Manitoba History: Review: Esther Epp-Tiessen, Altona: The Story of a Prairie Town
by T. J. Regehr
Altona is a small southern Manitoba prairie town. The two main features of its identity are that it is primarily an agricultural and a Mennonite community. It has, however, achieved a greater measure of economic diversification than most of the Canadian prairie towns.
A few Mennonite homesteaders moved into the Altona area early in 1880, and a traditional Mennonite village was established there later the same year. The author devotes a chapter to this village, its organization, government, schools, and the land-holding patterns which were adopted. The author speculates rather vaguely and somewhat unconvincingly about the breakup of the village, no doubt because her sources failed to provide conclusive answers.
Three years before dissolution of the Mennonite village, a new town was laid out half a mile further north. It also used the name Altona, while the village site became known as Old Altona. The new town was laid out like most small prairie railway centres. With the exception of the Mennonite identity of its people, Altona’s early history was similar to that of many prairie towns. World War I, however, affected Altona less critically than it did other prairie towns where enlistments were high. Very few Altona residents enlisted since the Mennonite emphasis on non-resistance was generally accepted. Since Altona was overwhelmingly Mennonite, hostility among non-Mennonites tended to be muted.
The distinguishing feature of the later chapters of the book is the discussion of the economic diversification and industrialization of the town. The major agrarian cooperative movements of the 1920s apparently had little impact in Altona, but the economic disasters of the 1930s and the economic opportunities of the post World War II period led to substantial industrial and commercial development. Benefiting from strong local leadership the town developed a number of cooperative ventures, the most notable being an oil seed crushing plant designed to process the recently introduced sunflower seed crops. Private ventures, most notably the printing and stationery firm of D.W. Friesen & Sons, also grew rapidly. The cooperatives and the private businesses prospered side by side, and each was apparently evaluated and accepted on a practical rather than an ideological basis. Those active in the cooperatives or in private business are portrayed as being conservative and traditional, but not without interest in progress and innovation.
The relationship between agriculture, industry and commerce, as described in this book, is fascinating. The establishment of Co-operative Vegetable Oils was closely related to the needs of local farmers, and yet it was clearly also a major new industrial undertaking which brought a measure of business sophistication and a new class of workers to the town. The impact of new ventures on the town is ably discussed in the book, but the author is seemingly confused and bewildered when writing about the financial structure, particularly the bond guarantees, of Co-operative Vegetable Oils.
The businessmen that appear in this book are, without exception, public-spirited individuals concerned about the welfare of their community, and the industries they built are portrayed as being highly beneficial to the town. Only those industries that failed to come to Altona are seen as possible sources of trouble. Businessmen no doubt want the public to think of them as public benefactors rather than greedy profit grubbers, and in a small town a large measure of community spirit is necessary for entrepreneurial success. Nevertheless, profit levels, employer-employee relations in non-unionized shops, and the obvious reliance of business on the town for a variety of tax-supported services require more critical scrutiny.
Altona is based on extensive research in local archival, newspaper, and oral history sources, but provincial and federal archival collections have hardly been used at all. The book is very extensively illustrated and, while subject to a number of technical and grammatical problems, is well written and easy to read. It is far superior to the majority of local histories that have been published in recent years. It is, indeed, one of the best local histories ever written on a prairie community. It was published by D. W. Friesen & Sons, as part of that Altona firm’s 75th anniversary celebration. The author and the publisher both have good reason to be proud of this book which will be of interest not only to the good folk of Altona, but to anyone interested in Canada’s small town heritage.
Page revised: 27 October 2012Back to top of page