They were established a over century ago and had names like Edenbridge, New Jerusalem and Sonnenfeld.
They are the lost Jewish farming colonies of Saskatchewan.
Jews began arriving in the region starting in the 1880s, before Saskatchewan was a province, with many fleeing from poverty and persecution in Europe.
By the early 1930s, thousands of Jewish farmers and family members lived in Saskatchewan on homesteads near small towns.
'Being a farmer at that particular time, you developed a certain type of personality. They loved challenges because life was a tremendous challenge.'—Anna Feldman
All that remains today are some abandoned buildings, including a few synagogues, the graves of the original settlers and lots of open prairie where family farms used to be.
For the most part, knowledge of these places has faded, even among the people who still live and farm near the old colony sites.
However, a recent donation by a scholar to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., could shed new light on an overlooked chapter of Saskatchewan history.
The scholar is Anna Feldman, who is in her 80s and lives in a downtown Toronto seniors' complex.
Sask. farm colonies focus of career
Before her retirement, Feldman spent a 40-year academic career amassing research on the lost Saskatchewan communities.
She's hoping the donation of her life’s work to the federal government will help recover those lost memories
"I was so fascinated by [this work]," Feldman said in a recent interview, "First, because of the farmers. Being a farmer at that particular time, you developed a certain type of personality. They loved challenges because life was a tremendous challenge."
» Learn more about Anna Feldman
Anna Feldman's Saskatchewan story
Anna Feldman's connection to the farm colonies is more than professional —there’s a strong personal dimension, too.
It goes back to a period when she was 18 and living in Ottawa just after the Second World War. One evening, at a social event for Jewish young people, she met a government scientist, a young man from Saskatchewan.
Anna fell for him almost immediately.
Won over by a smile
"I saw black eyes, black hair and a smile that made me happy," she said.
His name was Keiva Feldman and he was equally interested in young Anna.
As their romance blossomed, she learned he was a highly accomplished physicist, but he was also a Saskatchewan farm boy.
He was born and raised on the Sonnenfeld colony and yearning to get back to the land.
Soon Keiva proposed to Anna, but included one additional request: would she return with him to Saskatchewan and take up the life of a farm wife? She said yes.
Settling in Sonnenfeld
In the late 1940s she arrived at the farm colony with her new husband. Sonnenfeld was about 155 kilometers south of Regina, nestled on rolling farmland not far from the border with the U.S.
She says was delighted by the Feldman family and the wide open spaces and endless Saskatchewan sky.
However, she soon learned that farm life was tremendously demanding in the immediate post-war years, especially for women.
"They couldn't get drinking water on the land," Feldman said. "So they had to take a stone boat — which was like a sleigh — and horses. And they had to go to a well in town to bring in the water for drinking.
"They could use the water in the sloughs for washing. They saved rainwater. They saved snow they melted. They didn't yet have electricity," she recalled. "The closest doctor was 50 miles away at the time."
Young wife leaves province
Anna realized she could not keep her promise to be a farmer's wife. Instead, the couple agreed to return to Ottawa, where they raised a family and Keiva worked for the budding computer industry.
In 1950, Anna entered university. Within a few years she completed a Master’s degree in Canadian Studies. Sonnenfeld and the other farm colonies in Saskatchewan became her life’s work.
Often she collaborated with her husband, whose knowledge of Saskatchewan and the Jewish farm settlers ran deep.
Husband supported her research
"Well, Keiva was very much involved with the research I did, even my research for the thesis. He was very supportive," she said.
Feldman’s husband died a few years ago, before she handed over her archive to the museum.
She paused for several moments as she considered how he might have viewed the significance of what she has done.
"I think he would have been happy with people in 2013 still being interested in this material."
Over the course of her lifetime, Feldman conducted hundreds of interviews with former colonists, collected thousands of documents and photos and studied their music.
Saskatchewan's secret history of Yiddish songs
When large numbers of the colonists arrived in Saskatchewan in the early 1900s, they had few resources and certainly no money to spend on entertainment.
So they made their own fun, including composing and performing original songs — in Yiddish — for their fellow colonists.
In the 1960s, Feldman recorded a number of the songs and remembers some well enough to perform them for visitors to her apartment.
One her favourites is Un Du Akerst — [And You Harvest] — which might have been on the Sonnenfeld colony hit parade around 1920.
'Her collection is extremely important ... It is wonderfully unique."'—Museum curator Judith Klassen
Judith Klassen, curator of music at the Canadian Museum of Civilization said she was thrilled to receive Feldman's vast collection.
"Her collection is extremely important," Klassen said.
"This focus on the Jewish farm colonies, but also the lives of women in rural, and in small urban and urban settings in Saskatchewan. It is wonderfully unique.
"One of the things that is really striking about it is that it allows you to explore individual experience because she was meticulous in her documentation and in her engagement with people, really wanting to understand what they were expressing when they were in conversation with her," Klassen said. "It allows you to look at broader issues."
From Feldman’s documents, a picture is painted of young Jewish settlers coming to Western Canada at the beginning of the 20th century with few possessions and hardly any farming experience. With time, though, their settlements began to bloom.
Jewish farmer numbers decline
But the 1930s slammed all farmers hard. It took years to recover from the ravages of the Depression and the drought of the Dirty Thirties.
The number of Jewish families in Saskatchewan began a slow decline.
By the late 1940s lifestyles on the colonies had improved. But changing demographics, technology and markets were squeezing small farmers everywhere on the Prairies, including the colonists.
One man interviewed by Anna in 1985, Cecil Gordon, was a second-generation farmer at the Edenbridge colony. He described what happened to him:
"We stayed on the farm until 1954. In ’54 we wanted to give the kids a better chance for education, so we sold our stock, all our animals, and went to the city for winters, Saskatoon, that is.
"We came back in the spring and continued farming. For 10 years I farmed that way."
His story was typical of most of the farm colonists and by the ‘60s, almost all had left the land for good.
Scholar hopes story will be rediscovered
Feldman hopes the archive created from her work will help put the colonies back on the map.
"It was my life," she said.
"My husband and my family and the project were my life. And it means a great deal to me. And I’d be delighted to know that other people might be, and can, use my material at the Canadian Museum of Civilization."