Wasyl Negrych Homestead


(Story previously published at Travelmanitoba.com)

It’s not easy to step away from modern day influences and experience the true essence of life in Canada at the turn of the 20th Century. But visiting the Wasyl Negrych Pioneer Homestead is the next best thing to traveling back in time.

Nestled away off a dusty, nearly-deserted gravel road just north of Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, this pristine property has to be seen to be believed. Set back a kilometer from the road and completely surrounded by a thick forest of tamarack and poplars, the isolation and aura of the place transports you to another era.

In the late 1800’s, a wave of emigration to Canada from the Ukraine and other European countries took place. Immigrants were offered deeds to generous portions of land on the prairies at very reasonable prices under the condition they build homesteads and remain as settlers.

Perhaps it was an offer too good to refuse for Wasyl Negrych, his wife Anna, and their seven children. They came to Canada from the highlands of Western Ukraine in 1897, and bought a quarter section of land near Dauphin, Manitoba, along the Drifting River, for the compulsory $10 fee.

The temporary shelter that would house the growing family (five more offspring would be born in Manitoba,
bringing the total number of Negrych children to 12) was constructed of poplar poles and cowhide. This was their home until 1899, when construction of the main house was completed.

The Negrych clan was amazingly resourceful and self-sufficient. They raised cows, pigs and chickens. They built barns, granaries, chicken coop, a pigpen and a bunkhouse. They grew and harvested wheat, rye, barley, oats and flax. They maintained a vegetable and herb garden, and a rich and abundant orchard. They made their own clothing, oil, rope, utensils and tools.

All building materials used were found on the farm site. Structures were constructed using traditional Ukrainian folk building techniques, made from tamarack and spruce logs with saddle and notch cornering. Heavy wooden doors were made movable with hand-carved wooden door hinges, and secured with innovative door locking systems utilizing a hole in the wall, an odd-looking wooden key, and a sliding plank of wood lined with strategically-placed notches.

The original house is a log building with sturdy beamed ceiling and extremely rare wooden roof – today, the only Canadian example of a long-shingle Carpathian roof. A modest dwelling, its layout consists of a central kitchen area and two side rooms, much like traditional Ukrainian homes. Both the interior and exterior are finished with handmade plaster, which keeps the buildings refreshingly cool during periods of humid and stifling summer heat, and toasty warm during the long dark deep-freezing months of winter.

Today, the residence remains intact on its original site, and is touted as the oldest known Ukrainian dwelling in Canada. Other unique features of the homestead include an ingeniously crafted hemp-oil press, and an extremely rare and fully-preserved working ‘peech’ – a massive log and clay bake over that was once at the centre of every Ukrainian home.

At the heart of every Ukrainian home was the family. The Negrych family left a lasting impression on the Canadian frontier, while unknowingly making their mark on Canadian history. Today, clothing, letters, pictures, magazines, knick-knacks, and countless other personal items still adorn the home. The walls remain decorated with original religious images placed there by Wasyl and Anna, family pictures, and a Gilbert Plains calendar from the year 1922.

Being on the homestead today, strolling among its ten intact buildings and surrounded by towering trees, one can’t help but feel the family’s spirit still lingering. Remarkably, the two youngest Negrych children lived there into the 1990’s without making any modern improvements – no electricity, running water, sewer, or telephone lines were ever introduced.

It truly is an impressive site worth seeing, and is believed to be the earliest and best preserved example of a Ukrainian farm in Canada. That’s why it’s been designated a Heritage Site by the Province of Manitoba, and recognized as a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

For more information on the Wasyl Negrych Pioneer Homestead, contact the Gilbert Plains Historical Society (phone 204-548-2477).  

For more information on Canada’s National Historic Sites, visit the Parks Canada
website (www.parkscanada.gc.ca).