About 35 km east of Edmonton on Highway 16, Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is not just for people of Ukrainian descent. Exploring the historical park provides an opportunity for all to see what life was like for many western Canadian immigrants around the turn of the 19th Century. Specific exhibits are certainly more representative of Eastern European settlers than of those from Western Europe or America.
However, interpreters—some young and others who might have spent their childhoods in such homes, on similar farms or in small villages—are available as guides for visitors. Whether walking with tourists, waiting in houses to relate family stories, driving wagons or acting as store clerks, they tell of days-gone-by. Many adopt a Ukrainian accent, and they stay in character whatever questions or ideas you might suggest. Through them, we experience life as it was for newcomers who arrived with few assets, big dreams and work ethics.
I admit that I like to ramble around by myself, taking whatever time I want for each exhibit. So, except during my visit to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, I didn’t join a guided group. Interested in seeing the sod house, I had difficulty finding it, but when I discovered it in a sheltered and shaded location, I wasn’t disappointed. Although large soddies might be called home for a number of years, I wasn’t surprised when I found a very small dwelling.
Usually only temporary shelter for the immigrants’ first summer or first year in an area, sod homes were abandoned or transformed into root cellars, chicken coops or other useful “buildings” as soon as families could build log homes.
Farther south on the dry and treeless prairie beyond the reach of railways, out of necessity, many soddies provided families with shelter for longer periods, and some had large with interiors well-adapted for long term use.
However, Ukrainian settlers tended to be very selective in choosing homesteads, and the presence of wood as construction material and fuel was a high priority. So, parkland areas such as Edmonton and east central Alberta or similar areas in Saskatchewan and Manitoba became prime locations for their homes and farms.
Just as I expected, the small dwelling at Ukrainian Village had grass growing from the roof. The floor was slightly below ground level, which may have made it warmer but undoubtedly increased stability during heavy rains or snowfalls.
The basics of survival were present, but I could not envision more that one person dwelling there. Did couples and families live in such tinyl homes? History tells me that they did. Certainly, the stories about building sod homes and about what might crawl out the walls or drop from the roof are fascinating. But spending daytime outdoors would have been welcome relief from the tight, dark quarters—well, at least from spring to fall. After my short time in the soddie, I too welcomed the light and open spaces of the park. Yet, my respect for those who faced hardships to fulfill their dreams is ever greater each time each time I visit a heritage park.