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Revisiting the Pioneer Spirit

Published: 08/03/2011

It's the next best thing to traveling back in time. Nestled away off a dusty, nearly-deserted gravel road just north of Gilbert Plains, ManitobaWasyl Negrych Pioneer Homestead is protected by a thick forest of tamarack and poplars. The isolation and aura of the place transports visitors to another land.

In the late 1800s, a wave of emigration took place in the Canadian West from the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. These folks were offered deeds to generous stretches of land in Manitoba at a reasonable price, and under one condition: clear the land, build a homestead and remain as settlers.

It was an offer too good to refuse for Wasyl Negrych, his wife Anna, and their seven children. They came to the province's Parkland region from the highlands of Western Ukraine in 1897. For a mere fee of $10, the Negrych clan bought a quarter section of land along the Drifting River.

First thing on their agenda: construct a temporary shelter of poplar poles and cowhide, which would house the growing family (five more offspring would be born in Manitoba) for the first two years.

Like all Prairie settlers, the Negrych family was extremely resourceful. Building materials were sourced from the land. Structures were erected using traditional Ukrainian folk building techniques, made from logs with saddle and notch cornering. Heavy wooden doors were made movable with hand-carved wooden door hinges and secured with innovative wood locking systems.

Still intact today, the main family house is a log building with a sturdy beamed ceiling and extremely rare wooden roof -the only Canadian example of a long-shingle Carpathian roof. Its layout consists of a central kitchen area and two side rooms, much like traditional Ukrainian homes. The interior and exterior are finished with earthen plaster, which keeps the buildings refreshingly cool during stifling summer heat, and toasty warm during the deep-freeze of winter.

Other unique features of the homestead include an ingeniously crafted hemp-oil press, and an extremely rare and fully-preserved working ‘peech' - a massive log and clay bake over that was once at the centre of every Ukrainian home.

Clothing, letters, pictures, magazines and knick-knacks still adorn the main house. The walls remain decorated with original religious images placed there by Wasyl and Anna, family pictures, and a Gilbert Plains calendar from the year 1922.

Today, the 10-building homestead remains well-preserved on its original site, touted the oldest Ukrainian dwelling in Canada. Strolling the grounds of this Parks Canada National Historic Site, visitors will note how the Negrych family spirit still lingers. Remarkably, the two youngest Negrych children lived here into the 1990's without making any modern improvements - no electricity, running water, sewer, or telephone lines were ever introduced.

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