A BACKSTORY THAT INSPIRES
The story of Altona begins across the ocean, on the wind-swept steppes of Russian Ukraine. It was here, in the prosperous, orderly Mennonite villages, amid religious persecution and threats to their unique culture that the German-speaking Mennonites first decided it was time to emigrate. As expert grain farmers, they were attracted to the rich farmland near the Red River. As a deeply spiritual people, they were drawn by the promise of religious freedom. The first vast wave of immigrants arrived in southern Manitoba in the early 1870’s, eager for a place to finally call home.
The first settlers to arrive in the Altona area found no conveniences or amenities—nothing but tall prairie grass. In Russia they had already made the transition from subsistence to commercial farming. Now, the grueling business of breaking and cultivating new land began. In the true pioneer spirit, the Mennonites carried on, introducing Russian practices of shelterbelts, dry farming and summer fallow to the area.
In 1880, the first homestead was established in what is known as the Old Altona Village. The coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1882 made shipping grain easier and also brought entrepreneurs and diverse commerce to the area. Construction of the rail line north of the village in 1895 gave birth to the community of Altona.
National Historic Site
In Mennonite villages surrounding Altona today, you can still see some of the old houses with attached barns— structures unique to the Russian Mennonites. Giant cottonwood trees, grown from seed brought from Russia, still tower majestically over many village streets. The village of Neubergthal, just 10 km southeast of Altona, is a national historical site. The small community offers many prime examples of the early Mennonite settlements.
The Schwartz Heritage House offers a glimpse of the prosperity Altona enjoyed at the turn of the century. Built in 1902 by Johann Schwartz, an ambitious local businessman, the house was the biggest ever built in Altona. Restored to its original exterior elegance, it now serves as an art gallery that showcases the immense talent of artists in rural Manitoba and beyond.
The 1920’s brought dramatic changes to the small community. Gas lanterns lit the concrete sidewalks. Church congregations were growing, businesses were booming, and it seemed that there was no limit to how much the fertile land could yield. The advent of automobiles demanded better roads and progress also brought with it telephone service, schools and a hospital. The depression in the 1930’s only served as a lull in Altona’s rapid growth.
Low wheat prices forced area farmers to seek out alternative crops, and soon Altona began to achieve its reputation as the Sunflower Capital of Canada.
The town of Altona of today bears little resemblance to its original namesake. With modern facilities and technological infrastructure, Altona looks to the future. It has invested in visionary initiatives such as Centennial Park, the Altona Mall and most recently, the Millennium Project comprising a new water park, multi-purpose trails and a new exhibition centre. Humbly mindful of its roots, Altona is poised to continue along its bright path.