Nestled in the corner of Northern Europe is the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia, a country who’s heritage knows much struggle from times of Russian occupation and neighbouring European intrusion in decades of conflict.
Though mention of this land may not spring to mind an immediate connection with Alberta soil, Estonia has deep heritage in this province, extending as far back as 1899 when Estonian settlers came westward and settled here in search of a new life.
Perhaps most notably within the east-central region is Linda Hall – now a Community Centre within what was once the largest Estonian settlement in Canada – and the Estonian Heritage House in Stettler, a small but iconic blue building by the old train station. They stand as reminders of a vibrant cultural influence that once brought many farms and people through these rural areas of Canada.
These landmarks have great personal significance for Deane and Irene Kerbes of Stettler. Deane comes from Estonian ancestry in the area – his grandparents and family emigrated to Canada in 1911 and homesteaded in the Linda Hall area south of Stettler. Deane grew up on the family farm until 1973 and is the sole Kerbes who remained in the area with wife Irene, who is not Estonian by blood but immensely passionate about the culture.
“Most of the Estonians are all gone,” says Dean, “there are very few left.” The Estonian influence dissipated with intermarriages and travel, but the cultural connection to Stettler in particular remains strong, especially within the Estonian house at the Museum.
“The Estonian House is a reminder to people that the Estonian people settled here, and built similar dwellings in the area,” says Irene.
The house was built by Estonian native George (Juri) Tamberg in the 1920’s and after decades of use was donated to the Museum in 1978 by Earl Bergman.
The house has housed many artifacts donated by Estonian locals over the years, including paper documentation that piqued the interest of Estonian President Lennart Meri when he visited the museum and area in 2000.
“There was some Estonians who lived in the Linda Hall area, and they went to Australia afterward,” recounts Dean, “Their grandchildren [visited Alberta] from Australia because they’ve heard about Linda Hall and they came to the Museum, and then they phoned our house.” Dean recounts how they traced their ancestry back through Stettler. The Museum in the area facilitated their pursuit of their lineage and helped them find their grandparent’s graves at the Estonian cemetery.
Deane and Irene say the house is experiencing deterioration and they fear for its continued presence in the community.
“The back part of it got water inside,” Deane says, noting that the foundations were built between the wooden beams using mud. “The building beside had no eavestroughs and water came down and it soaked into the mud chinking and rotted some of the logs,” he said, “so were going to try and preserve that.” The duo is seeking donations to rebuild the interior.
Deane and Irene said that for them, keeping the Estonian tradition alive in Alberta is important for future generations of Estonian descendants and visitors to the area.