The story of the Salem Mennonite congregation southeast of Tofield begins before Alberta was created in 1905. Our people were part of the western expansion across North America as the land opened up for settlement and territories were claimed by those of European descent. The original Salem group began clustering together in Illinois as early as 1870. Census records for Livingston County, Illinois list the following Salem families:
Jacob Lauber and Joseph Stauffer, brothers-in-law–immigrants from Germany in 1865 and 1866;married to sister:Catherine and Barbara Roth.
John Stalter – immigrant from Lorraine, France in the mid-1850s.
Christian Roth- from Ohio.
Joseph Zehr – immigrant from Lorraine, France 1857
In 1870 these five families were neighbors, and probably attended the same Amish church in Waldo Township, Illinois. We know that all, or parts of the Roth, Stauffer, Lauber, and Zehr families moved to Nebraska around 1880 and then on to Tofield, Alberta in the years 1910-1915. The Zehr relationship is through maternal lines so no one named Zehr moved to Alberta. Barbara Zehr became the mother of Peter Reid and her sister Catherine Zehr was the mother of the three Roth siblings: Valentine, Nicholas, and Barbara (Mrs. John L Stauffer) who moved to Alberta.
In the first group of Salem settlers another maternal connection exists. The mothers of Elmer Maurer, Exra Stauffer, and Lee Roth were sisters, daughters of David and Lydia Bender. The Benders moved from Ontario, to Indiana, to Iowa, and finally to Nebraska. Leah Maurer died in Nebraska. Mattie Stauffer and Amanda Roth came to Alberta with their husbands using names other than “Bender”.
The first Salem settlers were related through a complexity of genealogical connections. Nearly all were first cousins to at least some in the group but not everyone was a fist cousin to everyone in the group. Our Amish Mennonite ancestors seldom traveled alone but with others of like faith and with family members. Records as far back as 1700 in Europe show that parts of our families moved almost every generation. It is easy imagine thattefamuly traditions “moving” was familiar to our “Salem settlers” and no doubt that tradition made it easier to come to Canada.
There were two main reasons why the Salem settlers came to Alberta: economic and church related.
The economic reasons for moving played the biggest role in the decision to come. During the years 1896-1915 the Canadian government, the railroad companies, and real estate agents were actively encouraging settlers to come to the Canadian west. One group that was targeted was “experienced drylands farmers” in the north-central United States. For about 35 years our people had lived in Nebraska and farmed there and now sons were growing up and needing a place to farm. Land in Nebraska was becoming expensive. There was inexpensive land in western Canada and lots of it.
Joe Reil was 15 years old when he came to Alberta in 1910. Near the end of his life in 1976, Joe recalled the time when they still lived in Nebraska. “I remember sitting with a group of men in the back of the store in Milford and Tom Blackburn was there and he was preaching”. Blackburn said “You can move to Tofield and buy enough land so that each of your sons can have his own farm And Nicky(Nicholas Roth) can be your preacher so you can have a church up there”. Meetings like that were the start. Joe Reil was on that train in 1910 when the first group of Salem settlers came.
Our people were wise business men and dedicated family men. They listened to the land agents, sold their farms in the States, and came north to purchase enough farmland to start over in Canada. The came with knowledge, supplies, and cash in their pockets.
Those men who were head of families ranged in age from 21 to 66 years with the average age being 36 years. They had married at an average age of 23 years. On average they had 13 years of farming experience, after marriage, before coming to Canada. When they came they knew how to farm and they were welcomed as valuable additions to the labor force of western Canada.
The Salem settlers came to establish a church community where they could continue to worship as they had for decades but wheres they had the freedom to add things to the program of the church like Sunday School and a stronger emphasis on missions outside the local congregation.
In Nebraska before the move a new church building was being planned. Some of the more changed-minded members wanted the new church building to be designed to accommodate a Sunday School. That idea was quashed by the existing bishop. In the 1890’s a controversy developed over the use of buttons on men’s coats and jackets. Some thought that fasteners should be hook and eye, hidden to avoid pride and personal adornment. Others thought that buttons were okay and any similarity to military uniforms was not important. The controversies raged on, with those who became Salem settlers being on the more liberal, forward-thinking side. One family raised horses for sale. They attended county fairs to display their prize winning animals and to promote sales. Attendance at ‘worldly’ events such as county fairs was frowned upon by the bishop. Family photographs exist which show that our people no longer believed that a photograph was a “graven Image”. A lot of issues, some minor, some more major, totaled discontent and no doubt made it easier to decide to move. When they came to Alberta they remembered the turmoils of the past fifty years within the church, and now wanted to leave those problems behind and live in peace. Perhaps that is why they named their new congregation “Salem Amish Mennonite Church”.
Salem Amish Mennonite Church:
–“Salem” is a form of “Shalom” from the ancient Hebrew language, a word that means “peace.
–“Amish Mennonite” because they were no longer Amish but still not quite Mennonite.
–“Church” because they believed that a body of like-minded Christian people is “The Church” on earth.
From the beginning it was a group effort. No one person or family should be given sole credit for the beginnings of the Salem Mennonite Church. As far back as is known the Amish-mennonites moved in groups, moving as a “portable community” rather than as individual families. This is certainly true of the Salem group. When they came they brought enough people with established leaders and knowledgeable adults to do the work to recreate what they had left behind. It seems clear that the first Salem settlers came with the idea of maintaining the best of what they had left. The banker in Milford and the land agents knew this about the Amish Mennonites and donated five acres in Alberta to the group so they would have a place to build a meeting house. The present Salem Mennonite church building and the graveyard are located on that donated land.
The first “mennonite” presence in the Round Hill/Dodds/Tofield area that we know of happened in 1905. Several people came to see the area. Some saw the opportunity to make money by purchasing land, then selling it again. Some came and looked and then went home nicer to return. Some came and liked what they saw and bought land and started making plans to move.