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Farmhouse that formerly belonged to the Harry Pressman family
By BERNIE BELLAN
On March 23, 2017 the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada held a very well-attended program about the history of Jewish farm settlements in Manitoba. During that program attention was focused on two settlements in particular: Bender Hamlet, founded in 1906, and Camper, founded in 1912.


One of the guest speakers that particular evening was John Lehr, who had just recently retired as a geography professor at the University of Winnipeg. During his career Lehr had become an ardent student of former Jewish farm settlements in Western Canada.
Thus, when I received an invitation from Stan Carbone, curator at the Jewish Heritage Centre, to come along on a trip that was to be hosted by Lehr, and which would include a trip to another former Jewish farm colony – this time in Rosser, I jumped at the chance. (Another incentive to participate was that, in addition to visiting the former farm colony at Rosser, we would also be paying a visit to a Hutterite colony in Rock Lake. I saw this as an opportunity to add to my wife’s wardrobe, as I’ve long fancied her in one of those colourful dresses Hutterite women wear. Enough of seeing her in aerobics wear all day long!)
So it was that I boarded a bus at the Asper Campus on Wednesday afternoon at 12:30, along with 44 other adventurous souls, most of whom were there at the invitation of the Manitoba Historical Society. As I was making my way on to the bus though, much to my surprise the bus driver told me that he knew me. It turns out we had both worked in Eaton’s camera department 45 years ago. (My gosh, am I ever getting old!) How he remembered me I’ll never know. I certainly didn’t recognize him.
In any event, as we made our way on Highway 6 to Rosser, which is only about 20 minutes from Winnipeg, Lehr gave us an overview of what we might expect to find there. (There was also a handout sheet that Stan Carbone had given us, which gave a detailed explanation of the history of the Rosser Jewish farm colony.)
It turns out that Jews did not move to Rosser until 1934, which is much later than when they had moved to the other Jewish farm colonies of Bender Hamlet, Camper, and Pine Ridge/Birds Hill. According to information on the handout, those settlements “eventually atrophied and died, victims of the vagaries of fluctuations in world commodity markets, the agricultural depression of the early 1920s, and the difficulties of maintaining observant Jewish life on isolated prairie farmsteads.”
But, rather than assuming that Jews were not inherently good at farming, in his March 2017 talk Lehr noted that just the opposite was the case. As I wrote in our March 29, 2017 issue:
“In fact, Lehr explained during his talk back then, the reasons that Jewish farm colonies failed had less to do with Jews not being able to farm than it did with two other factors – in addition to the barely arable land they were given:
“The need for Jews to be able to come together for a minyan along with having to be close to a kosher shochet meant that ‘their needs would be met best in a small town’ rather than on isolated farms.
“Secondly, as opposed to Ukrainian and Polish settlers who lived nearby Jewish settlements, Jews ‘tended to think in an urban way’.
“ ‘They were very anxious to use technology,’ he explained, but technology is a two-edged sword. For instance, most Jewish farmers ‘did fine until they got a tractor,’ he said. “ ‘But tractors don’t breed,’ Lehr noted.”

So, given the failure of all previous attempts to establish Jewish farm colonies in Manitoba, why was yet another attempt made in 1934 – so many years after those first attempts?
According to information also given on the handout, “In May 1934, at the height of the Depression, under the Provincial Government’s ‘back to the land program’, 860 acres of agricultural land near Rosser, with more than 500 acres already under crop, were purchased…(by a corporation) acting for the Jewish Colonization Company, an arm of the Western Division of the Canadian Jewish Congress. It seems the intention was to create a kind of Jewish co-operative, loosely modeled after the Jewish Moshavim in Palestine.” (During the bus ride to Rosser, Lehr added that the funds for the colony were split 50/50 between the provincial government and the CJC.)
According to Lehr, there “were 12 or 13 Jewish colonies across the prairies” through the years, but “Rosser was the last gasp of an attempt to establish Jews on the land.”

“The first Jewish settlers,” the handout noted, “included the Nep, Kniaganski, Green, Cooper, Gilman, and Liberson families, all of whom left after four or five years. Three other families were also among those original settlers at Rosser: the Kaplans (who lasted until 1940), the Kleins (until 1958), and the Pressmans, who had farmed previously at Camper (and who lasted until 1965. Harry Pressman died in 1964, according to a 1965 edition of The Jewish Post.)
The handout also explained that “A further 80 acres were acquired and set aside with the aim of establishing a ‘Youth Colony’ to give agricultural training to idealistic Jewish youths who were intent on emigrating to Palestine.” According to Lehr, that attempt also ended in failure due to a lack of money. As well, he said, there was ongoing squabbling between the older Jewish farmers and the youths,” apparently over the older Jewish settlers’ resentment at having to give up part of their land “for the youths to farm.”

However, unlike the colonies at Bender Hamlet and Camper, which were situated on rocky soil not much good for agriculture, the land at Rosser was actually quite good, Lehr pointed out. “The land wasn’t bad at all; much better than Camper,” he said.
The problem, as noted though, was “a lack of money; also a little too far from Winnipeg” (at that time). Unlike Bender Hamlet and Camper, there was no synagogue and the Jewish children attended public school in Grosse Isle, so there would have been almost no exposure to Jewish education.

When the bus arrived at what was once the Pressman home in Rosser, we were greeted by a husband and wife who have lived in the former Pressman home for 25 years. The husband, whose name is Rollie Gillies, had quite the sense of humour. He noted, for instance, that the land we were standing on was quite a bit higher in elevation than Winnipeg. “We’re the same elevation as the 11th floor of the Richardson Building,” he claimed.
“When people came here,” Gillies explained, (although he was referring to the original settlers in Rosser, not the Jewish farmers who came in 1934), “there was a lot of flooding in Winnipeg, so they looked for the highest elevation available. This land was once the shoreline of Lake Aggasiz,” he said.
The house in which he and his wife now lived was built by Harry Pressman in the 1950s (and was added to by successive owners ever since, Gillies explained). There was also another much larger house nearby. The handout explained that house was originally a barn built by Harry Pressman and has since been renovated into a beautiful home.
As the handout concluded, “Little remains of the Rosser Jewish settlement.” Gillies’ wife did tell me though that every once in a while she comes across a stone or some other remnant of a previously built house that would have belonged to one of those original Jewish families there. As Lehr noted in his March 2017 talk, “Jewish versatility” – and their ability to make the transition to living in Winnipeg, made it all the more tempting for Jewish farmers to abandon the land and move into the city.