish children attended this school through the years. Max Frohlich served as secretary on the school board for most of those years. Closed in 1948, the school buildings were moved to Oungre. A grove of trees, probably planted in the 1930s, still marks the location of the school grounds on Highway 18.

Summit School 2.7 was built in 1911. It opened in March, 1912 and closed in about 1938. Located on the Southern edge of the Sonnenfeld farms, the Bergers and Feldmans were among the few Jewish children attending that school. Keiva Feldman was also one of the last teachers. Majer Feldman was secretary of the School Board for most of the life of the school. The school site is now farm land.

Situated on the dividing line between the Souris Valley and the Lake Alma School Districts, Velhaven School 2.8 was on the western edge of the Sonnenfeld settlement. The school began operations in 1915, and finally closed in 1958. During this time, the smallest student roster was 7 and the largest was 27. From the register, students most likely from Sonnenfeld included the Altman, Berger, Brounstein, Elfenbaum, Feuer, Kives, Kabilnitsky, and Zalik families. Sophie Frohlich was the school teacher in 1945, and Max Zalik served many years on the school board, as secretary-treasurer, and chairman.

Ratcliffe School District 2.9 was formed by amalgamating parts of Summit, Lorraine, and Norge School Districts after the town of Ratcliffe was established. The school was two-room from 1929 to 1941, and then one-room until it closed in 1958. The school building still stands today within the former town site. On the South-West edge of Sonnenfeld, some Jewish children were certainly students in the school, but this reference has no student roster information. However, yours truly at least, attended grades one through 10 there, and my father, Majer Feldman was secretary of the School Board for many years.

Murray Smith School 2.10 was located near the South-East fringe of Sonnenfeld. The class photo, vintage about 1923, listed four Hoffer children as students. The school started in 1914, and was closed in 1939. The school building was moved to Oungre during the late 1940s, and initially used as a classroom there.

Hoffer School 2.11 opened in 1928, containing both a junior and a senior room. However, the high school could not be sustained beyond 1939. The remaining school closed in 1957. Located within the general periphery of Sonnenfeld, no doubt many Jewish children attended this school, and some traveled extra distance to attend the high school, not available at their one-room schools closer to home. The list of teachers shows at least some Sonnenfeld residents, such as Esther Ghan (nee Hoffer), Marion Hoffer, and Dave Feldman. Israel Hoffer was chairman of the school board from 1930, until his death in 1957.

Lyndale School 2.12 evolved with the changing times, from opening in 1907, to relocation and expansion in 1929 to become part of the new hamlet of Oungre, to expansion in 1953 to accommodate students traveling by school bus from smaller schools that closed, to construction of a new regional school closer to the intersection of highways 18 and 35 in 1957. This reference does not provide any information to identify attendance of Jewish students. However, with Oungre located on the Eastern edge of Sonnenfeld, and Lyndale School's increasing role as a regional school, including high school grades, some Sonnenfeld children certainly attended the school. Along with the few remaining young residents of Sonnenfeld after 1953, I experienced the school transportation culture (bus in spring and fall, snowmobile in winter) in order to attend high school, and later for others to attend school when the local schools closed.

Recent History - the Sonnenfeld Legacy

The municipal map of land holdings 2.13, dated Feb. 1975, shows that only three farms remained in the possession of Sonnenfeld Colony members, along with the land still owned by the JCA. One of the three farms belongs to Usher Berger, son of pioneer Philip Berger. Usher operated the farm until about 1999, but had moved his family to a home in Regina years before then. The second farm belongs to George Keives, son of Kiva Keives 2.14, who immigrated from Turkey with his family, leasing the West half of 15-2-15 from the JCA in 1927. Kiva retired in 1961, and George continued farming, later managing the farm from Winnipeg after relocating. The third farm belongs to Nachman Feldman, son of Majer Feldman, along with land owned by some other members of the Feldman family. Nachman moved off the farm in 1969, and is now living in Calgary, but still manages the entire holdings through a rental agreement with Russell Torkelson.

The 1975 map shows that the JCA owned about 9 Sections in 2-15 and 2-14. However, there is no indication that any Jewish renters were still farming any of that land. The JCA eventually sold these holdings to farmers in the area.

Western Canada is a far different place than it was when settlement started. I am sure that our pioneer ancestors faced the formidable pioneering challenges with firm resolve and visions of a better life for their families. But they could not hardly predict the situation almost a century later. Agriculture still faces formidable economic challenges and unreliable weather. The viability of small farms and small communities is long gone. Sonnenfeld Colony, along with many of the towns and communities around it, and like the other Jewish Colonies in the West, has disappeared. But the Sonnenfeld legacy comprises many descendants of these brave Jewish pioneers living proudly in many cities in Canada and beyond, and a few descendants still a part of the original vision.

References:

1 Anna Feldman. Sonnenfeld - Elements of Survival and Success of a Jewish Farming Community on the Prairies 1905-1939 Canadian Jewish Historical Society Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pages 33 - 53.
2 The Saga Of Souris Valley, R.M. No. 7 published by Souris Valley No. 7 History Club, Box 22, Oungre, Saskatchewan. (A history from 1906-1976.)
2.1 "Sonnenfeld Colony" by Esther Ghan, pages 257-259.
2.2 "The Farm Laborers' Hamlet at Oungre" by Usher Berger, pages 418-419.
2.3 "Oungre" by Peggy Chapman, pages 365-368.
2.4 "Village of Hoffer" page 238.
2.5 "The Hamlet of Ratcliffe" pages 483-485.
2.6 "Dravland" page 93.
2.7 "Summit" page 647.
2.8 "Velhaven" pages 705-706.
2.9 "Ratcliffe" pages 485-486.
2.10 "Murray Smith" pages 315-316.
2.11 "Hoffer School" pages 237-238.
2.12 "Lyndale School" pages 407-409.
2.13 "Back cover"
2.14 Keives, Kiva, pages 116-117

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