From Russian Poland to Canada in 1903

In my last post I introduced my grandmother, Anna Garbe, who arrived in Canada at the age of 13 with her family.  One week later, on the 21st of April, 1903, my grandfather, Rudolph Bierwagen (age 19) and his father, Ferdinand boarded the Adria at Hamberg, Germany and made their way to Canada.  It was not uncommon for the menfolk to make the trip first, secure housing, then send for the rest of the family.  In fact, family folklore has it that Rudolph was in danger of being drafted into the    PrussiaBierwagen Family about 1906n army, so he and his father decided the time had come. We don’t know if it is true or not, but it makes a good story.   Rudolph is at the far right in the back row in this photo taken around 1906.  His outfit is interesting.  I’m curious about the gloves.

Rudolph and Ferdinand arrived in Halifax on May 5, 1903 and made their way west.  Ferdinand’s wife, Henrietta (nee Schmitke) and four children followed in August of that year, with the last daughter making her way to North America in 1910.

Distance from Janiewice to Kurowek

Map data @2017 GeoBasis-DE/BKG (@2009), Google

What is interesting is that Anna Garbe and Rudolph Bierwagen both arrived in Canada with weeks of each other.  Anna came from the northern part of what is now Poland and our current information tells us that Rudolph’s family lived in Kurowek, which in those days was considered Russian Poland.  It’s unlikely they knew each other because the distance is almost 500 miles from the two communities.

They were married in Canada in 1907, settled in the  Saltcoats area of Saskatchewan and had 14 children!  Ten of those 14 lived and most lived well into their 90s!


Google. (n.d.). [Google Maps directions for driving from Kurowek, Poland to Janiewice Poland]. Retrieved April 20, 2017,

SS Kaiser Wilhelm II. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from


From German Poland to Canada in 1903


Jannowitz map

Map data @2017 Google

April 14, 1903.  The time of year when buds appear on branches and bulbs emerge from the cool wet soil and open to the sun.  The temperature warms, and the sun and gentle showers whisper a promise of new growth and new beginnings.



With the spring sunshine on their shoulders, a family from Jannowitz, Germany (now Janiewice, Poland) stands on the dock at Bremen, waiting to board the ship Kaiser Wilhelm II, sail the Weser River to the North Sea, and embark on their new beginning across the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo and ship information found here

In the late 1800s and early 1900s many families were making the decision to leave their homeland and seek a different life.  I have the impression that there was oppression and loss of freedoms we take for granted.  The population was increasing, there were many unemployed people, and the future didn’t look very promising.  Young men were subject to being drafted into service in the Russian army and could be expected to serve for 20 to 25 years!  Ferdinand’s mother, Emilia (nee Rosin), his step- father, Wilhelm Dietrich, and his five siblings had already immigrated to North America, so one can image that the family was excited to join them there.

(Johann) Ferdinand Garbe Bertha ZilskeMy great-grandparents, Johann Ferdinand Garbe, a commissioned officer recently discharged from the army, his wife Bertha (nee Zilske) and their children Emil, Anna (my grandmother, age 13), Gustave, Ferdinand, Elsa, Willi, and Ewald prepare for a 12-day sail to their new life.  Bertha was, in fact, carrying new life, with another son Julius, born three months after their arrival in Canada.


After landing in New York on April 22, 1903, they made their way to Churchbridge, Saskatchewan on April 28.  They stayed with Ferdinand’s brother, Gustave in a small two-room house.  Gustave had 6 children of his own, so there were 13 kids and 4 adults living in two rooms!

001Decades later remnants of the sod house remained on the property, with the wallpaper still attached to chunks of the sod walls.  It was well built, with walls three feet thick, laid like interlocking layers of bricks.  It was cozy and warm, and housed a hard-working family.

From there Ferdinand walked to his allotted homestead, 60 miles west of Churchbridge and 5 miles from Melville, where he built a sod hut for his family.  When it was ready the family traveled to the homestead on a wagon drawn by two oxen and a cow.  Then he walked 300 miles to the US and worked as a farmhand to earn an income to feed the family.

Ferdinand was industrious and by 1908 he had built a modern home (for that time), complete with running water!  He was a farmer, rancher, veterinarian, carpenter, bricklayer, decorator, dentist, and general practitioner (Source: The Ties That Bind: A History of Melville, 1984, p. 412, 413) and he invented many gadgets for use on the farm.

Life in Canada was very different from the life they left behind.  Two good resources if you are interested in learning more about immigration from Eastern Europe to Canada are:

Writing Home: Immigrants in Brazil and the United States  This work is a compilation of letters written to families left behind in Poland.  The letters had been confiscated by Russian soldiers and were found decades later in a warehouse during WWII.

Settling the West: Immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914  This document talks about the different ethnic groups that arrived on the Prairies and their settling in.


Google. (n.d.). [Google Maps for Janiewice Poland]. Retrieved April 10, 2017,