Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Ukrainian immigrants, mostly peasants from eastern Galicia and northern Bukovyna in western Ukraine, settled large areas of the Canadian Plains from 1892 to 1914. Almost all came to North America to seek free 160-acre homesteads in the "bush country" of the aspen Parkland Belt in Canada's Prairie Provinces, but some were also induced to settle in the Belfield area of southwestern North Dakota by American land agents. In Canada they established a series of large, ethnically homogeneous bloc settlements that stretched northwest from southeast Manitoba, through central Saskatchewan, into east-central Alberta. The Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which governed the disbursement of homesteads in Canada, required that all applicants reside upon their homestead for at least three years before full title was granted. This made it impossible for settlers to replicate the villages they had known in Europe. Nevertheless, chain migration created loose groupings of settlers from the same villages or regions, which encouraged perpetuation of Old Country cultural traits in the newly settled territories.

The first shelter built by a Ukrainian pioneer was often a simple sod-roofed dugout, called a zemlyanka or burdei, patterned on the temporary shelters used by shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine. These dwellings provided shelter for the first year or two until a more substantial house could be built. The first true houses showed considerable variation in style according to the builder's region of origin but followed a general pattern: a south-facing, twoor three-roomed, single-story log house plastered and lime washed on the exterior with a low, overhanging, hip or hipped-gable roof and a central chimney. This type of house predominated in Ukrainian rural districts until the late 1930s. Abandoned examples may still be seen, and some modernized versions are still in use.

The aspen parkland provided an array of building materials similar to those of the western Ukraine. Aspen, poplar, birch, tamarack, and spruce were all used in place of the hardwoods of Europe. Slough grass was commonly used as an acceptable substitute for rye straw in thatching. Other materials remained unchanged: clay, fieldstones, chopped straw, lime, and horse or cow dung.

Log construction was the norm in the homeland and in North America, although where Ukrainians settled in timber-scarce areas wattle-and-daub construction was sometimes employed. Three methods of log building were used: horizontally laid logs, post and fill, and vertical logs. The diameter of available timber determined the method used. In areas with mature stands of spruce, logs were squared and corners dovetailed. Generally, poplar logs were merely scaled and corners saddle notched. Where mature timber was more scarce, post and fill was used: load-bearing vertical logs were mortised, and short, small-diameter, or misshapen logs were slotted in as fill. In a few areas where fire had destroyed all good building timber, walls were made of small-diameter logs placed vertically on a wood sill.

Generally, both interior and exterior walls were plastered with a mix of clay, chopped straw, and horse or cow dung. The plaster was anchored to the wall either by pegs driven into the logs or by a lattice of willow fixed into place before the application of the mud plaster. All plaster was invariably coated with a white lime wash.

High, steeply pitched, thatched, hipped, or hipped-gable roofs were most common in the pioneer era. Wood shingles were introduced in the 1920s. Roofs were then lowered and changed to the gable form, but the pronounced eave projection on all sides was maintained. Settlers from Bukovyna commonly extended the eave up to three feet at the front, supporting it with ornate eave brackets and four vertical posts to create an open porch.

House dimensions varied but generally were about twenty-six to thirty feet by twelve to seventeen feet, with the ratio of the side to the front about 1:1.8. Space was divided into the west mala khata (little house) and the east velykha khata (big house). The front entrance opened into the mala khata. In early buildings, this room, which was the center of daily activities, housed the large clay stove (pich) with a wide sleeping shelf. These stoves were quickly replaced by lighter and smaller castiron store-bought stoves. The velykha khata was reserved for formal occasions. Icons were placed along its east wall. A central hallway was a common feature.

Construction of ancillary farm buildings followed that of the house, though they were more likely left without plaster or paint. Usually, such buildings were arranged in the form of a square, with the house forming one side.

Acculturation showed in second-generation buildings, when two-story frame houses were built that still retained the traditional floor plan. In some small service centers, commercial false fronts were grafted onto the gable ends of traditional log buildings. Decor and use of space within the house were the two elements most resistant to acculturation; the preference for blue and green as decorative trim colors survived structural and stylistic changes, as did the use of the east-facing wall for placement of religious icons and, later, family photographs.

Churches built by Ukrainian immigrants during the pioneer era were invariably copies of the vernacular church styles of the homeland. Built by settlers from sometimes inexact recollection, they imbued the new landscape with a strong Slavic element. On occasion, the ancient styles of the Carpathian mountain churches were built, but the Russian Byzantine style, which was then replacing the older forms in the homeland, was more common. Pioneer churches were distinguished by their separate bell towers, log construction, and adherence to homeland regional styles. Ornate pear-shaped banyas (Byzantine domes) were sometimes added to early buildings but were more usually an integral feature of secondgeneration churches built on a tripartite plan. Architect-designed churches using balloonframe, brick, or concrete construction did not generally appear until the 1930s.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Ukrainians.

John C. Lehr University of Winnipeg

Darlington, James W. "The Ukrainian Impress on the Canadian West." In Canada's Ukrainians: Negotiating an Identity, edited by Lubomyr Luciuk and Stella Hryniuk. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991: 53-80.

Lehr, John C. "Ukrainians in Western Canada." In To Build in a New Land, edited by Allen G. Noble. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992: 309-30.

Rotoff, Basil, Roman Yereniuk, and Stella Hryniuk. Monuments to Faith: Ukrainian Churches in Manitoba. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1990.

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