Segment Synopsis: (Helen Letkemann was born on August 1, 1923, in Lechfeld, Bavaria, Germany.)
The interviewer introduces the interview and says she is interviewing "Mrs. Helen Letkemann". Letkemann corrects her: "Miss" (she is unmarried). Then she states that "just Helen Letkemann is fine".
Letkemann explains that her parents lived in Southern Russia. The first immigration took place in the 19s, "through the encouragement maybe or whatever you want to say of their family members". One of her father's brother-in-laws walked for many kilometres to ask whether her father thought of immigrating to Canada. Her father had not thought about it. The brother-in-law explained to her parents that times were difficult and Canada was opening its doors to immigrants. Letkemann's parents started to think about it and started to make small payments. It was not necessarily money, sometimes also some butter. They started to do so a long time before "finally the agreement was there and they had the papers". Her father had become frustrated and had thought about stopping the process "because we are not getting anywhere" but people told them that they had "nothing to lose". Her father could be convinced to go once more to a meeting of potential immigrants to Canada. They finally sold a "nice cup and saucer" which Letkemann's mother would have liked to keep, to make another payment. In June 1923, Letkemann's parents left Southern Russia. They arrived in England first and later came to Germany "because of eye problems. Nobody was allowed to continue until that was cleared up." "I came along in Germany, it was in Lechfeld, Deutschland (Germany)" where Letkemann was born. She believes that her parents were living in barracks then. She was born there, and "mother and I were hauled to the hospital the next morning". She was born on August 1, 1923. Letkemann had to wait in Germany. Their eyes were healed but they had to go through "quite a stressful time" because they used a blue stone to treat their trachoma. They rolled their eye lids with that "which caused bleeding and very severe burning", and it didn't help at all. They also had to treat Letkemann's two-year-old sister and her three-year-old cousin but then her mother and her aunt decided that they would not take them to the treatment, and nothing happened. Letkemann recalls a story told by her mother several times: A doctor came from England would scrap away the little pimples, and he used some ointment, and the eyes were healed. In November 1923, her parents could leave with a ship called "Empress of France". It was a rough ride because the seas were very turbulent in late fall. The passengers were all very sea-sick, including Letkemann's mother and herself who was three and a half months old. Her two-year-old sister "liked to see things and wasn't that sick". Her father was sea-sick too. According to her mother, the ship would go up and down "as high as a house" during a storm. Letkemann recalls that it would have been easier to travel earlier in summer. Her uncle said that the "sea was so calm" in summer. In addition to that, those who came in earlier summer during threshing time, could earn money right away. But when Letkemann's parents came at the end of November, it was cold, and they had no mittens or gloves. The people who picked them up bought them a pair. They stayed in Winnipeg and were taken to their home in Greenland near Ste. Anne, Manitoba. Letkemann's parents spent the first winter with the people that had taken them up.
Map Coordinates: 49.181667, -97.939722
Segment Synopsis: Letkemann's father worked for a farmer. The pay was 50 cents a day. He did "whatever needed to be done, hauling straw". In summer, her parents moved away to stay on their own even though it was a granary. The families had been very good to them. Her father worked but her mother felt that she was not needed because there were older girls in the family, and whenever she wanted to help, they told her that she should take care of her children. Her mother "felt like a burden". So in summertime, her parents moved to a granary that was cleaned out. Her parents stayed there until April 1927. Her parents had decided that they would rent or buy land and start farming. The first crop was beautiful, her parents just walked around and looked at it. But then there was a big hail storm, and most of their crop was destroyed. "It was another setback, and they were very poor". Her parents had a debt to pay, and not much income, and children to take care of. Asked to whom her parents were indebted, Letkemann replies: "To the CPR company". Her parents had had to pay their way until they would get out of Russia, until the had passed the "Red Gate". J. P. Thiessen vouched for all Mennonites coming to Canada, that they would pay their debt. Letkemann is not sure if the Mennonites also had to pay for their fare to Quebec, and from Quebec across Canada. She knows that it was a large debt for her parents at that time. Her parents were faithful to paying their debt to the CPR once they could. She is not sure when her parents finished to pay their debt. Letkemann recalls that many teenage girls immediately had to go to work to support their families. They worked in Winnipeg as domestic servants "for the more wealthy people, they did house cleaning and so on. They gave almost every penny to their parents so that they could pay that debt."
Segment Synopsis: Two of Letkemann's uncles also immigrated in 1923, and went on to Saskatchewan. On Christmas 1924 (maybe even later), they came to visit. Her father and uncle went searching for land a little farther west. On of her father's brothers was already living at Stephenfield, Manitoba. Her father and uncle came to a place called Roseisle, Manitoba, where her parents decided to move to. Letkemann doesn't remember too much from their time in Greenland, Manitoba. It was a positive experience to be picked up by people they didn't know.
Her father bought a house at Roseisle, the down payment was one dollar. The people living there would not move out. In addition to her parents and siblings, they went they with Letkemann's aunt, a young widow with one girl. The first stop was at her other uncle's place in Stephenfield. They stayed there until they could finally move on to Roseisle. They just moved in, and the other people moved out. Her uncle in Stephenfield, Peter and his wife Anna, had already at least two children, and her parents had three children then. When they moved into the new house, her mother and aunt started washing the walls. They discovered that there was a colour at the walls, not just smoke and dirt. That was their home for 11 years, and Letkemann has many good memories, it was a "poor but a happy time". Her father played with the children and told them stories, and did lots of things with the children. They didn't know they were poor, they had their "daily bread".
Map Coordinates: 49.5, -98.344167
Segment Synopsis: Letkemann started school at Roseisle and learned English. They didn't have a church to go to at that time. They sang and read bible stories at home. Whenever possible, a minister from Winnipeg or from another place visited them. The minister came by train and would stay overnight. The services were held in the various homes. Letkemann still remembers some of the ministers who came to visit them, telling them stories and even giving them candy occasionally.
Segment Synopsis: Her parents had half a section of land in Roseisle. It was poor, sandy land, and it had leafy spurge which is very hard to get rid of. Her parents started with cattle and sold the cream. They also had chickens for eggs and meat, and pigs. They had a big vegetable garden. Sometimes, it was very dry, and they would have to water it. They bought very few groceries. They had some very nice neighbours living close to them, they didn't have any children, so they would get an orange from them once in a while. They would stand at the neighbours' fence but they didn't have the permission to go there. In the summertime, they would drive to the Pembina Hills for fruit, with horse and buggy, taking their cream cans, pails and straw heads. They took their lunch with them. Her mother, aunt and the children would pick Saskatoons (Saskatoon berries). Later on, they would pick pin-cherries, chokecherries, and plums. They also found cranberries, gooseberries and a few strawberries (not enough to do anything with).
At haying time, everybody had to help: They had to put the hay onto the hayrack, and then to the barn loft. Letkemann recalls an implement but she can't remember how it was called: They had to put the hay onto it and then it could be lifted up. Later on, they would use a grain auger. She shows a picture, and the interviewers are identifying a pitchfork in it that was used to lift up the hay. Letkemann explains that they used the pitchfork first but later on they had a device pulled by horses. They talk about the person in the picture: One of them is Letkemann's father, and they had a hired help but probably the other person in the picture is her brother. The picture was taken between 1927 and 1938. Letkemann recalls the dust when they moved the hay, "it wasn't one of my favourites at all".
Segment Synopsis: Asked whether they had dances at the barn, Letkemann recalls that she "didn't even think of it". Asked if dancing wasn't allowed, Letkemann explains that they thought that dancing wasn't very Christian, so they never danced. The hayloft was used for hay and also for grain because they had so few granaries at that time: "No, no barn dances or anything like that".
Segment Synopsis: Letkemann recalls that she and her siblings had to bring in the wood, "and also snow for melting" so that they would have soft water. That was when they were younger. The wood was burned in a range for baking and cooking, and there was a box that had to be filled or replenished. There was bush around the farm, and they collected dry branches for firewood. They took armloads of it home, and the three children helped each other to fill two arms, whereas the third one would have only one arm of wood because nobody was left to help.
They also had to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. As soon as they were able to, Letkemann and her siblings had to milk the cows. She milked "many, many cows, I mean, over the years, eh?" She also had to help clean out the chicken barn. In summer, she had to weed the garden. There was always something to do. Inside the house, she had to help her mother, sometimes also with the laundry. They couldn't put the wash in and have it washed, they had to stand there and move the wash. By then they had a hand-operated washing machine, but at the beginning her mother used a tub and a wash board. They hung the laundry outdoors, in winter it would freeze stiff. Later on, they had a machine but had to stand and work the machine, and to wring the laundry dry.
Letkemann had one older sister and three younger brothers. Her brothers had to do farm work too when they were old enough. They didn't have to do as much milking as she and her sister but more outdoor-chores like haying which Letkemann didn't have to do so much. However, she and her sister helped raking the hay. It was always good when her father was there and not the hired man to move the hay onto the rack. Her father wouldn't just throw the hay onto the rack but lay it on for them: "It made a difference". Later, they did a lot of stooking. They had to cut the grain with a binder in sheaves. They had to put seven sheaves together to one stook, and make rows.
Segment Synopsis: Asked about what the house in Roseisle, Manitoba, looked like, Letkemann recalls that they had an outdoor kitchen (summer kitchen), and from there, they went into the living room. That was also their dining room, all in one. Her parents had a bedroom downstairs. She is not sure if they had only two rooms or three rooms. They also had some bedrooms upstairs. When they would come home with their loads of berries, they would have to sort them, and her mother and aunt worked in the kitchen and made preserves and jams. Her cousin, her sister and Letkemann "had the privilege" to sit in the living room where it was a little bit cooler, the summer kitchen door was closed. At Graysville, they didn't go to the Pembina Hills that often anymore.
Segment Synopsis: Letkemann recalls that "of course" they had their times for playing, they played "whatever". They didn't have many toys but they found little pieces of glass (that was their dishes), they found seeds of weed (that went into their dishes). Letkemann had very few toys: Little metal dishes, and she got a doll from one of her uncles. That was a big treasure later on. Occasionally, they got a new doll. Her mother would use little patches, left-overs from sewing, and make a beautiful little doll blanket. Her father would make a little cradle, a little doll bed. Her father also made a little table and chairs (she is not sure about the chairs), and also a little cabinet, they could put their dishes in there. They used whatever there was, sometimes even cardboard.
They slid down the snowbanks, and had some kind of a stick, and something they used for puck, and played ice hockey. Letkemann doesn't know "whether it was hockey or not but we played on the ice". They didn't have skates. Her brother got a pair of skates. She herself never learned to skate. They couldn't easily go to school where the skating rink was because that was three and a half miles away. They were picked up to go to school, and once they were at home, they wouldn't go back. Occasionally, they would go to the Christmas program. They would stay at school or with friends, and her father would come and pick them up, always with horses and wagon.