Reinhold Eben-Ebenau had no particular plans to put down roots on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake. The young German immigrant from East Prussia arrived in town in June of 1930.
He was a year into the big adventure of his life, having arrived in Halifax just in time for the start of the Great Depression. So far, he hadn’t exactly found streets paved with gold. He had found work here and there – hard work at very low rates of pay. He kept moving west, hopping freights like other hobos and sleeping rough. One of those unapproved train rides dropped him at the hamlet of Slave Lake. Or rather at the siding called Slave Lake. The town was a mile or two away, on the river. It was raining hard, and had been for some time. The town when he got there (courtesy of an offered wagon ride from the station) was close to being underwater.
This is the picture painted by Reinhold’s son Roland, who operates a bison ranch and bed and breakfast business on the land his father homesteaded in 1930.
‘Northshore Eben,’ as he became known, locally, was 25 years old when he arrived in Slave Lake. He’d left his home and family in East Prussia in the waning days of the 1920s. Germany was in turmoil at the time. Political violence was on the rise. Communists and fascists battled in the streets, and governments seemed incapable of solving problems or surviving. Right next door, the shiny new Bolshevik regime in Russia was stirring up trouble and inspiring communist movements in other countries. The family’s fortunes had declined in the aftermath of the First World War. And Reinhold did not like the politics.
“He talked of being dragged into political rallies,” Roland says. “It turned his stomach.”
Reinhold had an education as a forest and wildlife manager. One of seven siblings, his father had died in the 1920s and the family was somewhat “adrift,” Roland says.
“He was a wilderness guy at heart. The wilds of northwestern Canada seemed attractive.”
So off he went, first doing odd jobs in Montreal, then spending the winter months in logging or sawmill camp in Northern Ontario. It could have, but didn’t, cure him of his romantic notions of the Canadian wilderness. But it certainly didn’t get him much closer to his goal. His wage was a dollar a day, with half that amount taken right off the top for room and board, plus what was taken off for the sleigh ride in (and out). His wages netted out at $2.50 a week. He got out of there as soon as he could, heading west.
Reinhold spent his first night in Slave Lake in a tent on a platform on stilts to keep it out of the water. His hosts were the von Koch brothers, Gerhard and Walter. He didn’t know them, but there was some family connection. Herman Mueller was his companion in the tent.
Slave Lake in early summer 1930 wasn’t much to look at. But Reinhold must have liked the lay of the land. The lake, of course would have been as impressive then as it is now, with the “bold appearance,” noted by fur trade explorer David Thompson back in 1798. Urged by the von Kochs – and possibly others – to file for a homestead, Reinhold hiked north along the lakeshore, following the wagon trail. Several miles along, he found a dry spot well above the lake level at a point, and staked his claim. The terms were irresistible. Ten dollars for a quarter section, and all you had to do was build a house and clear five acres and get something growing in it. If you did that within five years, the title was yours.
Reinhold got to work. He had little or no money in those first couple of years. He swapped labour with neighbouring homesteaders to get logs skidded and buildings built. He decided early on he wasn’t going to make a living as a farmer. Trapping was the way to make some cash, and Reinhold went all in. Of course a lot of people were doing the same thing.
“The only line he could get was over the hills south of Slave Lake,” Roland says. “Thirty kilometres walking.”
Reinhold would load up his packsack, walk to town and perhaps pick up more supplies and then hike south to his trapping cabin in the Swan Hills. There he’d spend several weeks each winter, carrying out his furs in the spring.
“You could make a living at it,” Roland says.
Speaking of the neighbours, when Reinhold showed up on the scene, there were quite a few people on the scene with homesteads north of Slave Lake.
“There were lots of people along here,” Roland says. “Germans, Swiss, Austrians. Dad was a latecomer.”
The difference is that he stuck it out, whereas the others all gave up on homesteading. Achenreiner, Bulsheit, Kreutzer, McDonald (and others) – all moved on to other places and other things.
“He was stubborn,” Roland says.
One thing the Eben-Ebenau homestead had that a lot of the others didn’t was freedom from flooding. On the other hand, there was no decent road to town. And even what road there was would be inundated at times of the year. That was a real drawback, but Reinhold was undeterred. He kept plugging a way.
In 1932 or thereabouts, he commenced construction of the big house that still stands, using logs he’d set aside for the purpose. There are lots of photos of the process, since Reinhold was fond of recording his life highlights with his ‘folding’ camera. Within one summer – with the help of three or four other men – he had the structure closed in. Work on the interior continued for several seasons following.
The house is built in the style of those in East Prussia where Reinhold grew up, right down to the fancy wood structure surrounding the fireplace. That room is now one of several suites for rent in the old house. Outside, off to the side so as to not interfere with the lake view is a linden tree Reinhold planted – further to recreate the atmosphere of his German home. He only returned there once, Roland says, in 1934. He thinks his dad probably preferred – and was maybe better off – knowing the East Prussia of his youth, rather than whatever the modern country turned into. East Prussia, of course, has been a Russian province since 1945. The Eben family – along with 2.5 million East Prussian Germans – lost everything due to the Second World War.