Ukrainian history passed down

Triumphs and challenges of early settlers to Olha, Man., are preserved for future generations

OLHA, Man. — The lane winds its way through a heavily treed quarter to a clearing where two triangular shaped buildings stand as a testament to the hardships faced by early settlers.

The buddas, or temporary shelters, sit just metres from two wooden crosses that mark the loss of two Ukrainian settlers’ children, who lived and died here before they could get a foothold in their new promised land in 1899.

Forty-two children and three adults succumbed to a virulent strain of scarlet fever that spring. Only four children survived the outbreak.

Their story is preserved at another well-signed site in the district, where a mound of dirt representing a mass gravesite and marker remind visitors of the settlers’ tragic start.

From The Past to the Present, a book compiled by the Parkland Ukrainian Pioneers Association in 1987, detailed the suffering.

“Don Topolnicky, a pioneer of Oakburn, recalls that he was 15 years old when this plague struck. He and three other boys, namely Hilko Kotyk, John Shwaluk and Roman Hrynkiw, carried the bodies of children for burial everyday for two weeks. Close to the tent was a fresh cemetery of considerable size. There were new graves every day. The little graves were marked with wooden crosses. It was a pitiful sight to watch the weeping parents kneeling and praying by the graves of their beloved children.”

The association, intent on preserving these stories, first created these replicas in 1977 and continue to serve as caretakers for the historical sites, which draw visitors and tourists each summer season. They must do so on a shoestring budget, relying on donations and a shrinking numbers of volunteers.

A cairn was erected near the buddas last year to preserve the story, said volunteer Sylvia Shwaluk, who believed the structures to be the only ones on the Prairies.

Association president Frank Sitko said the buddas were simple structures, supported with poplar poles and topped with thatched roofs made from sheaves of coarse slough hay.

He credited landowner Mike Swistun for hatching the idea and donating the land.

Swistun, billed as the strongest man in the world during a stint with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, spent most of his life on the Olha farm, where he was born in a budda in 1900. Buddas were first used here by his grandparents.

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Mike’s father, Bill Swystun (spelled as it was in his homeland), had offered this space to new settlers until their own land was surveyed.

The replicas were built on the original site beside the trail settlers once used.

Sitko’s father was just six when he arrived here with his parents.

“It’s our roots, it’s where we come from,” Sitko said of his reasons for joining the budda project. “We’ve got to start something for the young people because the younger generation knows nothing about it.”

Shwaluk brought her grandchildren to the site this day.

“This is where our history is passed on.”

She said the buddas represent a community that persevered.

“They knew how to work together to survive.”

Early history is sketchy, but Sitko believes five or six families shared these temporary dwellings, some living there for at least two years.

Men often went south during summer to earn money to buy supplies and equipment. That left the women alone to tend to homesteads, gardens and children.

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Interior furnishings were cobbled together with wooden pegs because there were no nails. Bed mattresses were canvas bags filled with straw that was changed frequently.

The new immigrants left behind government oppression in their homeland, a lack of schooling for their children and peasant farming.

They came to a country that promised them 160 acres for $10, provided they broke ground and established a homestead. Another 160 acres could be obtained for $1 an acre.

They came to Canada on stormy seas in cramped boats, where seasickness and disease were prevalent. Then they were shuttled across the country by train and wagon. At Strathclair, they were housed in unheated shelters and cooked food over open fires outside. A thin layer of hay on the floor served as bedding and provided little protection from the cold nights.

Rain turned to snow and weakened the group, which had been stricken with scarlet fever. Three children who became ill on the train from Winnipeg died and were buried beside the railroad. Another three died at Strathclair.

The epidemic raged for two weeks with some families losing all their children.

Echoes, Oakburn’s history book, details one family’s loss.

“Wasyl Swystun’s baby died during the stay at Strathclair, but the parents kept it a secret as they wanted to take the body and bury it near their homestead. The mother (Barbara) held the body of the baby in her arms during their journey from Strathclair to Patterson Lake in the Olha district.”

A memorial site near Patterson Lake reminds visitors of the large loss of young lives and the more than 100 years of Ukrainian settlement in Canada.

karen.morrison@producer.com

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