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The Ukrainian Dug-Out Home

Ukrainian home near Vegreville, Alberta, 1906. Whether they were rich or poor, most Ukrainian immigrant families spent their first two, three or even more years in east central Alberta in a temporary dug-out dwelling most frequently referred to as a burdei or zemlianka. This type of dwelling, which was most common in east central Alberta prior to 1905, reflected a degree of continuity with traditional forms found in Ukrainian  architecture. From the earliest times right up the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dug-out dwellings had been used in specific contexts: "in isolated areas; as temporary shelters; and by the impoverished." During the nineteenth century industrialization and capitalism uprooted and impoverished many peasants. Consequently zemlianky were constructed by peasant seasonal workers engaged in the extraction of oil and mineral wax in the Drohobych-Boryslav region; by proletarians on the outskirts of Lviv; by shepherds, lumberjacks and rafts men in the Carpathians; and by poor peasants who could not obtain enough wood to build a more elaborate house. In Western Canada thousands of immigrants found themselves unsettled, poor and isolated. They responded by constructing zemlianky.

Bench – Handcrafted benches similar to this were common in homes of Ukrainian immigrants to East Central Alberta during the early 1900s. This reproduction bench is located in Grekul House at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. The most characteristic type of burdei or zemlianka was the slanted-roof pit-house. It consisted of an inverted "V"-roof framework atop a rectangular pit (usually 10 by 14 feet) dug .75 to 1.25 metres deep. The frame consisted of two vertical poplar posts and a longer horizontal cross-bar suspended about two metres above the interior floor. Thinner poplar rails were leaned from beyond both sides of the pit onto the cross-bar. A layer of tall prairie grass was spread over the roof rails, the base of the structure was fortified with earth and clay, and the roof was covered with a layer of sod placed grass upwards. A door of rough boards was located in the south gable to one side of the central post. The remainder of the south gable as well as the entire north gable were filled with a row of vertical poles and coated with several layers of mud plaster on the interior and the exterior. Small window were usually placed in the north and south gables.

This table is a reproduction of the original table used in the Grekul family home in East Central Alberta during the early 1900s. Today, this reproduction table is in the original location in the restored Grekul House at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. Inside, the floor and wall surfaces consisted of earth and clay. They were usually packed down firmly to produce a smooth, clean surface. The burdei was heated by a clay stove near the door or in the northern corner of the structure. A metal top surface, stove door and a chimney which passed through the roof were usually bought and added to the stove. Furniture consisted of a home-made rail bed covered by a layer of straw, a sheet and a woven blanket; a table made of rails and boards, wooden benches, tree stump seats, and a large wooden truck in which fine clothing, valuables and documents were kept. Small tools and implements were usually stored in the corner of the burdei nearest the door. Ploughs and yokes were kept outside near the animal shelter.

Trunk – Purchased around 1904, this trunk was used to store clothing and linens in the Hawreliak family home in East Central Alberta. It is now in the artifact collection at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. The burdei was usually built at the edge of a wooded area, not far from the boundary of the property and near a spring or creek if possible. Where they existed, hillside locations were preferred since it was easier to excavate a zemlianka on an incline. The terrain surrounding the structure was cleared of trees and brush, and firewood was piled nearby. A fire, used for cooking, burned in a pit a few metres from the structure during the summer. A vegetable garden was cleared and planted and a corral of woven sticks was made for the cow. If the family was wealthier and had already purchased more livestock a barn (stainia) was constructed for the animals. An acre or two of prairie was ploughed and seeded, a pit was dug for the garbage, and a well from which water was drawn up with a pail tied to a rope was excavated. Finally, a site was selected and cleared for a permanent house. Trees were felled, cleaned and hauled to the site.

A great deal of the work on the farmstead during this period was performed by the women and children since the adult males were away most of the time. Women and children frequently ploughed and cultivated an acre of land and then harvested the crops by hand, cutting, threshing and bagging the wheat, stacking the straw and cutting hay to provide fodder for the cow and oxen. They also planted and looked after the garden - "the most distinguishing characteristic of Ukrainian farming." The parsnips and corn grown in the gardens provided most families with their basic subsistence and enabled Ukrainian settlers to survive and prosper where others often failed. The grain that was produced during this period was consumed by the family and its livestock.

From Orest T. Martynowych The Ukrainian Bloc Settlement in East Central Alberta, 1890-1930: A History. Occasional Paper No. 10, 1985 (1990). Reprinted with permission from Alberta Community Development, Historical Resources Division.

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