Chapter 2: My Pioneer Parents

My Pioneer Parents
Onward to Siberia
Right after the turn of the last century, from 1908 to 1911, new lands were opened in Siberia. Three scouts, representing three Mennonite regions, were sent to investigate. After traveling through Siberia from west to east, they decided that the Kulunda Plain, in southwest Siberia, between the Ob River on the east and the Irtysh River on the west, would be the most suitable for a large new settlement of Mennonite people. Its rich soil and vast expanse offered almost unlimited opportunity.
The government very much encouraged the German agriculturists to move in and take possession. After completion of negotiations, several thousand Mennonite people moved from the Ukraine, Samara, and other areas, to southwestern Siberia. (For fuller treatment see: In Den Steppen Sibiriens [In the Plains of Siberia] by Gerhard Fast, Rosthern, Saskatchewan, Canada.)
The area encompassed thirty-seven villages in two counties. This is where we take up the story of our immediate family. Our parents joined this eastward migration toward a land of promise.
Both of our parents were born in the same Ukrainian village of Alexanderwohl. Our father, Nikolai Block, born October 1, 1868, and mother, Katharina (Janzen) Block, born April 1, 1874, knew one another from childhood. Father started teaching school at the age of sixteen. Some time after their marriage, they moved to Samara where he continued to teach during the winter months and study at a Teachers’ Institute in the summer.
Teaching was not a very prosperous vocation. As their family grew, they needed land for farming. However, land was hard to come by in the Ukraine and in Samara, where father had taught for several years. When Siberia opened up, they made the trek, arriving in the spring of 1909.  Seven children had already been born into the family:  Katharina, born in 1893; Jakob, 1896; Peter, 1898; Mary, 1901; Anna, 1903; Henry, 1905; and David, 1907.  Three more children were born in the village: Frank, 1911; John, 1913; and Jacob, 1915.
When they arrived, there were only two other families in the village of Blumenort (the German name) or Podsnezhnoe, (the Russian name.) "Blumenort" means place of flowers. When the snow melted in spring, many tiny flowers covered the ground.  The virgin territory had never been cultivated. There were no homes. They improvised shelter: a dugout in the ground with a sod house over it. It was a place to live while they started farming and began the building of their more permanent house. They established new villages. As pioneers, they built a simple but effective civilization. The village eventually grew to twenty-three families, all Mennonite.
The government may have required this segregation into homogeneous groupings. Mennonites settled only with other Mennonites. This, however, contributed toward the practice of not using the term Mennonite exclusively as a religious designation. It took on a cultural and ethnic designation as well. The people were all considered to be Mennonites, including those who cared little about the church. Over time they became an ethnic group. The same was true for Lutheran and Catholics; each faith group had its own village. The people of each community kept their own identity. No Russian people were allowed to buy houses or land in any of the German Villages.
My sister, Anna, who was 10 years older than I, informed me that father taught for the first two winters in Siberia. I do not know much about my father, though I very much wish I did. I would like to know of his character and his worldview.
I only remember mother telling me that father smoked when he was young. Then one morning, he had just lit up a cigarette when two children came to school early and saw him holding a cigarette. This gave him such a shock that he threw the cigarette in the fire before him and never smoked again. She also related that at village community meetings, every one knew that he stood firm for matters of principle.
Because Father was ill during part of the first summer, their house did not get finished before winter set in. The family moved into a mere shell of a house. All building materials had to be hauled great distances in horse-drawn wagons.
Winters in Siberia are severe and long. Temperatures often drop to minus 30-40 degrees Centigrade. Heating materials consisted of tumbleweeds, wood from the creek, or whatever could be reclaimed from nature. My sister, Anna, was six years old at the time. She relates that the water kept in containers inside the house was often frozen-over in the mornings. Spring comes in April, and seeding time usually begins about the middle of the month. Then the first snowfall comes at the beginning of October.
Pioneer life was marked by adversity, hardship and blessings. They had come there to open territory. They had to develop the land. They had to acquire horses for power to work the land. They had to get cattle to help them with their living— providing milk, fat and meat—and later, as markets opened up, cash income as well. But they took all the rigors of pioneering in stride.
They had confidence in their God. Their dedication to hard work and thrift moved them forward, and whatever difficulties came, they were able to surmount them.
Birth, Life, and Death on the Plains
A little more than four years after our family arrived there, on November 6, 1913, a baby boy was born. He was named Johann (John). Six months later, diphtheria struck the village. There was no medical help available other than a pharmacist and simple medications. They could not stop the disease.
In our family, four children died. They were not little children. The oldest, a sister, Katharine, was twenty-one; a brother, Jacob, was eighteen; sister Mary was thirteen, and another brother, David, was seven years of age. All four died within a two-week period. It is hard to understand how any parent could take this, but, of course, adversity and difficulties do not ask how someone will cope. They must have coped the best they could.
Everybody thought the baby certainly would die because Mother took care of the sick ones, and then took care of the baby. By God’s grace and providence, the baby never got sick. He lived through it all, and is still alive today, as evidenced by this writing.
When I look back now and see what happened during those times, I am filled with admiration for my parents and gratitude to God for His sustaining power.
The larger area where our people settled was not totally unpopulated. There were small villages, as well as larger ones, throughout the area. These people were mostly descendants of former criminals who had been sent there by the Czarist government. They differed from the common peasant population of other parts of Russia. They were very hospitable, clean, respectful and trustworthy in their dealings, as Gerhard Fast described in his book, In Den Stebben Sibiriens. (In the Plains of Siberia p. 35.)
He suggests that the prisoners sent to Siberia were mostly educated political prisoners, people who disagreed with government principles and policies. They possessed higher ideals than the peasant or farming class. Their descendants carried on their values and modes of living.
These neighbors were helpful to the new settlers, and good relationships based on mutual respect and trust soon developed. I remember going with my stepfather on trips to neighboring villages in the fall of the year to buy geese or pigs, or whatever we might need. Father had friends in all of them.
Henry Isaak (who became my stepbrother) usually moved our threshing machine to one or two of those villages every fall and threshed grain for them after our harvest was finished. They were very appreciative of such services and paid well.
I should also mention the climate in more detail. Central Siberia is far inland, not close to any ocean that moderates temperatures. Because of this separation from marine air, the weather was hot in summer and cold in winter.
Summers in Siberia are short. I remember them as dry and warm, though crop failure was rare. Seedtime is from mid-April to the beginning of May. Wheat is always planted first, then barley, and then oats. This may be because wheat is the main cash crop, and barley and oats are mostly raised to feed the livestock.
Days are long in summer. The sun rises about five a.m. and sets just before ten p.m. This makes for the rapid growth of crops. Grain that is seeded by the end of April is ready for harvest by mid-August to early September. The first snow comes around the beginning of October.
The land is fertile, so that even in dry years crops usually reach 25 to 30 bushels to the acre. Whenever there was sufficient moisture, or plenty of rain, the crops were much better. Of course, no commercial fertilizers were even known.
Winters are long and cold with very short days. The sun comes up about eight in the morning and goes down around four p.m. Temperatures often drop as low as -30 to -40 degrees Centigrade. Also, severe storms often swept across the prairie. This is one of the primary reasons for living in villages, instead of on individual farms. If residences had been separated by miles, communal life would have been exceedingly dangerous and a school system impossible.
Village Farming and Herding
People lived on plots of about three acres. Every place in the village was the same size, because the entire settlement was laid out according to a plan. Each village had a certain amount of land that was divided into residences with yards. The number varied, with averages of 20 to 35 families. Blumenort, where my parents settled, had twenty-three families, and Petrovka, where we lived later, had thirty.
The surrounding farmland was also divided into equal strips. Every family had a piece of land (approximately twenty acres) on one side of the village. On the other side, each family had another field, and on the third side they had a larger field at a greater distance. Each owner had the same amount of land. All homesteads were the same size, approximately 175 acres each.
On the fourth side of the village was an area of communal pasture—land that was not subdivided. There, all of the livestock was pastured from early spring, about mid-April, until the snow fell. Herdsmen were hired, usually native Siberians contracted to a family. Living quarters were provided for them. The residents simply turned their cows out on the street in the morning, and a herdsman would start at one end of the one-street-village and drive the cattle to the pasture. The herd increased as he moved along. They stayed out on pasture all day.
The herd of cows was followed by a herd of calves; then came the sheep, and, after seeding time, a herd of horses. Each herd was kept separate in the field. In the evening, the calves and sheep came home first and then the cows. As the herdsmen drove the respective herds along the street, someone from each family was at the gate to meet their stock and see to it that they turned in at their yard. It was interesting to observe how quickly the animals learned where they belonged. The cows were then tied to a stake and milked by hand. They stayed there until they were turned out again in the morning.
Horses were not returned home. They were housed in a common corral at the end of the village, close to the house of the herdsmen. If a farmer wanted to use one or more of his horses the next day, he went out to the corral in the evening or early morning. He caught his horse for work and then returned it later in the day to the herd in the field or to the corral in the evening.
Water was available from water holes in the birch woods scattered across the pastureland. The white birch is a native tree of Siberia. The landscape is spotted with small groves that grow around a depression. In the spring, these low places fill with water from the melting snow. More snow piles up during the winter among the trees surrounding the depressions so it lasts longer than in open fields, and many of these water holes provide water for stock all summer. The depressions may well have been formed by glaciers of an earlier ice age. In summer, they also served as swimming holes for boys and girls, but not at the same time! The only swimming suits available were nature suits.
Once snow started falling it usually stayed until spring.
After winter set in, all livestock was housed in a barn attached to our living quarters. The barns were not heated, but being attached to the house made the barn warmer, and made it possible to care for animals without going outside.
Each kind of stock occupied in its own section of the barn. The horses, usually four to eight, were tied on two sides of a crib with a rack mounted above the crib for feeding straw or hay. The crib served to feed chaff mixed with small amounts of grain moistened with water, as well as for watering the horses.
A wall about four feet high partitioned the sections. The cows stood in stanchions all in a row. They were fed in a long trough on the ground, whereas the horses’ trough stood about three feet high.
The horses were tethered to the crib, and yet they had some room to move around. The cows stayed in their stanchions all winter. They could stand up or lie down, but could not leave their place. However, they thrived, and were well fed. They were milked there, and calves were born there. On warmer days, a few times during the long winter, they were turned loose outside. They walked around in the snow for a while, but turned into the barn of their own accord.
The barn was cleaned twice a day throughout the long winter. A dung pile in the yard provided for the process of decomposition. This prepared the material to be turned into heating fuel.
In less than a decade, starting with nothing, our parents had developed a well-established farming operation. By the time the Revolution came, they had sufficient means to meet all our needs. Four to six horses provided the necessary power; about six or eight cows, sheep, hogs and chickens supplied meat and other nutrients.
We had also acquired some farm machinery that most people in the village did not have. Our family had an American-made McCormick self-binder, a harvester that harvests the grain and ties it into bundles automatically. The bundles are carried along on a platform until ten or twelve bundles accumulate, then it releases them into a pile. The sheaves were then set on end, by hand, to dry. From there they were loaded on wagons and hauled to the threshing machine.
We also had our own Martens Bros. threshing machine that operated by horsepower but was the most advanced equipment available on the market. This was also something that only a few people in our village had. It seemed to me that we were very fortunate people.
Most of the people threshed grain by placing it on a threshing floor, a cleared area in their yard. Here they laid out grain in stalks several inches deep and rolled it with a "threshing stone".  This stone was hewn out of limestone with about six even edges. Two horses side by side pulled it, guided by a boy who rode one of the horses. The stone rolled over and over a layer of stalks of grain until all the grain was threshed out of the heads.
The straw was then picked up off the threshing floor with wooden forks. The grain and chaff that remained were scooped up with a wooden shovel and separated by a hand-operated "wind-blowing machine". The chaff was blown out to the rear and the grain dropped out in front. Our threshing machine did all of this in only one operation, much faster and more efficiently. Later on, of course, further cleaning had to be done by another type of wind machine. As I look back now, I see that our family accomplished a lot in a short time, in spite of adversity. What hardy people!

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