Photo of tombstone
John Enns’ tombstone. He was the schoolteacher.
©lJeri Danyleyko

The little settlement of Reesor officially got its start on June 15th 1925 at 11 p.m., when two Mennonite refugees, Jacob Toews and Jacob Heinrichs, disembarked from the Canadian National Railway (CN) train at mileage point 103 just east of Mattice. One can only imagine the dismay they must have felt as they gazed at the site of their “new home,” which was nothing more than dark, rain soaked bush.

And who could blame them? These settlers had barely escaped with their lives in the Ukraine and Russia unlike many of their fellow Mennonites who had perished before the Bolsheviks’ firing squads. The luckier ones, like Toews and Heinrichs, simply left their possessions and fled the villages where their families had lived for hundreds of years. Now destitute, they had arrived at their final destination, mileage point 103, where they would begin the long journey of rebuilding their lives and rekindling their community.

Upon their arrival, they were accompanied by a Mennonite minister and benefactor from the Markham/Scarborough area named Thomas Reesor. Thomas Reesor was the son of Christian and Fanny Reesor, who arrived in York County from Pennsylvania in 1804. Christian was a Mennonite bishop who devoted himself to helping other members in his community and Thomas continued on with his father’s work. He took the refugees’ plight to heart and attempted to assist them in their resettlement efforts. He negotiated with the government on their behalf and secured a large area in the “Great Clay Belt” of Northern Ontario, where cheap land was still available. Reesor not only translated for them, but also assisted them financially.

After Reesor’s departure the men began the task of clearing the land and building crude dwellings. By the end of the year their families joined them. They included the Wiens, Enns, and Bergen families, to name a few. The steady trickle of Mennonites continued and they began to settle throughout the area.

Other groups in the area included a number of French Canadians who had aggressively begun to colonize the ‘great clay belt. By the following year, it was becoming obvious that a community of sorts was beginning to emerge at mileage point 103. The population had grown to the point where they formed a “Schulze” or a traditional local council of sorts.

In 1926, after receiving a $500 grant, the fledgling community opened its first official institution, a schoolhouse. The school, known as Eilber S.S. #3, was situated on Lot 6, Concession 2, Eilber Township, just north of the settlement. David Heidebrecht from Manitoba was the top choice for the school’s first teacher. At its opening, it counted 16 pupils.

By the 1927, CNR had established a freight station at mile 103 and needed a name. Rightfully, they chose the name Reesor to honour the community’s benefactor. That same year Louis Trudel opened a small store, adding a new post office counter and Reesor was officially born.

Religion was the mainstay of all Mennonite communities so the settlers quickly chose Cornelius Penner to act as a temporary or lay preacher until they could find an ordained preacher. They soon found one in the name of Herman Lepp, a young man – only 24 years of age. They conducted the first services in a private home nearly 2.8 kilometres away, in Reesor Siding. After the school opened in Reesor, they transferred religious services to the new schoolhouse. In 1928, another Mennonite, Heinrich Erns, opened a small library and reading room within his home. It contained a large variety of religious German books and texts, along with many classical works, written in Latin, German or Greek.

By the close of the decade, there was a thriving settlement consisting mostly of Mennonites, along with a number of Finns and French Canadians, firmly entrenched at Reesor. Trudel’s store had expanded to the point where it had more than doubled in size. With the increase in automobile travel during the 1930’s, Trudel added fuel pumps. Ever the entrepreneur, Trudel went on to open a lumber yard. Wood came from a small government mill situated at Reesor Siding. The lumber yard also dealt in the purchase and resale of pulpwood, a new emerging market that began following the construction of the Spruce Falls Pulp and Paper mill in Kapuskasing.

In the early 1930’s, a Mr. Guerin briefly opened a second store that also included a pool hall. After the store closed, Louis Trudel integrated it into his establishment. By this time, Trudel’s business had expanded to include a billiard room, a tannery and watch works. In 1931, Abraham Lepp built a garage to the west of Trudel’s store to service the local traffic. Heinrich Bergen opened a blacksmith shop in 1932. They also built a larger school in a more central location and later on added a tennis court. The community even had a small newspaper named Acta Nostra (Our Deeds). It published twice a month.

The Mennonite congregation had also grown considerably in a few short years, to the point where they finally outgrew the school house. They began construction of a new church in 1932, completing it in 1932. Peter Dyck, who owned property on Lot 4 West, Concession 7, in Barber Township, donated the land while Jacob Toews completed the structure. Within a few short years the Reesor United Mennonite Church counted over 60 regular attendants and by 1936, claimed a membership of 75 members. They also cleared a cemetery plot on Lot 6, Concession 1, Eilbert Township. Its first burial was that young bride by the name of Anna Martens (nee Enns).

During this period Reesor entered its zenith. It grew to contain over thirty structures, all of which huddled around or near the freight station. During its peak period in the mid 1930’s, over 120 residents lived in Reesor proper. In addition, there were nearly 100 residents, mostly farmers and their families, living in the area surrounding Reesor.

Ironically, despite the depths of the depression, the 1930s were a time of growth for the area. However by the 1940s, Reesor was in an obvious state of decline. The first victim was Lepp’s garage which closed in 1941. Bergen’s blacksmith shop followed in 1942. Trudel’s store burnt down in 1945 but by then it had already sold to Norbert Gamache. Although they rebuilt the store, some services, such as the tannery, ended. The church closed in 1947 due to falling attendance. A local road board was finally established in 1949 to maintain the area’s roads for the remaining farmers. Alas it was too little too late.

Gamache’s store finally closed for good in 1958. Cornelius Dempel quickly replaced it with a smaller variety store which also housed the post office. However by that time, the area counted barely 30 souls. John Enns closed the school in 1966. In 1967, Dempel’s store and post office both followed suit, along with the local road board. By the close of the 1960s, Reesor was finished.

During the 1970’s the last remaining residents left Reesor. Today there are no farms remaining in an area that once supported over 40 farmsteads. In its place are a small number of collapsed homes along with the cemetery and five newer homes. The 200 books from Heinrich Erns’ library were donated to a Mennonite organization in Leamington Ontario. Thomas Reesor’s home in Scarborough (now part of Toronto) has been owned and occupied by his direct descendants for over 150 years.

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