Pioneering at Mayton
By Beulah Stauffer Hostetler
I knew that my grandparents had moved to Mayton, Alberta when
my mother was an infant. She often talked about the hardships,
the formidable hills that needed to be crossed in order to purchase
supplies. I was able to find bits of additional information in
obituaries. The congregational and biographical accounts in the
History of the Alberta-Saskatchewan Mennonite Conference,
compiled by my father, yielded further information. But details
and nuances were missing. John and I decided it was necessary
to visit Mayton.
The day before leaving Willow Grove, Pennsylvania for our proposed
trip in July 1992, I discovered it was not possible to find Mayton
on our maps! We would need to head south from Edmonton, Alberta,
securing a better map on the way.
We picked up our rental car in Edmonton on Wednesday afternoon
and headed south toward Red Deer. I did not remember having seen
Alberta look so lush and green. It was June 24, only a few days
from the longest daylight of the year, so we still had five or
six hours of daylight. We reached a sign denoting "Red Deer"
in good time, but had difficulty in finding the town. All we
saw was scattered buildings on a maze of roadways. After several
near accidents it seemed definitely time to choose a hotel and
to stop for the night. The local time was 7:00 p.m. Our bodies
told us it was 10:00 p.m., so we went to our room, pulled the
drapes shut, and went to bed.
In the morning we found ourselves within several blocks of the
courthouse. When we were about to enter we found it was the old
courthouse. A pedestrian pointed out to us the new courthouse,
diagonally across the street. The desk clerks knew nothing about
Mayton, and seemingly did not consider such a question to be
a part of their responsibility. John then checked a nearby Real
Estate Office. They, too, could give us no information, in spite
of the detailed maps on their walls.
I knew that Innisfail had initially been one of the towns closest
to Mayton, so we decided to drive there. As we entered the town
we again found a municipal building. But there, too, the clerks
knew nothing of Mayton. We did learn that there was a history
museum in town, and decided to find it. The museum occupied us
for several hours, but we did not learn anything about either
the location or the settlement of Mayton, in spite of perusing
a file of newspapers dating back to the early 1900s.
In response to our inquiry a museum attendant recommended a pleasant
restaurant in a new shopping mall across town. We were enjoying
excellent sandwiches and coffee when three elderly persons entered
the restaurant and sat down at a nearby table. John commented
that they looked like they had lived in the area for "a
hundred years." They would know where Mayton was. He immediately
went over and talked to them. Yes, they were farmers from south
of Innisfail. They knew the general area where Mayton had been
located, but said there was no longer anything there. They recommended
we go to Olds, then east, asking residents of the area for more
An elderly couple in the next booth entered the conversation.
The man said he used to go dancing in Mayton Hall, and that there
was a church named May City. He said he could show us on the
map where it was located, so I quickly went out to the car and
brought in the map. He marked a spot, supposedly two miles east
of Olds, on highway 27. That, he said, was the location of the
church, and two miles south of there we would find Mayton.
We were elated and joyfully went on our way. We drove south to
Olds, then east two or three miles. We found nothing, so when
John saw two men drive their truck into a farmyard, he followed
them. Upon inquiring, they said our restaurant informant was
way off. Mayton was down the road five or six miles after two
coulees. We continued on for the designated distance, finding
nothing but flat prairie stretching before us. Once again we
saw a car drive into a yard, and John followed it. After initial
coolness, they said we must continue on for another five miles
or so, then we would find the two coulees, and beyond them a
gravel road on the right that would lead us to the May City church.
We did not know what coulees were, but expected that when we
came upon something varying from the general flat prairie, we
would be at the coulees.
As predicted, we found the coulees. Each was as large ravine
transversing the roadway, extending on either side as far as
eye could see. We found the gravel road, but in more than a mile
saw no sign of a church, so John stopped a truck coming down
the road. Yes, the driver said, the May City church was several
miles farther on. There was also a cemetery on the left behind
the upcoming cluster of trees. A big book on the Mayton community
had come out recently.
We saw no sign of the cemetery as we drove along, but in time
we reached the church. Across from the church was a modest dwelling.
We stopped there first, doubting that anyone would be at the
church. A young matron came out, and in answer to our query,
said the pastor would be at the church.
We drove over to the church and entered. A young man appeared,
likely to see what the disturbance was, and we told him our mission.
Yes, this was the May City church. Gradually he became a bit
more friendly, and brought out the membership book.
It was evident that a New Mennonite congregation existed before
Amos Bauman was silenced by the Ontario Mennonite Conference
in 1906. The first membership list was dated 1904. Bauman was
listed as a member first in 1909. John then asked if there were
any Mennonites in the area. The pastor responded that there were
quite a few, but that most of them did not know that they were
Mennonites. This was now a United Missionary Church. The denomination
had taken that name in 1947. As an evangelical, revivalist expression,
they were initially called New Mennonites in Ontario. In some
other areas they were called Mennonite Brethren in Christ.
We thanked the pastor, then retraced our steps, looking for the
cemetery. Not finding it as soon as we thought we should, we
turned around, and again John drove into a yard. A sign on the
garage greeted us: "Beware of Wife. The dog is O.K."
A slender, late-middle aged woman answered the door. When she
perceived the contact called for some conversation she eased
herself down onto the porch steps, explaining that she had broken
her hip. After more conversation and repeated invitations we
went into the house, where we also met her husband. We declined
an offer of tea or coffee, but soon found ourselves in the living
room, looking at the large book we had been told about, Sweaty
Brows and Breaking Plows: A History of Mayton and Mayton City
Districts (n.d.:n.p.), c. 1991.
The book was an unbelievable find, a compilation of memories
and family histories by residents and former residents of the
community. Unfortunately copies were not available. Our hosts
served us some refreshing crabapple juice, and then left us alone
to examine the book. We leafed through it, noting pages that
we would particularly like to have photocopied. They promised
to have their nephew copy the pages, and they would send them
to us. We thanked them heartily, left some money for the photocopying,
and then were off again, this time to the cemetery.
The well-kept cemetery was on our left as we drove up. It had
belonged to the Mennonites until 1967. It was now community owned,
and they apparently took considerable pride in keeping it up
well. I did not recall many deaths in the Mennonite community
at Mayton from 1901 to 1918. My grandparents did lose a baby
girl, Christina. I knew that if we could find her grave we would
have the right cemetery. We quickly found the marker for the
grave of Christina Lehman, l907. Next to it was one for Elias
Wideman, 1904-1905, infant son of Abraham and Anna Hembling Wideman.
It was indeed the burial site for the conservative Mennonite
community. But it also contained the grave of Amos Bauman, who
had joined the New Mennonites.
Much of the information in the following article has been
gleaned from Sweaty Brows and Breaking Plows. An equally exciting
find was the diary of S. F. Coffman, who served the fledgling
Mennonite settlements of the area for six months in 1901, and
recorded many details concerning his experience.
The eager travelers were seeking land they could possess.
The opportunities of the Canadian Northwest had been heralded
in Iowa at the turn of the century, and substantial numbers of
settlers who had first tried Iowa were aboard the immigrant train.
Homestead land was still available at $l0 for l60 acres, and
by living on the land and developing it within three years, one
could acquire ownership.1
John K. and Susanna Lehman, ages 27 and 25, and their first child,
fifteen-month-old Irene, were aboard the train. On board with
them were John K.'s sister Catherine, 29, her husband John Brubaker
and their family, the large Abraham Wideman family (Susanna's
parents and siblings, including infant daughter Mary Ann), and
a single man, Milton Sitler. Cattle, household items, and families
all traveled together on the same train. When milking time came
the cows were milked aboard the train, providing sustenance for
the traveling families.
The weather was pleasant upon their arrival at Innisfail in the
Northwest Territories on March 11, 1901, but the ground was still
covered with two feet of wet snow. Everything had to be taken
off the train. Household goods, animals, and equipment had to
be unloaded, with little accommodation for temporary storage.
The land the Lehman-Wideman clan had filed for lay 17 miles southeast.
The Mennonite settlers from Ontario that they knew about had
settled south and somewhat west of the town, about 25 miles from
the Iowa group's prospective location. The Lehmans, Widemans
and Brubakers would proceed directly to their own homestead sites.
The women and children stayed at the crowded frontier hotel in
Innisfail. The men assembled equipment and supplies in preparation
to set out to claim their promised land.2
Crossing the flat, snow-covered miles was arduous; then, just
before the men reached their designated homestead sites, a formidable
coulee transversed the prairie. The deep ravine extended in both
directions as far as eye could see. They wondered whether there
was water at the bottom under the snow, and if so, how much.
They had to cross it. They quickly realized the sleds would need
to pass through one at a time. The men needed to hold the sleds
back, serving as human brakes as they went down into the ravine.
To ascend the other side the horses needed to be double-teamed.
Wearily they attained the other side with all of their sleds,
only to be confronted by a second coulee. The sight depressed
the spirits, hope and courage of the fledgling group. They would
have to traverse those two coulees every time they needed supplies
or wished to market produce. The men were wet and weary. They
had no shelter other than their wagons. They chose a spot to
camp and the next day proceeded to cross the second coulee and
continue a short distance to the designated sites of their homesteads.
The wet snow was so deep that they could not find the surveyor's
stakes. They chose a site they considered well within their domain,
then decided to construct side by side a simple shack out of
green lumber for each family. A few poplar trees dotted the landscape,
and they were cut down to make window and door frames. When the
snow melted the shacks would need to be moved to their appropriate
Several trips to and from Innisfail, across the coulees, were
needed to bring in the families, furniture, and supplies. Mud
followed the wet, melting snow. The trips were strenuous for
the settlers, and especially so for their horses. The settlers
were claiming land they could afford, but the indirect costs
were high. Both man and beast were taxed to the limits of their
strength every time the coulees needed to be crossed.
They named the settlement Mayton. (why?) As spring came their
hopes brightened. They moved their shanties to their respective
properties, and turned their attention to gardens and fields.
The days were long, with daylight stretching from before 5:00
a.m. to l0:00 p.m. Then snow came! On Monday, June 3, there was
a thunderstorm, followed by hail that whitened the ground. Then
the wind shifted from the southwest to the north, and the rain
turned to snow. The storm continued the next day. By Wednesday
morning the sun was shining, but the snow was 8 inches deep!
For the next week stormy weather and intermittent snow continued.
John K. Lehman, sitting in his house -- if it could be called
a house -- was able to look through the cracks left by the shrinking
green wood and see his father-in-law's place through the flying
coulees contained so much icy water they were almost impassable.
Eventually the weather improved, and wild flowers dotted the
prairie. Soon strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, saskatoons
and chokecherries abounded. Game was plentiful.5 Mosquitoes were so bad that
the boys herding cows on the luxuriant grass often lay flat on
the ground and covered their heads with their coats.6 Yet the settlers were optimistic.
They felt they could tame the land and make it their own.
Their religious circumstances were more tenuous. The Mayton settlers
learned that the Ontario Mennonites had sent a preacher west
to minister to their scattered members. Young Samuel Frederick
Coffman, who turned 29 while on the prairie, spent his first
months visiting families, preaching in schoolhouses, doing odd
repairs, and collecting and pressing wild flowers. He regularly
recorded his experiences in a diary. Gradually he won the confidence
of the settlers from Ontario, and would eventually organize several
congregations. Many of the Mayton settlers had left Ontario 15
years earlier, when they immigrated to Iowa. These same settlers,
now coming from Iowa, felt a renewed kinship with the Ontario
Mennonites since John and Susanna's recent visit.
By July Coffman sent word that he wished to visit the settlement
Coffman represented the Ontario Mennonite Conference, from which
the Stauffer Mennonites in Iowa had withdrawn, but the Mayton
settlers were ready to receive him. When Coffman arrived he was
met by Abraham Wideman and Amos Brubaker in Innisfail, then journeyed
with them to Mayton. S. F. hoped to have a meeting with the group
the following evening, but the weather was stormy, and only John
K. and Susanna came.
The following evening a group met at John K. Lehman's place.
The cabin was simple and sparsely furnished, yet neat and somehow
inviting. Lehman was a church member. He had been baptized in
Ontario, but was not in "full standing" with the Iowa
group. He was under censorship by them for his defiance of some
of their regulations, but no one in the Mayton group doubted
the sincerity of his commitment. Coffman's text at the meeting
was Romans l2: l and 2. It was the standard text calling for
separation from the world, but Coffman emphasized that its real
thrust was the renewal of the mind. He spent the night with John
and Susanna, his young contemporaries.
The next morning S. F. spent some time at the Lehman's, then
wished to call on a neighboring Snyder family that lived on the
other side of the coulee. John K. hitched up his ponies, but
the rain had been heavy and the water in the coulee was too deep
to cross. They drove around on the banks of the coulee a bit,
S. F. noting that it contained nice building stone. He also found
a few new specimens for his wild flower collection, which now
numbered more than a hundred species gathered from the area.
Toward evening John K. took S. F. to his sister Catherine and
brother-in-law John Brubaker's place, where they had the evening
meeting. S. F. noted in his diary that "A Russian from a
German congregation in Dakota, Mr. Goe[r]tz, was also present.
May God bless and prosper them in their unity."8
It was rainy again the following morning, but John K. drove S.
F. the seventeen miles to Innisfail with his buggy and ponies.
Abraham Wideman accompanied them. S. F. used his umbrella to
keep himself "relatively" dry. Coffman continued on
In September Coffman organized a congregation called Mount View
at High River and another called West Zion near Carstairs. He
ordained both a minister and a deacon to serve them. This work
accomplished, he determined to return to Mayton. The group had
made application to unite with the Ontario Mennonite Conference.
Coffman and a companion set out early on October ll, and drove
to Spruce Coulee, crossing it at Murray's ranch. From there they
took a direct trail into the settlement and went to John Brubakers,
where they received breakfast. The next day they called at Abraham
Widemans, then continued on to John K. and Susanna Lehmans. John
K. gave Coffman a present of a badger skin.
A number of young people who had been unwilling to be baptized
in Iowa now requested baptism. They included Susanna Wideman
Lehman, and her siblings Martha and William. Joseph Brubaker,
son of Amos, also wished to join the church.
On Sunday, October l3, the group met at Abraham Widemans and
S. F. spoke "along the lines of the first articles of the
confession of faith as instruction for the candidates for baptism."10 In the afternoon
another service was held, where he spoke concerning the ordinances
and bearing fruit. That evening Leah
Brubaker also expressed her desire to unite with the group. S.
F. then returned to the Carstairs area to finalize his work there
before returning home to Ontario. He wanted to hold communion
in each congregation before his departure.11
On Monday, November 4, l90l, S. F. Coffman, accompanied by Israel
Shantz, again set out for Mayton. They stopped to take the noon
meal with a Mennonite family en route, then continued on via
the Edmonton trail to Colburn's ranch. From there they continued
northeast to Burns' and Dugan's ranch, then northeast to Spruce
Coulee. All went well until they tried to cross the water at
the bottom of the coulee. In spite of every effort S. F. could
muster, the tired and fearful ponies would not cross. So he waded
through the water and walked to John K. Lehmans. Lehman came
back to the coulee with a wagon, tied the ponies to it, and pulled
On Tuesday the settlers gathered with S. F. to make arrangements
for a baptismal service. Wednesday they gathered again, and further
instruction was given to the baptismal candidates. In the afternoon
Susanna Wideman Lehman, Leah Brubaker, Martha Wideman and Ed
Wideman were baptized. John K. Lehman was received upon his confession
of faith. All of the members communed. It was a nice weekday
and Will Wideman and Joe Brubaker had to be at work, but arrangements
were made so they could also be baptized and received into the
church. At long last the young people who had refused to bow
to the idiosyncrasies of the Iowa bishop were embracing the church.
They were still without a leader. Preacher Amos Bauman was having
difficulty getting along with his brother, Bishop Jesse Bauman
in the Iowa community, and it was rumored that he was thinking
about Mayton. They would wait.
Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, Goshen, Indiana, is author of
American Mennonites and Protestant Movements (Scottdale:
Herald Press, 1987). This is a chapter from a forthcoming book,
The Journey Home.
Brows and Breaking Plows, 1991, p.2. Abraham Wideman Family
2. Ibid. Also,
II, 1-1. Northwest Mennonite Conference Papers. Stauffer, N.
B. "Mennonites in Alberta", Family Almanac, ca. l9l0
3. Martha Sitler,
"Milton Sitler," Sweaty Brows and Breaking Plows, p.
Sweaty Brows and Breaking Plows. Also S. F. Coffman Diary, copy
in Northwest Conference Papers, Archives of the Mennonite Church,
5. Mary Belle
Benedict, "Noah Gerber," Sweaty Brows and Breaking
Plows, p. 224.
K. Lehman", Sweaty Brows and Breaking Plows, p. 282.
7. S. F.
Coffman Diary, July 22, l90l.
8. Diary, July
9. ibid., July
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, April 1999