Researchers dig up history of Jewish settlement

A few pieces of paperwork and the scattered remains of some tiny houses mark a farming venture that seemed doomed from the outset.

A few pieces of paperwork and the scattered remains of some tiny houses mark a farming venture that seemed doomed from the outset.

Central Alberta was in the midst of a cold, dry spell in the early 1890s when a group of 70 Russian Jews and their rabbi arrived at a site near the northwest shores of Pine Lake, their hearts full of dreams and their trunks full of seed potatoes.

The 15 families plus one single man all seemed ill-prepared for the harsh climate, the poor growing conditions and the hostile reaction of neighbouring homesteaders.

They forged ahead despite the odds against them, building their homes and planting their potatoes alongside Blank’s Lake and Grassy Lake, two small water bodies off the north and west shores of Pine Lake, says Red Deer historian Michael Dawe.

It seems something of an omen of more worries to come when Rabbi Blank went to Red Deer with most of the colony’s money to buy a horse and a gun.

He was out hunting shortly after his return when he dropped the gun, which then went off and killed the horse.

Surviving with virtually nothing but the potatoes they had nursed from the soil and whatever fish they could tease from the lakes, the rabbi and the families in his charge faced more disappointment at the hands of the government, the press and their neighbours, says Dawe in an article describing the colony and its early demise.

Neighbouring homesteaders brought the colonists a supply of fresh meat, thinking it a great joke to tell them that it was deer meat when in fact they were providing pork — forbidden under Jewish law.

The local land agent could not provide seed assistance because the Blank’s Lake colonists were reluctant to file homestead applications while the Calgary Herald wrote against providing government assistance to help the colonists get on their feet, says Dawe.

Five years later, most of them had gone.

The first Jewish agricultural colony established in Alberta, Blank’s Colony was part of a series of Jewish/Russian settlements established across North America, mainly in the United States, in response to severe discrimination in Russia and parts of Poland.

Money for establishing the settlements came through the Jewish Colonization Association, set up by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a prominent German businessman.

It is unclear, however, whether Blank’s Colony received support from the association, says Dawe.

Many of the group appear to have gone to California, while a few went to Hirsch, Sask., where the association had funded establishment of another colony.

“While it is thought that some of the colonists may have died while at Blank’s Lake/Grassy Lake, no records of any deaths have yet been found,” says Dawe.

“There is evidence of a nearby forgotten cemetery, but it has yet to be established if these graves are from the colony or are the graves of aboriginals or other settlers. More work will be done on this in the spring.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the colony at Pine Lake is invited to attend a presentation during the Central Alberta Historical Society’s monthly meeting at the Red Deer Public Library, set for 7 p.m. on Nov. 16.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com

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