Helena Klassen: midwife

Helena Brandt Klassen

Helena Brandt Klassen (1861-1938)

On December 18, 1861 in the Mennonite village of Margenau on the Molotschna Colony of South Russia, David and Aganetha (Brandt) Klassen were blessed with the arrival of a healthy little baby girl whom they named Helena.

Helena's father was a patient, determined individual with strong leadership skills and great foresight while his wife Aganetha was a rather quiet, easy-going lady who preferred to serve rather than to be noticed. David and Aganetha shared much in life including the joys of having nine healthy children: five girls and four boys, and the sorrow of burying five children in infancy. They both were devoted to the Lord and the preservation of the Kleine Gemeinde faith.

At the time Helena arrived, her oldest two sisters, Elizabeth and Maria were already married: Elizabeth to the twice widowed Aeltester Johann Friesen and Maria to Jacob M. Kroeker who was later to become both a deacon, minister and Aeltester of the Kleine Gemeinde Church.

In 1966 the David Klassen family, including Helena, moved to the village of Heuboden on the Borosenko Colony because of divisions among the Kleine Gemeinde and together with other families became an independent congregation. They lived close to the Solenaya River and the Klassens farmed successfully and also had beautiful, bountiful orchards and gardens. This is where Helena spent her childhood years until the age of 12. In 1871 her oldest sister Elizabeth passed away and within two years husband Johann died as well so Helena's parents adopted the four grandchildren left behind. Helena grew up with two nieces only slightly younger than herself in her home. She learned about responsibility, sharing and hospitality at a young age.

In 1873, while the Russian government was in the midst of revoking the privileges of freedom from military service granted to the Mennonites, the British government invited them to settle in America. Several delegates were chosen and sent and among those to go was Helena's father David Klassen. The delegation left on April 15th and returned August 7 three months later with the recommendation that emigration should take place in 1874. Another of Helena's sisters, Katherine, passed away on Christmas Eve, 1873 and her husband Cornelius E. Eidse later remarried and emigrated to Canada with the two children.

The Kleine Gemeinde congregation decided that emigration to America was the best choice for the preservation of their faith and their families and so they began to sell their belongings, farms and homes to prepare for the journey across the ocean to a foreign and strange land. This was not to be a vacation and life on the Borosenko Colony was a hub of activity. Mealtimes at the Klassen's must have been very lively with discussions about this great venture. Which tools should be kept and which sold? How much clothing and what kind should they pack? Should they take along all their cooking and sewing utensils or purchase them in the New Country? Organization was the key. Horses and other livestock had to be sold at the best price so that they could be purchased again in Canada. Certain days had to be set aside for slaughtering the pigs and the meat had to be smoked to give the families sustenance on their journey and young Helena and her Mother had to mix and bake and toast many zweibach for the journey while packing many of the basics. Since David Klassen had already seen the goods available in Winnipeg and the area they were to pioneer and settle he probably dispensed fairly wise advice as to which items to take and which were better purchased in the new country.

When the last of the goods were packed into huge wooden and steel trunks and the farms had been sold at a fair price the families were ready for the journey. Helena and her two brothers: Peter and Jacob were the only single family members at the time of emigration. The Klassen family left Russia on June 4th and arrived in Winnipeg on July 31st. A photograph was taken of them and the ship they arrived on in Winnipeg but other than that not much is known about their particular journey across the ocean except what has been written by others who were on the same journey.

To David Klassen's dismay the shelters that were promised to him near the Scratching river had never been built and so the Klassens waited for a few weeks to purchase supplies and then travelled by oxen to the banks of the Scratching River to the place known as Rosenhoff. It was August 14th, 1974. When Helena's dad announced that they had arrived at their new home all the ladies of his family began to weep uncontrollably. It was unbearably hot and the mosquitoes were attacking them ferociously. David Klassen was patient for about twenty minutes and then in his decisive voice he told them that they had cried enough. He firmly told his wife and the girls to make a waffle mix and directed his boys to build a fire and cover it with stones so that the waffle irons could be heated on them. While the women made the meal the boys and he took the livestock down to the river for water and to check on available feed. One can only imagine what was said in the silent prayers sent up to the Lord as they bowed before their first humble meal of waffles in this wild, flat area known as the Red River Valley.

The Klassen's settled in tents for what was left of the summer and began to gather feed for the livestock. As the snowflakes began to appear on the ground Helena's father made the wise decision, along with some other men, to spend the 1st winter in Winnipeg with their families. David Klassen rented a home near what is now Old Market Square, purchased some dairy cows and feed, put up shelters in the Market for them and organized a delivery route. Helena a young, outgoing girl of 12 and her nephew David Kroeker sold and delivered the milk to their many customers. Helena was very determined to do her part to help her family and was a very successful salesperson. When she delivered her milk to the customers, she eagerly tried to learn the English language and seemingly this also charmed them because she always sold all her milk very quickly. She and her nephew seemed to have a little friendly competition between them to be the best. Children at that time seemed to know how to combine work and play so that they complimented one another. During that 1st winter her brother Peter got married to Katherina B. Koop of Blumenort.

In the spring of 1875, Helena, her parents, brother Jacob and her adopted siblings moved back to Rosenhoff. Now that spring had arrived, Helena could truly tell why it was called yard of roses. The scent of the beautiful, wild pink roses seemed to give life new meaning. Many of the families who had wintered in the riverbanks of the Scratching River had suffered greatly and decided to search for land in the United States. David Klassen thought it was a foolish idea because he believed that a country under a monarchy would not change its laws regarding freedom from the military as quickly as a democracy would. He was determined to make this land his own and set about the task vigorously. The Klassens lived in a tent again while they built a decent farmhouse and plowed the land to make gardens and fields. They built their farmhouse with lumber that was available at a sawmill in Morris at a reasonable price. Helena's father was kept very busy as he also served as the first Schultz "mayor" of Rosenhoff.

It was at the age of thirteen that Helena's life took a unique turn that was to determine the course of her life. With so many new pioneers moving into the Morris area, a doctor by the name of McTavish was almost overwhelmed with work. There were always babies making their way into the world and many diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera to try to combat. Not only was the workload overwhelming but there were also difficulties involved in language barriers. When Dr. McTavish discovered that Helena knew English he quickly engaged her as an interpreter when he worked among the Mennonites. Some women weren't pleased with having a 13-year old girl around when they were giving birth and so Dr. McTavish solved the problem by teaching her some of the basics of medicine and introducing her as his nurse.

Dr. Robert McTavish worked together with Helena for approximately 35 years. During the early years he picked her up with his horse and buggy and they would make housecalls together. He taught her many things including the importance of sterilization to guard against infections in women, how to deliver babies into the world safely, and which drugs and medicines would cure or aid various illnesses. She learned quickly and thoroughly from the doctor as he gave her a chance at hands-on training.

Helena grew in her Christian faith and was baptized on January 31st of 1879. In spring of the same year on April 6th she married Abraham E. Eidse a dark-haired, blue-eyed young man who attended the Rosenhoff Church as well. Abraham was born on April 10, 1857 and was 17 at the time of emigration. As a young man in a new country he helped with the family farm and also had been employed by the government to build up a railroad bed through Riverside for several summers. To his great disappointment the railroad was established through Morris instead. Shortly after Helena and Abraham were married, they established their own home and began farming on the NW 1/4 16-5-1E in Rosenhoff. They lived in a small cabin with a lean-to attached.

Eidse cabin on the Scratching River 1880

Abraham was a successful farmer and supplemented his income with a blacksmith shop. Later he also owned and operated one of the first steam threshing machines. In 1882 Abraham was elected to serve as a deacon in the Rosenhoff KG church and two years later he was ordained as a minister. Both Abraham and Helena were kept very busy between preaching, farming, raising their children and delivering babies. Rev. Eidse often preached his sermons by memory rather than in the traditional style of reading them. Because he suffered hardening of the arteries and anemia, he sometimes delivered his messages sitting in a chair. Thirty perfectly preserved sermons that were handwritten, dated and preached by Rev. Abraham Eidse in the 1900's are still in existence and owned by the Abe Bartel family of Riverside. Another interesting part of Rev. Eidse's life was that he and Helena were firm believers in mission outreach at a time when preservation rather than the propagation of the gospel was stressed in the KG churches. As early as 1910 Abraham and Helena were financially supporting a missionary couple (Penners) in India and in the early 1920's Rev. and Mrs. Eidse also actively encouraged the beginnings of the Mennonite Central Committee.

Abraham and Helena also began their family the same year he was elected into the ministry. It seems ironic that although Helena made many other women's lives easier by coaching them in their childbirth, she herself had eight extremely difficult pregnancies. Abraham and Helena had four children that survived to adulthood: Abram who was born on July 7, 1882, David born Aug. 27, 1888, Cornelius born on Oct. 27, 1898 and Lena born on Aug. 1, 1901. A fifth child whose name was Aganetha lived approximately five years. At present her birth and death date are unknown. Abram, the oldest son remembered her clearly as a girl with a physical disability that made her unable to walk. She was very intelligent and had a great memory. She helped her father remember in spring where he had mislaid his tools in fall. Aganetha was very spiritually-minded but the family considered her "too good for earth and made for heaven". Helena and her husband drove to Winkler to try to get medical help for her but there was none available. She lies buried at the sight of the new memorial cairn in Riverside along with her grandparents, David Klassen (1813-1900) and Aganetha Klassen (1816-1904). Three other children of Abram and Helena died in infancy. Helena and Abraham shared their home with her mother Aganetha for four years after her father had passed away. In 1910 Abraham, Helena and their daughter Lena travelled to Kansas and Nebraska together. It was a cherished memory. Rev. Eidse travelled to Nebraska more times to minister in the KG church there and told many hilarious stories of his adventures in America.

During Helena's 63 year career she became an excellent midwife and delivered children by the hundreds in the Rosenhoff (Riverside) area. Many of these were her own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She attended many births both in English, Holdeman and local Kleine Gemeinde households. She was on call day and night and whenever a nervous father would come on the run with his horses in a sweat and a buggy rattling behind. She would pack up her brown leather medical bag and venture along to attend to the woman in need. When Helena began to do deliveries on her own she charged fifty cents and in her latter years the rate was two full dollars. Sometimes she received vegetables when the couples were too poor to give cash and often people forgot to pay altogether. She was extremely protective of all "her" babies but showed a special sentimentality whenever babies were named after her and gave each "Helena" a little baby dress. She never lost an infant nor a mother due to infection, however one mother did hemmorhage to death. The last known baby she delivered was Abe D. Friesen on August 23rd, 1938 only 2 months before she passed away.

The Rosenhoff South School was built just across from Abraham and Helena's yard in Riverside in 1926. This proved to be truly convenient for school children who simply ran across the road to Mrs. Eidse to get one of her homemade Band-Aids for scratches and scrapes. Often even children from the North School (which was a mile away) would also come to have their hurts taken care of. Helena also set broken bones and massaged many a sprained ankle or hand as she served the community as a chiropractor. When people in the area passed away, she was often there as a nurse and also served as the undertaker.

During the winter of 1917-1918 Spanish influenza hit virtually every family in the Rosenort-Rosenhoff area. Dr. Ross gave out a serum to protect people from it but it didn't seem to take proper effect. Helena battled with the 'flu herself but recuperated early. Since her husband Abraham and P.U. Brandt seemed to have high immunity against it, the three of them worked diligently to battle the bug. Abraham and Mr. Brandt made rounds at all the farms and tended to all the daily chores such as milking and feeding the livestock when the other men were all sick in their beds. Helena was kept busy instructing families how to keep the fevers down with plenty of liquids and that it was crucial to keep the sick covered with warm blankets to stop them from getting pneumonia. Other nurses who had aided in the area when she had been sick had unwisely allowed families to open windows to cool themselves off and as a result in one family, four members passed away. It was a tragic time because of the loss of so many lives and made especially difficult because bodies of loved ones were just put outside to freeze until the rest of the family was well enough to hold a funeral.

All through Helena's years she kept up a busy pace as a midwife and still managed to find time to put in a large garden. If midwifery was her career perhaps gardening was her passion. Within the walls of her farmhouse she nurtured a host of houseplants including 15 different varieties of cyclamen. When the frost would finally leave the ground in spring she'd be eagerly putting in her seeds so that she would have the first potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons and cucumbers. The most fertile soil was always reserved for her watermelons and she knew how many watermelons she had and where each one lay so that when community boys would help themselves to one she'd know it immediately. Abraham and Helena's farmyard was graced with long rows of lilacs in spring and hedges of scented roses later in summer. Raspberries and strawberries were harvested by the bucketful and preserved for winter use. This delight in nature was definitely passed on to her from her father David Klassen who took great pride in designing his gardens in Russia. He taught her well as her crops came in bountiful and early. She laughingly retold one of her father's favorite gardening quotes regarding the moon's placement in the heavens as a determining factor as to when to plant. "I plant in the earth, not in the moon." This common sense wit was evident both in Helena and in her father David. Helena was as particular about her garden as she was about childbirth. To her wild portulaca was an infectious disease just waiting to destroy her garden and she refused to take any plants that came from "diseased" gardens and would always wash her shoes after she had walked these gardens.

Abraham and Helena were pioneers and in some ways aged earlier than men and women seem to today. Reverend Abraham Eidse was described as about 5'10 with striking blue-eyes set off by his white hair, high, large cheekbones, mustache and white full beard. During the 1900's he wore dark three piece woolen suits brightened with a golden pocket watch and chain and when outside covered his hair with a grey cap. He enjoyed storytelling and practiced and honed this art on Sunday afternoons when he and his wife received company. He loved little children and spent time with his grandchildren teasing them and swinging with them.

Helena's hair turned a gentle gray in her later years and was tucked neatly under a black fringed shawl. Although her face grew wrinkled, she always seemed to have a smile in her blue eyes for any of the little ones she brought into the world. She typically wore dresses with a gathered skirt covered with a clean white apron. She was intelligent and very energetic. Grandchildren enjoyed staying with the grandparents because of the chance to be tucked in for night in Grandma's deep, soft featherbeds.

Abraham and Helena had a unique practice for the Kleine Gemeinde at that time. In the morning before breakfast Rev. Eidse would read the Bible, he and Helena would sing some songs and then he would pray outloud in German. Although silent prayer was the norm at that time, they always said table grace out loud. This left a deep impression on their children and grandchildren.

The main highlight of the year for all the children and grandchildren was the Christmas gathering at the Eidses. Grandma Helena would send her sons, Dave and Cornie, out to shoot pigeons or she would purchase them for five cents apiece from a neighbour and then she would clean and stuff between 60-70 pigeons to serve to her family for Christmas dinner. The Eidses had a large home and somehow managed to find room for everyone. After this unique and wonderful dinner the grandchildren recited Wunsche and present short German plays. They'd all sing together and the scene was always filled with laughter and merriment. After the program Grandma and Grandpa Eidse would hand out tutjes for the little ones and then each grandchild also got a larger present. For the boys there were gifts like Radio Flyer sleds and for the girls porcelain tea sets or dolls.

In 1929 Helena and Abraham celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary together with many friends and family at the Rosenhoff South School. It was a rare occasion since very few couples spent that many years together at that time. The grandchildren recited poems nervously and then the large gathering of people shared faspa together.

Helena's husband Abraham E. Eidse suffered from anemia for many years and in spring of 1930 was beginning to become very ill. Even on a very warm day he would be all bundled up in a wool cap with ear flaps, a heavy coat and overshoes because he felt so cold. His sons Dave and Cornie took him by car to seek treatment for his illness at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota but his illness was too advanced and he returned home with his sons. He died later that summer on July 16, 1930 due to leukemia in his home.

After Abraham died, Helena continued to assist the sick in the area but there were already several other midwives in the area who took over the brunt of the workload. In 1935 she took a trip to Alberta with her children, the Bartels, to Alberta to visit her brother Abram Klassen. Helena began to complain of pain in her chest down to her abdomen on August 27th only a few days after making her last delivery. Several doctors were called upon to treat her but it was too late. Pneumonia took its toll and on November 5th, 1938 she passed on to meet her Saviour, The Great Physician, just before the outbreak of World War II. The family honored Rev. A.E. Eidse's dying request that upon settlement of their estate $2000.00 be given in tithe to the church. *********************************************************************

Helena (Klassen) Eidse's medical bag is made of well-worn brown leather. It has two metal clasps that fasten at the top and feature a special locking device to keep young children out and medicines and instruments in. At the time it was given to my mother, Tina (Eidse) Loewen, it still contained various medicine bottles including pills for fever and a liquid given to women so that they would not hemorrhage, ties for the umbilical cords, a soft white cotton cloth cut to be a sling, several steel instruments for bladder problems, and a needle and thread.

Helena Eidse often had to improvise with material at hand and sewed her own bandages since band-aids were not available. They were made from cotton cloth cut into strips, pre-sewn to wrap around certain fingers and they had tails that you tied around the rest of your hand. She not only used medicines on other but also was the community salesperson for rubbing alcohol, Wonder oil, Lydia E. Pinkham's Tonic (for women), and all the German imports such as Schlachwasser, Alpenkreuter and Magensterker. Most of the community knew about and used Mrs. Eidse's imported fever pills which were actually quinine tablets in both children's and adult's doses. Typically her bag would contain a thermometer, two scissors (one to cut the umbilical cord), sulfur powder, sterile olive oil, a large bottle of rubbing alcohol, small pieces of wood for finger-splints, Castoria(a colic remedy for children), Home-made Cotton Balls, Vicks Rub, Red Linament, Rawleighs or Watkins lotion, Anti-pain oil, a jar of Goose-grease and the fever pills.

She used the sterile olive oil to oil the birth passage to make delivery easier. Splinters were removed by applying warm tar while boils were treated with a flaxseed poultice and beargrease and then lanced. A unique, highly effective treatment for tonsillitis was to form a paper cone, drop some sulfur into it and blow it directly onto the sore tonsils. She would use Zipplefie (Aloe Vera) on burns. If people were in severe pain, Helena would use her Schnall which was a pricking device that served as a nerve stimulant to ease pain. It was a form of acupuncture.

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