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Stelmach home represents pioneer life

Former Alberta premier and  agriculture minister Ed Stelmach and his wife, Marie, stand in front of the house built by his grandparents, Nykola and Theodora Stelmach, who immigrated to Canada from Ukraine in 1898. The log house was built in 1915. On August 1, it was moved 50 kilometres from Stelmach's farm near Andrew to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton. | Mary MacArthur photo

ELK ISLAND, Alta. — Former Alberta premier and agriculture minister Ed Stelmach said it was a “good feeling of remembrance” as he watched his grandparents’ home move from his Andrew farm to its new location at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village.

Stelmach’s grandparents came to Canada with 12 other families from the same village in Ukraine in 1898 and settled in the Krakow area of northeastern Alberta.

“The home is really a representative of all of them and all of the hard work and the challenges they had to overcome,” said Stelmach, as he watched the house movers unload the home at the Ukrainian village.

The home was built by Stelmach’s grandparents, Nykola and Theodora Stelmach in 1915 on land that is still in the Stelmach family. It was the family’s third home after they came to Canada.

Stelmach said the house will act as a memory of the work pioneers did.

“Not only clearing the land and dealing with the day to day activities, but the flu epidemic of 1917, the First World War, the Second World War, the frost, the droughts, grasshoppers. In 1918 there was a huge amount of grasshoppers, but they overcame all those challenges,” he said.

The move of the Stelmach house was initiated by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress as part of the 120th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada.

“We had a good discussion in the family. There is always some sentimental value of having it on the yard, but on the flip side it will be restored professionally and enjoyed by many generations to come and will be a standing testament to that era where millions of acres of land were cleared in northeast Alberta, mostly by hand,” he said.

“It’s something that we have to keep reminding generations after of how difficult it was and that Alberta just didn’t become a province overnight.”

No one has lived in the house since 1950, and it was left fully furnished with beds, chairs, lamps, tables and a hand drawn map of Europe on the wall after his grandfather died in 1948 and his grandmother moved to Lamont.

The house was used when the family was working in nearby fields during seeding and harvest. In later years the house was damaged by vandals, but has remained in relatively good shape.

Stelmach said unlike other houses of that era that have since collapsed or been torn down, this one survived because of its initial good construction and because it was built on a concrete foundation.

“It was a very majestic building for that period of time. In 1898 my grandparents came here without anything and in 1915 they built a house like this,” said Stelmach, who was premier from 2006 to 2011.

The six-bedroom house had vertical log construction on the first floor and horizontal log construction on the second floor. The logs were covered in clay and straw and the inside finished in cedar.

Stelmach said when his parents came west in Canada, the railway agent told the families they were to get off on the treeless Prairies, probably somewhere in Saskatchewan.

The families took their chances and came to what is now Edmonton, then walked back 100 kilometres to where they found the largest trees and most rock.

“It’s amazing how much rock they moved off the land to cultivate it. For them it was heaven on Earth. They could own land, own black soil, grow their own crops, didn’t have to give any to any landlord. It was unbelievable for them.”

It was an era before any assistance. If the pioneers had a good crop they survived. If they had an early frost they had to suffer through the winter, with hopefully enough potatoes to get the family through till spring.

“There was quite a bit of sorrow during that time,” said Stelmach, who said the local cemetery is full of families that died in the flu epidemic of 1917.

“Dad was healthy during that time and his task, assigned by grandfather, was to go from neighbour to neigh-bour to draw well water for the livestock. There was no electricity to flip a switch and go back to bed.”

Peter Caron, restoration carpenter with the Ukrainian Village said his first job is to look for structural failures in the building and any infestations of pests, then create a restoration plan.

“We have to do structural repairs first. It depends on how heavy insect infestation is. There is a lot going on under the skin of this building,” said Caron, who has yet to do a through analysis of the building.

“It looks good, it looks straight, it looks vertical.”

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