by Wayne Drury with photos by Susan Morgan
Stepping onto the site of the Negrych Pioneer Homestead is like being transported in time and space, from 21st century Manitoba, to 19th century Ukraine. In 1897, Wasyl and Anna Negrych and their seven children left their home in the Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine to make a new life in Manitoba.
The miniature Ukrainian village that they created on their 160-acre homestead near Gilbert Plains was remarkably similar to what they left behind. And even more remarkably, their pioneer homestead still stands with the original buildings on the original site, virtually unchanged since they built their house and nine other buildings at the end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century.
Believed to be the most complete and best-preserved Ukrainian farmstead in Canada, the Negrych Pioneer Homestead is a rich reminder of what life was like on the Canadian prairies – and the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine – before the technological onslaught of the 20th and 21st centuries. It has been designated a Manitoba Heritage Site, commemorated by a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque.
The family lived on the site for 92 years, from 1899 until 1991. In all that time, they continued to run the homestead in the traditional Carpathian manner, without running water, without electricity, and without telephone lines.
When Wasyl arrived in Canada, his two brothers and his oldest son each purchased adjoining quarters on the same section of land, and built their homes on the inside corners, creating a secluded village similar to the settlements they had left behind. The ten buildings on the homestead – the house, bunkhouse, barn, chicken coop, granaries, piggery and garage – were all constructed from materials that they found at hand – tamarack and spruce logs from the land for the walls – with no skilled labour and no purchased materials except for three windows and a few nails.
The main house and bunkhouse feature the only examples of a Carpathian long shingle roof in Canada. The wooden shingles, hand split and one metre long, are just one of many unique or rare features of this unique attraction. Inside the bunkhouse, which was built as sleeping quarters for Wasyl’s sons, is a rare and fully working clay oven or peech, the massive log-and-clay cook stove that was once the heart of every Ukrainian home. And there is no chimney, as was the tradition of the Carpathian people. The smoke escapes through the gables at the ends of the open raftered ceiling.
The Ukrainian tradition is also seen in the barn and granaries, which have doors made without hinges or metal parts. Upright poles hold the doors in place, and pivot in holes drilled into supporting crossbars.
The property sits along the still visible Colonization Trail, the route originally cut by Aboriginal peoples and later used by Ukrainian settlers heading northwest.
The Negrych Pioneer Homestead is an extraordinary testament to the resourcefulness and tenacity of a remarkable family as they preserved and adapted their traditions to the Canadian prairies. It is located north and east of Gilbert Plains on the banks of the Drifting River. For tour information call the Gilbert Plains municipal office at 204-548-2063.