Altona is located on the ancestral and traditional homeland of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, Dene and Métis Nations. We respect the Treaties that were made on these territories, and acknowledge the harms and mistakes of the past and present. We dedicate ourselves to move forward in partnership with Indigenous communities in a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration.
The land on which Altona is located was historically tall grass prairie, an eco-system characterized by tall grasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem, and switchgrass. The roots of these native grasses can sink as deep as four metres into the soil, holding moisture and preventing erosion. Forbs, or broadleaf herbs, were an integral part of the biodiversity of the region, which was home to many insects, birds and mammals.
The settlement 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 grass prairie. 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.
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 the Millennium Project comprising a water park, multi-purpose trails and a new exhibition centre.
Investing in high speed fiber internet, industrial and economic growth, and community initiatives, Altona strives to be a progressive community. Humbly mindful of its roots, Altona is poised to continue along its bright path.
Visit Canadian History Ehx for a podcast episode on the history of Altona.
The Altona & District Heritage Research Centre Inc, also known as the Altona & Area Archives, was incorporated in 1999 as a non-profit corporation in Manitoba. They exist to preserve and make available for research the paper documents and photographs that tell the story of Altona and its surrounding communities within the Rhineland Municipality boundaries. Their office is located at room 116-125 Centre Ave E (Golden West Building), and they are open to the public Mondays from 1:00 - 3:00 pm. If you are interested in learning more, please visit their Facebook Page.