It is a remarkable transition and a testament to people’s determination, when they leave the country and region in which their family lived for countless generations, sometimes for hundreds of years and then put down roots in a foreign and relatively inhospitable place.
What is even more remarkable, in one or two generation the bonds with their new community, physical environment and adopted country are as profound and binding, as the ties to their country of origin.
The story of Gustave and Louise Mencke is a perfect example of people who left their homeland and within a generation became successful farmers and a well-established family in the community who are now as attached to their adopted country as they would have been in their homeland of Belgium.
Born in the Etterbeek region of Brussels, Gustave Mencke, joined the Belgium Cavalry in 1919 where he proved to be an outstanding horseman and his notable marksmanship earned him a medal of honour. During his military career, Gustave attained the rank of a non-commissioned officer.
Louise Mencke (Pringels) was born St. Josse-ten, Noode also a municipality adjacent to Brussels and during the war the family moved to the small town of Marie-Wastines outside the city where Louise grew up before earning a secretarial degree and working in that capacity for various firms.
Gustave and Louise married in October 1922, and by the late 1920’s with the scarcity of employment due to the Great Depression and having at this time two children, the Menckes began to consider immigrating.
“My Dad’s brother-in-law was working in the mines in Belgium and his lungs were shot and the doctor recommended that he move to Canada because the climate would help and dad and mom decided they would go too,” says Gustave’s son Gaston.
The Menckes eventually decided to settle in Alberta’s Peace River Region to become farmers and in April 1930, leaving their two children,Andree and Gaston, in the care of the children’s grandparents, Gustave and Louise boarded the “Duchess of York,” en route for Canada.
With a port of call in Liverpool, they made the eleven-day voyage to St. John New Brunswick. From St. John, the Menckes boarded the train for an additional seven-day journey to McLennan.
“When dad and my mother came over, dad’s sister and her husband also came at that time but dad’s brother-in-law and sister bought land around Rat Lake about 2 miles northeast of Donnelly,” says Gaston.
Gustave and Louise first stayed with Dr. Gauthier in McLennan and through the Doctor, Gustave got his first job on the construction of the McLennan Hospital.
“He got a job doing more or less the finishing touches on the original hospital and at that time he met two brothers who were bachelors, Leon and Alfred Meyus, who were also from Belgium. They told my dad that there was one more quarter left for homesteading next to theirs. So he applied and got it.”
Gustave signed the papers for the land in Guy on June 18, 1930.
“They were intellectual people who had worked in offices. They had only studied farming in books but they had never actually farmed,” says Gaston’s wife Marie.
Marie says it wasn’t just practical concerns that motivated them to come to Canada but also the spirit of adventure.
Living with the Meyus brothers while they quickly built a log house, the Menckes also broke a few acres of land before winter.
During that first winter, they finished the interior of the house in preparation of their children’s arrival from Belgium in spring in 1931.
In January 1931, Gaston and Andree traveled from Brussels to McLennan in the care of a nurse Miss Lafond..
In June 1935, Louise Mencke would give birth to their third child, Gilberte.
Having left the relative modernity and comfort of life in Brussels to homestead in northern Alberta, the first few years on the farm were a struggle with little money.
The family subsisted on the food they grew on the land and for meat depended on hunting wild game, such as moose, deer and rabbits. They also acquired a cow and some chickens that provided milk, butter and eggs.
The Menckes were industrious and resourceful with Gustave making furniture from what materials were at hand and Louise and Gustave would spend time together making quilts and rugs. The original table and cupboards made by Gustave are still in use today in the home of his Gilles Mencke.
Eventually more farms were established in the Guy region and in 1937 Ballater South School was built, which the Mencke children attended.
In order to ensure their continued education, Gustave and Louise bought a house in Falher in 1944, but continued to operate the Farm in Guy.
Due to ill health, Gustave was hospitalized for a number of years in the 1950s. Lousie, with the help of Gaston continued to work the farm and eventually Gaston took over the entire operation.
Gaston married Marie Blanchet in 1952. Marie’s family came from the Martigny and Saxon regions of Switzerland. Marie, who is first generation Canadian, grew up about five miles from the Mencke’s farm in Guy.
Gustave Mencke, requiring constant medical attention, became a resident in McLennan Nursing Home and Louise continued to live in Falher keeping busy as a volunteer at the Falher Library and as part of the church choir. In 1988, Louise moved to Jean Cote to live with her youngest daughter Gilberte and later became a resident at McLennan Nursing Home.
Gustave, having expressed a desire to visit his only surviving sister Berthe Callieux whom he hadn’t seen in 47 years, travelled to Brussels accompanied by Gaston and Andree a family reunion in 1984.
Gaston and Marie continued to operate the farm, eventually with the help of their sons and in 1992, their sons took over responsibility for the farm, which the Mencke family still operates today.
Gaston and Marie had five sons and a daughter. One son lives in Falher and the other four sons continued to farm. Their youngest son Rene, died of cancer in the March, 2015 at the age of forty-five.
“Our daughter lived in the city so we gave the land to the boys,” says Marie. “The oldest is where we used to live but all four farms are within five miles of each other.”
Gaston and Marie Mencke also kept up their connection with family in Europe having made about five trips to visit relatives in Belgium and Switzerland.
Gustave and Louise are buried in Falher. Gaston and Marie who have six grandchildren and five great grandchildren now live at the Villa Beausejour Falher.
Note: The Smoky River Historical & Genealogical Society provided source material for this story. The Society located in Donnelly is an extensive resource for genealogical research and local history.