Arts & Life, Travel

Prairies, unmistakably: The barns of Neubergthal

Mennonites have a strong connection to art and community. It simmers below the surface in many settlements. But not in Neubergthal. It’s front and centre here. IMG_2531 He may have been tinkering. But the village had taken us. It had distorted the most pedestrian sights into something quaint and romantic. Fixing is probably more accurate a description of what Paul Krahn was doing to his bike when we parked on the street, walked fifty feet to the barn they converted to a house, and hoped saying ‘hello’ would be enough to spark something more. It did.

We’re charmed by such places. Simple and smart and sustainable is an attractive combination. And a rare one in southern Manitoba. Neubergthal, Manitoba is one street; a street village. It’s a national historic site. And it’s such a place.

Go there, and then tell us we’re being hyperbolic. It’s 115 kilometres from Winnipeg, south on Highway 75 past Altona, then west on the 421. Google says one hour and thirty-eight minutes, but that’s conservative. You’ll do it in less. IMG_2507 Neubergthal was recognized as a national historic site in 1989. The community was formed between 1876 and 1880 by a few Mennonite families from east of the Red River looking for fertile farmland. Its well-maintained housebarns exemplify a form of settlement that required residents to work together, helping each other harvest, build, cook, and live. There are others like it in southern Manitoba. But few, if any, are as well-preserved.

“Neubergthal was a place of communal efforts, and this tradition continues,” read a plaque in the Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre. “The first families helped each other build homes, and now residents work together in the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation to renovate and protect historic architecture. Neighbours helped each other both informally and in business ventures. The friendships and bonds created in these endeavors helped offset the long days of hard work.”

There was an air confirming all this. “Let me show you around our house, and our guest house,” he said, visibly happy to do so. “I’ll get the keys for the interpretive centre, as well.” The door was made of old, rustic wood. Original wood. Original door. It was heavy, deserving of its steel latch.

Paul washed the bike grease off his hands while walking us through the steps taken to transform this previously unused barn into the stunning home we were standing in. Snippets like, “exposed beams,” “original” this or that, “geothermal,” “art studio,” and, “event space,” stood out. But the mind bends and drifts from conversations when there’s a granite couch in the middle of a room, and a table made from a slab of stone. Pictures would have been insensitive.

The back door was just as thick and historically powerful. We were entering the barn portion. Still inside, “but uninsulated,” Paul said, showing us through a porch area full of well-displayed bikes, and a solitary bulb hanging from a hydro line strung across the room. It was intentional. And still as attractive as the reader should now expect. There were a few extra bedrooms through a door leading into what would have been the back of the barn.

Paul and Margruite Krahn’s house. Photo: Toban Dyck.

Up the old, exposed wood stairs near the rack of bikes, and to the left is Margruite’s studio. Margruite Krahn is a painter and an active community member, focused on building up Neubergthal’s already strong heritage. Her work has been exhibited all over the world, and it’s beautiful, deep, engaging. Her projects and collaborations are equally amazing, and for her to tell.

Barns typically have high ceilings. And this one is no exception. Her studio space is grand, rustic, and inspiring. And her balcony overlooks a back fire-pit, barbecue area nested in a canopy of mature hops vines unique to the area.

The Krahn Barn is an event space that has a life of its own. It’s available for booking. The Brothers Landreth have played there, and more events are scheduled this summer and beyond. The space takes up the rest of the house, across from Margruite’s studio. It can seat hundreds of people. It has a stage, tables, and chairs. And it’s above their living area.

The side of Paul and Margruite’s house. Photo: Toban Dyck.

Chickens roamed the yard, free, calm, and presumably happy. A Herdsman’s house is interesting, and fairly self-explanatory. Neubergthal would have had one. His or her job was to herd the community’s cattle, or, perhaps horses.

This is where that person lived. The Krahns have preserved the house as it would have been. And are renting it out as a retreat for writers, composers, and others who find inspiration or reprieve in such places. It’s a gorgeous space.

Paul and Margruite Krahn’s guesthouse, a restored Herdsman’s house. Photo: Toban Dyck.
The living room of the herdsman house, with a Margruite Krahn painting above couch. Photo: Toban Dyck.
A traditional bake oven located in the herdsman house. Photo: Toban Dyck.
Herdsman’s house. Photo: Toban Dyck.
Herdsman’s house. Photo: Toban Dyck.
Herdsman’s house. Photo: Toban Dyck.
Herdsman’s house. Photo: Toban Dyck.

The interpretive centre is a housebarn neighbouring the Krahns’. It’s setup as it would have been. Pictures were expected, and taken. “The housebarns of Neubergthal were reminiscent of Mennonite homes in Russia,” read another plaque. “They were settings for the family and the farm economy, and provided warmth and protection for both people and animals. An extended family as well as hired help lived together in the home, and everyone was fully involved in the labour and social fabric of the household.”

The Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre in Neubergthal, Manitoba. Photo: Toban Dyck.
The Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre in Neubergthal, Manitoba. Photo: Toban Dyck.
The Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre in Neubergthal, Manitoba. Photo: Toban Dyck.
The Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre in Neubergthal, Manitoba. Photo: Toban Dyck.

The wealth of this experience was largely unexpected. You’ll say this, too, after a visit. The Friesen Interpretive Centre keeps specific hours. Make the trek when it’s open. Residents have made it into a very informative experience. Paul and Margruite were excellent hosts, and articulate ambassadors for the inspiring community of Neubergthal. Spectator Tribune is excited to promote the events happening in the Krahn Barn, and it will probably purchase a Margruite Krahn original at some point. A Coffee-house style event is scheduled for Sept. 12 at the Krahn Barn.  “The hope is to have the bake oven going with either fresh buns or bread,” said Margruite. Spectator Tribune will be there.  See event poster below: September 12 Concert ____ Toban Dyck is the editor of Spectator Tribune. He also farms in southern Manitoba.