If Isabella had a mayor, or a queen, doubtless Bernice Still would be that person. But in reality, she’s a woman with a broad vision, a Prairie historian. The hamlet of Isabella is the canvas for some 40 years of work that has preserved homesteader roots.
The fruit of her labour has now been captured in a documentary of the Isabella Museum entitled Preserving the Past for the Future.
Bernice is also promoting a set of historical novels written by Robert Bell, a native of the Blaris district, just a few miles south of Isabella.
Reflecting upon what motivates her tireless work as a history keeper she talks about the pioneers’ struggles, creativity and triumphs.
“I think it’s how the people adapted, to live their lives. They invented so many things that helped them out… improvising.
“What some of them put up with when they first came out here, getting lost in storms. Not seeing anyone for stretches of time.
“My grandmother, when she came up here first in 1908, she didn’t see anybody for a whole summer; of course, she had her family (children),” she said, likening it to the isolating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was do or die in those days and Bernice’s grandfather was working hard, transitioning from the farm where they lived while working the place they would move to. His wife was raising their three children in a small house, with no running water or electricity.
Bernice Still’s love of history surfaced as she amassed a collection of commemorative plates in the farm home where she and husband Ray lived.
By 1983, the couple had three grown boys and Ray’s health was giving out, so Bernice and Ray made the move to a mobile home in Isabella and that’s when her plate collection spurred change and seeded what would become one of Isabella’s five museum buildings.
“When we moved into town, I had been collecting plates, out at the farm. We had enough to go around the kitchen on a plate rail.
“Leaving three boys on the farm, I didn’t think the plates would last very long. When we moved here in ’83, well, I owned that house anyway,” she says of the museum house about a block away called the MWDS house. “We fixed up a plate room, and [the collection] grew, and it grew.
“Most of the stuff has been donated. And it’s still happening!”
Her own history
Bernice was born to the Dorn family in the Isabella area where they rode out the dirty 30s. She marvels how a move to an acreage in the Okanagan Valley near Kelowna could have changed the course of her own story. But family ties beckoned them back.
“And then, Grandpa and Grandma decided they wanted Dad to take over the home farm.” He was the eldest son, married with a family. It made sense and when she was 10, after just three years in B.C., they returned.
That farm five miles from Isabella, stayed in the Dorn family, now farmed by her nephew.
Right out of Gr. 11, Still became a teacher at a one-room school between Austin and Gladstone. “I taught school for a year, on permit. They were short of teachers.”
The next year she took a four-month agriculture and homemaking course, held in what had been Brandon’s Normal School, before moving to Hamiota. There she worked as a telephone operator for several years before marrying the Isabella farmer, Raymond Still.
After a short stay with Ray’s parents the couple bought a house in Isabella. They were caretakers of the Isabella rink, but were seeking a farm of their own. Within a few years Ray and Bernice purchased property a few miles from Isabella, where one of their sons still farms today.
While farming, Bernice became Isabella’s Post Master in 1970. In 1981, Stills took over Isabella’s store, which Bernice operated for 13 years. The store was to become a comprehensive museum display, holding everything from the smallest of store items, to a huge printing press for history buffs to enjoy.
Upstairs is a fascinating miniature town of Isabella, meticulously constructed by Bernice.
During those busy family years, raising four boys, Bernice drove a five-mile school bus feeder route. With her station wagon (known as a school van), she picked up nine kids, to meet the big school bus.
Their lives were kept busy, “running with boys with hockey.” They had their four boys in five years, which meant that some years two boys played on the same hockey team.
Bernice loves sports.“I played ball all my life and coached. We had the Isabella Rockets and the Isabella Blues. It was just a league between Virden, here, Miniota and Foxwarren. Scarth sometimes. Birtle, Shoal Lake and Isabella also had teams.
“Every year we played,” she laughs, “but it was the same people.”
Bernice Still is pleased to continue her work promoting Isabella Museum, which now belongs to an organization, a board that includes family, friends and neighbours. They have helped with everything from spring cleaning to guided tours on the first Sunday of July – Isabella’s Museum Day – and in 2020 the creation of the DVD documentary.
“Preserving the Past for the Future”, produced by Ron and Brenda Samchuk of Birtle, is a professional production that Bernice is very pleased with. She sells the DVDs as museum fund raisers and hopes to attract future visitors to Isabella Museum.
She has accumulated a library of 400 books, remarkable because it’s a library of almost every history book in Manitoba.
Although she’s moved a few times in her life, she’s right at home, in the middle of Isabella, with sons very nearby who come for dinners and help with things like snow ploughing.