On the eastern side of an Alberta concave curvature – overlooking fields of cattle and grain, sweeping into the western foothills and up into the snow-capped Rockies – stands a farm, its entrance in friendly greeting: Welcome to the Evergreen Farm. A partnership consisting of two former refugees and one Canadian bachelor set out to make this place and their living on it an all-inclusive welcome to community – strangers, neighbours, church – Christ’s call to practical discipleship.
One part of the story begins in a devastating loss of homeland and property. Escaping Communist Russia in 1924, having lost everything except their faith, Anna and Cornelius C. Toews arrived at the CPR station in Swalwell, Alta. A member of the Linden Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman) offered them farm employment and living quarters.
Taking notice of Anna and Cornelius’s character and dependability, Cornelius W. Toews (no relation), a bachelor, made them a unique offer: to join him on his farm north of Linden. He would build a new house, live with them, and they would farm the land as partners. Thus began Evergreen Farm, where Anna and Cornelius raised nine children, and where Cornelius W. became a family member called “Uncle Cornelius.”
With a set division of labour – Anna managed the household, Cornelius managed the farm fields, and Uncle Cornelius managed finances and the gardens – this Toews partnership became known for its generosity and contribution to community well-being. Shortly before his death, Cornelius C. told me that after Russia and the loss of all material possessions, he was never again interested in simply amassing property. “I always felt guilty if, in January, I still had grain bins standing full while I knew that people were hungry.”
It is not known whether Uncle Cornelius was familiar with the biblical injunction regarding interest on loans – “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him…so he can live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him” (Leviticus 25:35-36) – but he lived it intuitively. Uncle Cornelius once commented that when he discovered and said yes to Christ’s kingdom, he found himself thinking differently on all things.
When people asked for help, such as seed for the spring planting, or money – especially in the brutal 1930s – interest-free loans were given with the agreement, “Pay it back when you can.” There were no defaults. They were among the first to recognize the power of what is today called microcredit. Before Uncle Cornelius’ death in 1961, he was asked, “Why did you loan to anyone interest free and by verbal agreement?”
He replied: “Because they needed it, and we could.”
The “could” meant that the partnership was never in dire economic straits, even during the 1930s Depression. Uncle Cornelius already held clear title to the land when the partnership was formed. The business strategy was integrated mixed farming: grains, hay, dairy, hogs, laying hens, and large garden plots. And, at the core of the farming operation lay both a sense of Christian values and a ready practicality.
For example: after a hail storm had destroyed the grain crop, one child remembers hearing her father’s early morning footsteps crunching on the hail stones as he sang his favorite song – Mein Glaube fest sich bauen kann auf das, was Gott fuer mich getan (My faith is firmly built on what God has done for me). Following breakfast, machinery was prepared to harvest the damaged crop for dairy green feed.
And after owning several Model Ts, the Evergreen Farm partnership bought a four-door Model A automobile. This car soon clocked many miles for community activities, church events, and Alberta MB conference interests, local and distant.
A university student came to play tennis and enjoy the ritual Saturday evening gathering over homemade ice cream, sardines, and Anna’s delicious potato salad. Upon leaving, Cornelius met him at the car. “You’re going back to Calgary tonight? Let me give you some gasoline.” A long handled pump fed gas into the glass cylinder above the submerged tank stood.
At a recent gathering, fondly stroking the pump, one man remarked, “I’ll never forget the pleasure these people took in giving – it helped mould my life.” For this three-way partnership service was never servitude; they saw a need and felt it a privilege to have the ability to meet it.
In 1931, Uncle Cornelius built a new home as promised – a first residence in the area featuring indoor plumbing and electricity. The place became a kind of Christianized Grand Central Station. On the 10-acre garden-yard, returning missionaries, students, and visiting preachers were housed in the homestead shack, on the campground, or in the house.
“It was amazing how many chores and farm activities we found urgent while the ministers were in-house,” one Toews sibling noted.
“But those few preachers who rolled up their sleeves to pitch hay or hoe in the garden were listened to. Somehow their sermons seemed interesting.”
Anna also took in teenagers who were in “a rough patch” growing up. At her funeral, an adult told his children, “She gave me a home.”
There were seasons when Anna and daughters served meals to as many as 20 persons daily. By conservative estimates, Anna hand-kneaded and baked 24,960 loaves of bread over many decades. It was relentless work – at times almost beyond endurance.
A daughter remembers that when the demands seemed overwhelming, her mother would refocus her situation with, “I lost everything in Communist Russia. But now I have plenty, so let’s give it.”
Many residents became involved in chores and farm operations. Recalled one: “I got into some teenage trouble and was invited to stay with the Toews people. I well remember the first morning – early – when Cornelius C. nudged me out of bed, cheerfully informing me that the welcome in his house included the pleasure of doing chores with his son – every day, all seven.”
Although generosity and purpose were foundational, living never bore the sense of rigid program. Whether it was all-day canning involving everyone in an assembly line, or ice skating, a friendliness and peaceful fellowship prevailed over all.
In the 1970s, people became more economically and religiously independent. The co-op store and the cheese factory closed; self-defined groupings emerged, establishing separate churches and schools; joint Bibelbesprechungen (Bible discussions) ended.
One day a farmer’s barn burned down. Cornelius C. travelled to a neighbour, inviting him and his people to join hands in lending work aid. The neighbour declined.
Cornelius C. responded: “We used to fellowship over the Bible and at school. We worked together in the co-op store and cheese factory, and especially in aid for each other; please join us in barn building.”
“No,” the neighbour said, “we now think different than you do on some religious points.”
“This is our opportunity. I will sit in my car as long as it takes to have you join me in this good work,” Cornelius C. replied.
The curt answer: “You’ll be sitting a long time.”
Cornelius C. sat…and squirmed…and sat. The morning sun slanted through the windshield, waking a bluebottle fly into frenzied dance at the glass; the foolishness of Cornelius C.’s ultimatum seeped over him. The seat springs twanged to his writhing, triggering huge snarling dogs slavering at his window. He was overwhelmed with the folly of having pushed himself and his neighbour into this corner. What would the community, and his own family, think of his impulsive grandstanding?
Meanwhile, the neighbour’s large family sat at breakfast: children in rows according to age, father presiding at the table and mother at the corner end beside him. All bowed in prayer. Silence. The youngest remembers peering through fingers at his father and seeing white knuckles at table edge, a face rashing into rising red, heavy breathing. Suddenly, noisily pushing back his chair, he commanded his son: “Start up the diesel with the front-end loader. We’re going to join others in rebuilding the burned-down barn.”
Stomping to the Toews car, the man said, “OK, we’ll join you this time.” Walking to the tractor shed he turned back: “But this doesn’t mean that we agree on all those things you believe in.” First Uncle Cornelius, then Anna, and later Cornelius C. passed away. The farm was transferred to a family corporation. The yard and house turned quiet with occasional family use for reunions. The verve, the abounding joy, lived love for cooperation – all seemingly vaporized into fading memories.
Some years later, however, Cornelius and Anna’s youngest son attended a farm meeting where he heard about the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. In typical Toews fashion, Gerry responded, “Our family has two quarters of land that might be just right for this.” Out of that emerged the formation in 2004 of the Linden Acme Growing Project with board and steering committee to manage and organize cropping the land on the Evergreen Farm.
In a surge of cooperation, the many diverse groups of the community joined to let their joys be known in harvesting grains for those in hunger. From 2004–2009, Evergreen Farm produced more than 2,500 metric tons, and – coupled with government matching – generated some $2,000,000 for world hunger: the “yeast” of Anna’s baking now giving rise to millions of loaves for the hungry.
Donations (including combines and trucks) from many diverse groups cover the costs and equipment for seeding, maintenance, and harvest. The larger community involvement constitutes a ringing validation of the Toews partnership spirit.
For the first harvest, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite hosted a harvest barbecue for all comers. Once again, the farmyard pulsed with fellowship and goodwill. In subsequent years, various churches and community organizations have hosted the fellowship barbecue. Leaning against his massive combine, one farmer said, “If the Evergreen partners could see this now! By living their values, they taught us how to live in community.”
Shakespeare wrote: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” Not so, William; this time, not so.
speaker from Waterloo, Ont. He grew up in Alberta.