Tag Archives: mennonite history

The Station of Tears

lichtenau train station ukraineBoth tragic and hopeful journeys began at the Lichtenau train station in the former Molotschna Mennonite colony.victor and dave lichtenau train station ukraineOn our trip to Ukraine we asked our guide Victor Penner to take us to the Lichtenau train station. It was from this station both my husband Dave’s mother Anne Enns and his father Cornelius Driedger set off for Canada with their families.
train station lichtenauThe Molotschna Mennonite Atlas says the original Lichtenau train station was blown up in September of 1943 by retreating German troops but it has been rebuilt. The first station house erected in 1912 was one of the eight stations on the very profitable Tomak Railway Line built by a group of Mennonite investors who wanted a way to get their agricultural and industrial products to market.

The Driedger family twenty years after immigration. My father-in-law in the centre and his sister Agatha to his left were both born in Ukraine

The Driedger family twenty years after immigration. My father-in-law  the tall handsome man in the centre and his sister Agatha to his left were both born in Ukraine

On June 23, 1924 one of the first groups of Mennonite emigrants leaving from Lichtenau, included my three year old father-in-law Cornie, his parents Abraham and Margaretha Driedger, his maternal grandmother Agatha Friesen and his little sister Agatha. They crowded into 45 box cars at the Lichtenau station. They traveled for six days to the Russian- Latvian border town of Sebezch and after clearing customs went to the seaport of Libau where they sailed on the Marglen to Antwerp Belgium, then changed ships to the Minenedosa which arrived in Quebec City on July 17th, 1924.

My husband's mother's family just before leaving from Lichtenau. His mother Anne is the little girl on her mother's lap.

My husband’s mother’s family just before leaving Ukraine from Lichtenau. My mother-in-law Anne is the little girl in the fancy bonnet.

It would be two more years before my mother-in-law Anne, her parents Gertrude and Heinrich Enns, her sister and brothers would also leave from the Lichtenau station for the long trip to Canada. on the train tracks at lichtenau ukraineVictor, our guide, pointed out the direction the trains with Dave’s family aboard would have traveled and my husband walked out onto the tracks to stand for just an imaginary minute ‘in his grandparents’ shoes’ as they would have faced the new direction their lives were taking.
victor with paul epp's chairs lichtenau train stationThere are two granite benches on the side of the station facing the tracks. Paul Epp of Toronto designed these functional works of art. His family also left for Canada from the Lichtenau Station. One bench recognizes the thousands of Mennonites who voluntarily departed from Lichtenau for a new life and freedom in North America between 1924 and 1929. paul epp bench lichtenauThe other bench is in memory of the thousands of Mennonites who left from Lichtenau between 1931 and 1940 because they were being sent into exile in Siberia, an exile from which many never returned. There is engraving on each bench stating that the Mennonite village of Lichtenau was founded in 1804 and describing both the deportation and immigration departures that happened at the station.
lichtenau train tracksApparently the Lichtenau railway stop was nicknamed The Station of Tears and I imagine it was. Tears of joy must have been shed by those leaving for a new life, tears of sorrow for those leaving for exile. dave and victor lichtenauI suspect however even those leaving for Canada must have had mixed feelings about saying good-bye to a way of life in Ukraine that had sustained their families for generations. Many also left friends and family behind and had no idea if they would ever see them again.

A newsletter published by the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta has a poem written by teenage girl named Susan Penner whose family left from Lichtenau on July 13, 1924. Here are some lines from her poem…………

The train is ready to depart,
Folks are coming from near and far,
On foot in carriages or wagons
The air is dusty, the heavens gray
At the station at Lichtenau.

The wind whistles and sings and whines,
A mother cradles her weeping child,
A samovar is set up for tea,
At the station at Lichtenau

The iron horse whistles;
Composure threatens our control,
We groan and sob, press loving hands,
One more glance towards our homes,
From the station in Lichtenau.
The bell rings out the first call,
The steps are lifted, the door
Is sealed, secured and barred.
The bell rings out a final time
With a jerk the train leaves – as people sing
“Go Thou Ahead, Oh Jesus Mine!”
Those left behind now wave goodbye
But cannot see through tear-filled eyes,
And deserted soon lies Lichtenau

Other posts about the Mennonite experience in Ukraine…….

A Family Story- Heinrich and Gertrude Enns

The Disappeared

 

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Introducing Visitors from India and Hong Kong to Mennonites

windmill steinbachOur friends Meena and Anil from Hong Kong and Meena’s sister Beena from Delhi, India are visiting us here in Manitoba. Today Dave and I took them to the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach to introduce them to Mennonite culture and history. We arrived around 12:30 so the first order of business was lunch in the Livery Barn Restaurant. traditional mennonite mealAfter we had explained what Mennonite foods like kielke and roll kuchen were- our guests chose a traditional meal of verenike with schmaunfatt, kommst borscht, platz, farmer’s sausage and brown bread made from flour ground in the museum’s windmill.  lunch livery barnThey declared the Mennonite food delicious and fortified by our hot meal we were ready to brave the cold rainy weather for a tour of the typical Mennonite village laid out on the museum grounds.house barnsDave described how barns were attached to houses in Manitoba Mennonite villages to make it easier to feed and care for the animals in winter without having to go outside in blizzard conditions. The heat from the animals’ bodies also helped to warm the house. zwiebachWe had been trying to explain to our guests what zweibach were and luckily there were some of the two-tiered buns or rolls on the table in the house barn to show them. rhubarb plantsIn the house garden, Beena wanted to see the rhubarb. At lunch, she had enjoyed her rhubarb platz and wondered what kind of plant the fruit came from. There are no rhubarb plants in India. making manure bricksI wanted to show them this manure brick making machine. Demonstrating its use to visitors was my Dad’s job for many years when he was a volunteer at the museum. The early Mennonite settlers used the manure bricks for heating. meenaMeena made friends with some of the farm animals housed on the museum grounds. windmillWe toured the museum’s signature windmill wheat into flour steinbach windmillto learn how wheat is ground into flour when the wind propels the sails IMG_0170and causes the huge grinding stones inside to move.steinbach windmill

We posed for photos on the windmill’s windy balcony.one room school mennonite heritage village museumWe visited the one room school and looked at the assignments for all the various grades written on the chalkboard.map of manitoba mennonite heritage village museumAnil studied the map of Manitoba and was interested to see how many lakes there are in our province.farm tractors mennonite heritage village museumIn the transportation shed, Dave showed our visitors the kinds of tractors his family had owned and used when he was a boy working on their farm in southern Ontario. Here he explains to Anil how the steam engine ran the threshing machine.mennonite women monumentWe looked at the special monument built to pay tribute to the work of pioneer women. statue of mennonite woman by bill epp Mennonite pioneer museumBeena posed with the sculpture of a Mennonite woman by Saskatoon artist Bill Epp.church mennonite heritage village museumWe visited the church and explained how men and women had sat on opposite sides and singing had been led by a vorsinger who stood near the pulpit. sod house or zemlin mennonite heritage village museumBefore the rain began to pour we managed to sneak in a visit to the underground house made of earthen sod called a semlin which the first Mennonite immigrants lived in till they could build other homes.dave photo of grandfather in boat mennonite heritage village museumIn the main building, we learned about the history of the Mennonites in the galleries and Dave made sure to point out the photo of his grandfather in a boat on the lake in front of the Enns family estate in Ukraine. Our guests who all are originally from India, were surprised to learn that there are over a 100,000 Mennonites in India. quilt making mennonite heritage village museumMeena and Beena were especially interested in the women who were quilting quilt and crochet work mennonite village heritage museum steinbachand spent a long time looking at the crochet and quilting work displayed. quilts mennonite heritage village museumDave was eager to leave since he wanted to give our visitors a tour of Steinbach where we had lived for over thirty years before we headed back to Winnipeg where he made a pizza with Mennonite sausage for our supper. 

mennonite heritage village museumDave and I had not been to the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum since our move back to Manitoba from Hong Kong and taking our Asian visitors on a tour was a great way to reintroduce ourselves to the museum and see all the changes that have taken place there in the last decade. 

Other posts about Steinbach……

An Alphabet For My Home Town

Kornelson School

I Was A Treble Teen

All My Puny Sorrows

 

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The Constructed Mennonite

Hans Werner

Hans Werner

  “Do I really want to publish this?”  Hans Werner, a professor of Mennonite Studies and Canadian history at the University of Winnipeg, said he asked himself that question just before The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory and the Second World War went to press. He knew some of the things he was about to reveal in his very personal book about his parents, would come as quite a surprise to many people, including his own siblings. Should he still go ahead with publishing the story? 

 “This was a book I could only write after my parents had both died,” says Werner, “because it includes stories I uncovered in my research that my parents never told us. Some of their story was difficult for me to tell.” 

I had just finished reading The Constructed Mennonite last week when I attended a book information session featuring Hans Werner at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg. 

Werner told us that in writing his book, “I wanted to honour my father by attempting to be as good a storyteller as he was.” His father loved to tell stories and couldn’t maintain a conversation for long before veering off into a narrative about the past. Ultimately it was his fascination with his father’s stories that drew Werner back to university to earn a PhD in history after he had already completed an engineering degree and spent many years working in the agricultural industry. 

“I realized early on that my father’s stories were pretty fantastic and were not common to the ones other boys in Steinbach heard from their fathers,” said Werner. Werner grew up in Steinbach, where his parents maintained a home on Spruce Crescent, attended Steinbach Mennonite Church, and his father worked as an automobile mechanic. 

    constructed mennonite book coverReading The Constructed Mennonite I learned Werner’s father had four different identities during his lifetime. He was given the name Hans when he was born to German Mennonite parents in Siberia in 1917. While working on a collective farm in 1938 he was drafted into the Red Army. He took the name Ivan and fought for the Soviets in World War II. The Germans captured him and he was conscripted into Hitler’s army where he served under the name of Johann. He became an American war prisoner and when released, managed with the help of Mennonite Central Committee to immigrate to Canada as John Werner along with his wife Margarethe who was pregnant at the time with their oldest son Hans. 

 Hans Werner said initially he had a healthy bit of scepticism about his father’s stories but as he did his research he was literally “blown away” by the accuracy of many of his father’s wartime memories. He also realized however there were factual errors in some of his father’s narratives and there were things his father had deliberately omitted and other events he had chosen to highlight from a certain point of view. 

The story Werner chronicles in The Constructed Mennonite is riveting but I found equally interesting his reflections on how we choose to tell our life stories. Werner says in his introduction to this book, “we are always constructing ourselves when we share memories of our past lives with others.” Why did his father decide to focus on only certain aspects of his war experience? Why did he relate some parts of his life in great detail and yet keep some very significant relationships with women, including a previous marriage, a complete secret? Why did his mother tell her story in a way that emphasized suffering and salvation?   Werner says he believes, “we fit the stories of our past together to form a narrative we can live with.”  

Steinbach residents will be particularly interested in Werner’s idea that his father shaped his stories so he could fit in with the religious and cultural milieu in Steinbach. 

The Constructed Mennonite provides some interesting glimpses into how the author was affected by his father’s stories. Having heard his father describe his daring exploits as a World War II soldier, Werner was puzzled as a child when he attended the Remembrance Day parade in Steinbach. He asked his father why he wasn’t marching with the other war veterans. Later when he learned more about the Holocaust he became worried because his father had been in the German army. He thought one day the authorities would knock on the door of their family home and arrest his dad for some atrocity that he had never confessed in any of his stories.  The book left me wishing for even more of these insights into how the knowledge of his father’s past influenced the author, his relationships, his professional life and the kind of person he became. 

The book also left me wondering what Werner’s father was like during the years he raised his family in Canada. The book doesn’t explore that in-depth and I found myself asking people from Steinbach who I thought would have known the senior Werner what kind of personality he had and what they knew of his social presence in the community. 

 I found The Constructed Mennonite thought-provoking. I can definitely recommend it as an engaging story that prompts the reader to hold a mirror to their own family stories and consider them in new ways.

Other posts about Mennonite family history………

Autographs From a Conscientious Objectors Camp

Gertrude and Heinrich Enns

Great Aunt Marie

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Mennonite Maids

“One couple I worked for often fought at supper time. They would actually be hurling knives and forks across the table at each other!”

“On Mondays, I got up at five a.m. to do the laundry. I had to be finished by seven, so I could begin preparing and serving a hot breakfast to a family of eight.”

“The young men who lived in River Heights knew that Thursday was ‘maids night off.” They used to stand at the streetcar stop and wait for us. They never got anywhere with the Mennonite girls.”

“We didn’t need aerobics classes to get in shape. We were well-muscled from scrubbing hardwood floors, lifting children, dusting and sweeping. We were on our feet from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m.”

“I barely knew any English, so I had to keep my eyes and ears open and learn as quickly as I could. I remember once my employer laughed at me because I said, ‘I’ll ‘broom’ the floor. I didn’t know the word ‘sweep.’”

“The lady of the house always had a crystal vase of cut flowers on her piano. It kept getting knocked over and she’d blame me when all along it was the family cat who was tipping it.”

“One man I worked for had the habit of sleeping in till noon, yet his wife insisted all the upstairs bedrooms had to be cleaned by twelve. I just couldn’t go into a bedroom with a man sleeping in it! So when I started my upstairs cleaning chores I would sing as loudly as I could, “Can’t go to heaven in a rocking chair, God won’t take any lazy folks there.” That always got him out of bed and gave me just enough time to clean his room before I had to start preparing lunch. anniversary0011Five former Mennonite maids from left- Betty Krahn, Anna Rosenfeld, Helen Warkentin, Barbara Banman and Katie Rempel

Those are excerpts from interviews I did with five Mennonite women who worked as maids for wealthy people when they were teenagers, in order to help pay back the travel debts their families had incurred by immigrating to Canada. I wrote an article about the five women pictured above which was published in the Mennonite Mirror in May of 1989. I believe all the women I interviewed have since passed away. I’m posting the article I wrote below because I think their story is an important one of family loyalty, female independence and faith. 

I am spending an unforgettable evening with five interesting and intelligent Steinbach grandmothers. Gathered around a dining room table they talk and reminisce, while I write furiously to capture all the details of the interesting anecdotes, humorous stories and memorable experiences coming at me from two or three directions. All the women I am chatting with have several things in common.  They were all born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as youngsters. When they turned fifteen they all left their family’s farms in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan and went to live in the city to work as maids.

Their reasons for seeking employment and wages in Winnipeg and Saskatoon and Swift Current were much like those of hundreds of other Mennonite girls their age who made the same decision. Their families were poor and owed a large transportation debt (Reiseschuld) to the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Of the five, only Mrs. Anna Rosenfeld made the move from Herbert, Saskatchewan, to a housekeeping position in Swift Current for a different reason – her mother needed surgery and she took the job at $10 a month to help her father pay for their $100 medical bill.

Another thing the women all have in common is that they still remember the fear they felt at leaving the warmth and security of their homes and moving far away from their parents. “Now that I have raised a teenager of my own, I can just imagine how my mother must have felt sending me to Saskatoon,” says Betty Krahn.  Barbara Banman agrees. “I knew Mom was crying at home in Grunthal when I left. I was crying too. But I had to go. There was no choice.”

“I will never forget how scared I was,” says Helen Warkentin. “My mother and father sent me from Gretna to Winnipeg on the train with a Mr, Bueckert. He never spoke to me on the long trip. I was literally shaking when we arrived at the train station in Winnipeg.” Anna Rosenfeld recalls that the horse and buggy ride from her parents’ home in Herbert, to Swift Current took almost an entire day.  Her Dad was pretty quiet the whole time but at one point he offered her this bit of advice, “Don’t do anything you would be ashamed of and don’t do anything your mother and I would be ashamed of.”

Arriving in the big city which they had always been taught was a place of immorality and a haven for every kind of sinful behaviour the girls entered a whole new world. For some, like Helen Warkentin, it was first to the Maedchenheim or girls home.  Established in the mid-1920s by the General Conference Mennonite Church in Saskatoon and Winnipeg, these homes were a refuge, a place of socialization and worship, and an employment agency for young Mennonite women. While Helen Warkentin waited at the Ebenezer Girls Home in Winnipeg, prospective employers phoned Helen Epp, its headmistress. She carefully questioned the callers and if she approved of them she would send Helen Warkentin or one of the other young women who had just arrived in the city, to take the job. Some girls found their employment in different ways.  Barbara Banman’s older sister Katie had been working in Winnipeg for several years before Barbara turned fifteen. When Katie was offered a better paying position she told her former employers about her sister and they gladly hired her.

The homes these young women entered as servants were very different from the ones they had left behind in Grunthal and Gretna and Tugaskee and Herbert.  “We’d never seen running water, electric lights, an electric iron or a washing machine,” remembers Anna Rosenfeld. Barbara Banman recalls the culture shock she experienced, “Suddenly I was wearing a black and white uniform and emptying ashtrays and serving cocktails at a dinner party. I’d never even heard of hors de ‘oeuvres let alone made them- and a cucumber sandwich?  What kind of thing was that to eat? At home we had always spoken German and now I had to answer the phone, place orders at the butcher shop, and deal with the milkman, the baker and the Eaton’s delivery boy.  I learned English pretty quickly.”

Another adjustment for the girls who all came from exclusively Mennonite communities was an exposure to the varying religious faiths of their employers. They worked for United Church members, Jewish people, Christian Scientists, and families that had no church affiliation whatsoever.

For the most part the young women were treated well by their employers, but each can recall incidents that weren’t very pleasant. Katie Rempel was working for a wealthy family prominent in the newspaper business. She recalls that “once, after a party an expensive silver tray was missing. The children’s nanny told me our employers suspected I had taken it. When I came home from Bible study at the Maedchenheim on Thursday night I could tell they had been through my room looking for it. Later I found the tray on a high shelf in the basement.  My boss remembered then that the night of the party he had put it up there so it would be out of the way when he played pool with his friends,” No one ever apologized to Katie for falsely accusing her.

That is a story most of the women can reiterate.  One of Barbara Banman’s employers routinely lost his gold cuff links and would roar at her,” Barbara things are starting to disappear in this house!” He’d always find his cuff links but never told Barbara he was sorry for having suspected her.

Helen Warkentin can remember when the police were called in to investigate because she was under suspicion for stealing about $20 in quarters from her employer’s oldest son. As it turned out the boy’s father, in need of some ready cash had taken the coins. 

There were other hardships for the girls.  Young, innocent and attractive, they often received unwanted attention from the River Heights boys on the streetcar. They also tell me about “the milkman who put a hand on my leg,” and their employer’s male friends who got drunk at cocktail parties and made unwanted advances. Barbara Banman recalls how at one such party she was working in the kitchen when her boss came up behind her and started rubbing her neck.  “I whirled around so fast”, she remembers, “And I said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’ And he never did. “

Mostly the young women felt alone and scared. “I would always lock the door of my room at night,” says Helen Warkentin. “One woman I worked for insisted I come in the back door,” remembers Barbara Banman.  “She would get very angry if I used the main entrance. When I came home after my Thursday evening off it would be pitch black in that alleyway behind the house. My mistress refused to leave a light on for me. My heart would just be pounding as I tried to fit my key into the lock in the dark. To this day I have nightmares that I am in that back lane and something jumps out at me.”

It wasn’t always easy for the girls to make the transition from beloved daughter in a large and happy family to a “servant” who had to eat alone in the kitchen and “keep her place.” Mrs. Katie Rempel had one mistress who was fond of reminding her that she had been to finishing school. They had taught her how to “handle” maids there. Mrs Anna Rosenfeld had one employer who was always critical. “She told me I never did anything right.  She had this sour look on her face whenever she spoke to me. Finally, I said to her, “If you can’t even smile at me, I’m leaving.  And I did.”

All five women have some fond memories too of good times and kind employers. Barbara Banman remembers a gift of perfume she was given by a man she worked for. “He had to go away on a business trip and asked me to give up my day off to stay with his wife who had just had a miscarriage. The perfume was his way of expressing his gratitude for my kindness to his family.” Anna Rosenfeld has a special place in her heart for a young boy she looked after who had hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid on his head. “Nowadays they can correct that sort of thing with surgery, but at the time he was bedridden. He was so sad he couldn’t do the things the other boys did.” Mrs Bettv Krahn recalls a judge and his wife who employed her. “They treated me more like a daughter than a maid.” Katie Rempel tells of her unique relationship with a deaf woman she cared for. ” I learned to interpret when her friends called on the phone. We had our own kind of sign language and I mouthed the words very carefully.” Mrs Helen Warkentin enjoyed the children in the homes where she worked. “I loved to sing to them and tell them stories. They were very sad when I left.”

Many of the women’s good times during their years of maid service revolved around the Maedchenheim or girls home.  Every Thursday night hundreds of Mennonite girls from all over the city flocked to the Maedchenheim for Bible study and socializing. In Winnipeg Rev. Benjamin Ewert gave the devotional sessions at the Ebenezer Girls’ Home. In Saskatoon Rev. J. J. Thiessen was in charge. After the meeting the women ate a lunch they had brought along. On both Thursdays and Sundays truckloads of young men from the girls’ home communities would arrive at the Maedchenheim to take the young women for rides, to go to the park to have picnics or even step out to a movie. The girls in Winnipeg recall how Pastor Ewert would deliberately lengthen his prayers and devotions if he knew the boys were waiting outside.

The girls’ homes hosted Christmas parties and bridal showers. They were a place to go if you were sick, or in between jobs or just needed someone to talk to. All the women agreed it was good to know that someone cared about you and was concerned about your welfare. Mrs. Betty Krahn remembers how Rev. J. J. Thiessen, who was the pastor for the home in Saskatoon, kept careful track of all the Mennonite girls in the city. “If you missed a Thursday night Bible study for any reason you could be sure Rev. Thiessen would phone you the very next morning to find out why you had been absent and if you were okay.  Helen Epp, who was in charge of the Winnipeg home, was no different. If Miss Epp didn’t see a girl or hear from her for two weeks she would get on the phone or the streetcar to track the girl down and find out what was going on. Barbara Banman and Katie Rempel are sure their parents felt a little more secure in sending them to Winnipeg knowing the personnel at the Maedchenheim would keep an eye on them.

Besides the socialization provided by events at the girls’ home, the women had little other leisure time or activities. Two of them recall, however, that books were an important source of solace and enjoyment for them. Since all of the women had left school to work in the city they missed out on a high school education.  Barbara Banman worked for several people who had extensive libraries. She read voraciously.  Anna Rosenfeld worked right across the street from the public library in Swift Current. A Mrs Rice who was the librarian there helped her to select books and she read late at night after all her work was done. “That’s how I got my education,” she says.

The wages the five women worked for varied from $5 to $20 a month. “I made $10 a month at my first job,” recalls Anna Rosenfeld. “But my employer only started paying me after a four-week trial period during which I received no wages whatsoever.” Helen Warkentin earned $5 a month. “I sent $4.50 home to help pay for the Reiseschuld.  I gave 35 cents to the Maedchenheim and saved two cents for the stamp for a letter to my family. That left me with 13 cents of my own.”

Mrs. Betty Krahn also earned $ 5 a month. She reminds me though “that you have to remember a new dress at Eaton’s was $4.95. We worked a long time to earn enough money for luxuries like that.”

All five women eventually quit their jobs in the city. Katie Rempel returned home after her family’s Reiseschuld was all paid. Anna Rosenfeld went back to her parents’ farm because her mother was expecting another baby and needed her help. Betty Krahn decided to attend Bible school in Rosthern for a year and Barbara Banman and Helen Warkentin both left their employment to get married.

Although at the time they were often scared and lonely all five women feel the years spent working in the city were important in shaping their characters and setting a direction for their lives. Barbara Banman sums it up for all of them.  “It was a very hard experience but it taught us to cope with things. I know what I learned living in the city and working as a maid, has helped me to cope with other difficulties in my life. What saw us through was our security in our family and in our church. A man once came to our home to do a survey about the members of our household.  One of the questions he asked me was if I had any sort of educational degree.  I said, “Yes, I did. I had earned a degree in home economics. I didn’t lie. Those years I spent working for the wealthy of Winnipeg gave me an education that has served me well throughout my life. Unlike many other young women of my time I was forced to learn to be responsible for myself and make my own decisions.”

Mrs Katie Rempel chuckles and adds, “When my husband married me some people who knew how many years I had worked in Winnipeg asked him, “And what do you want with a city girl?”

After spending an evening with these five special women I know their husbands were fortunate to find wives with such strong determination and lively spirit. They made the best of a situation they could not change and learned and grew because of it. The men they married were lucky indeed to have wed a “city girl!” 

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