How a young German homesteader stuck it out on the north shore

Joe McWilliams

Lakeside Leader

Reinhold Eben-Ebenau had no particular plans to put down roots on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake. The young German immigrant from East Prussia arrived in town in June of 1930.

Eben-Ebenau in 1958.

He was a year into the big adventure of his life, having arrived in Halifax just in time for the start of the Great Depression. So far, he hadn’t exactly found streets paved with gold. He had found work here and there – hard work at very low rates of pay. He kept moving west, hopping freights like other hobos and sleeping rough. One of those unapproved train rides dropped him at the hamlet of Slave Lake. Or rather at the siding called Slave Lake. The town was a mile or two away, on the river. It was raining hard, and had been for some time. The town when he got there (courtesy of an offered wagon ride from the station) was close to being underwater.

This is the picture painted by Reinhold’s son Roland, who operates a bison ranch and bed and breakfast business on the land his father homesteaded in 1930.

‘Northshore Eben,’ as he became known, locally, was 25 years old  when he arrived in Slave Lake. He’d left his home and family in East Prussia in the waning days of the 1920s. Germany was in turmoil at the time. Political violence was on the rise. Communists and fascists battled in the streets, and governments seemed incapable of solving problems or surviving. Right next door, the shiny new Bolshevik regime in Russia was stirring up trouble and inspiring communist movements in other countries. The family’s fortunes had declined in the aftermath of the First World War. And Reinhold did not like the politics.

Reinhold and his brother Alfred Eben, showing off some of their trapping success.

“He talked of being dragged into political rallies,” Roland says. “It turned his stomach.”

Reinhold had an education as a forest and wildlife manager. One of seven siblings, his father had died in the 1920s and the family was somewhat “adrift,” Roland says.

“He was a wilderness guy at heart. The wilds of northwestern Canada seemed attractive.”

So off he went, first doing odd jobs in Montreal, then spending the winter months in logging or sawmill camp in Northern Ontario. It could have, but didn’t, cure him of his romantic notions of the Canadian wilderness. But it certainly didn’t get him much closer to his goal. His wage was a dollar a day, with half that amount taken right off the top for room and board, plus what was taken off for the sleigh ride in (and out). His wages netted out at $2.50 a week. He got out of there as soon as he could, heading west.

A young Reinhold Eben-Ebenau.

Reinhold spent his first night in Slave Lake in a tent on a platform on stilts to keep it out of the water. His hosts were the von Koch brothers, Gerhard and Walter. He didn’t know them, but there was some family connection. Herman Mueller was his companion in the tent.

Slave Lake in early summer 1930 wasn’t much to look at. But Reinhold must have liked the lay of the land. The lake, of course would have been as impressive then as it is now, with the “bold appearance,” noted by fur trade explorer David Thompson back in 1798. Urged by the von Kochs – and possibly others – to file for a homestead, Reinhold hiked north along the lakeshore, following the wagon trail. Several miles along, he found a dry spot well above the lake level at a point, and staked his claim. The terms were irresistible. Ten dollars for a quarter section, and all you had to do was build a house and clear five acres and get something growing in it. If you did that within five years, the title was yours.

Marie Luise Eben-Ebenau engaged in some outdoor canning.

Reinhold got to work. He had little or no money in those first couple of years. He swapped labour with neighbouring homesteaders to get logs skidded and buildings built. He decided early on he wasn’t going to make a living as a farmer. Trapping was the way to make some cash, and Reinhold went all in. Of course a lot of people were doing the same thing.

“The only line he could get was over the hills south of Slave Lake,” Roland says. “Thirty kilometres walking.”

Reinhold would load up his packsack, walk to town and perhaps pick up more supplies and then hike south to his trapping cabin in the Swan Hills. There he’d spend several weeks each winter, carrying out his furs in the spring.

“You could make a living at it,” Roland says.

Speaking of the neighbours, when Reinhold showed up on the scene, there were quite a few people on the scene with homesteads north of Slave Lake.

Reinhold visiting Bella Twin and Dave Auger at their Rabbit Hill residence near Slave Lake. On the left and right are Reinhold’s children Mary Anne and Roland.

“There were lots of people along here,” Roland says. “Germans, Swiss, Austrians. Dad was a latecomer.”

The difference is that he stuck it out, whereas the others all gave up on homesteading. Achenreiner, Bulsheit, Kreutzer, McDonald (and others) – all moved on to other places and other things.

“He was stubborn,” Roland says.

One thing the Eben-Ebenau homestead had that a lot of the others didn’t was freedom from flooding. On the other hand, there was no decent road to town. And even what road there was would be inundated at times of the year. That was a real drawback, but Reinhold was undeterred. He kept plugging a way.

Construction of the big house begins, circa 1932.

In 1932 or thereabouts, he commenced construction of the big house that still stands, using logs he’d set aside for the purpose. There are lots of photos of the process, since Reinhold was fond of recording his life highlights with his ‘folding’ camera. Within one summer – with the help of three or four other men – he had the structure closed in. Work on the interior continued for several seasons following.

The Eben-Ebenau house in the 1940s.

The house is built in the style of those in East Prussia where Reinhold grew up, right down to the fancy wood structure surrounding the fireplace. That room is now one of several suites for rent in the old house. Outside, off to the side so as to not interfere with the lake view is a linden tree Reinhold planted – further to recreate the atmosphere of his German home. He only returned there once, Roland says, in 1934. He thinks his dad probably preferred – and was maybe better off – knowing the East Prussia of his youth, rather than whatever the modern country turned into. East Prussia, of course, has been a Russian province since 1945. The Eben family – along with 2.5 million East Prussian Germans – lost everything due to the Second World War.

The big house, as it appeared in the spring of 2021. It is now a bed and breakfast operation, with suites for rent.

Reinhold’s younger brother Alfred Eben joined him in the Slave Lake area a few years later. He purchased land just north of town (the airport is now on part of it) and became the patriarch of another Canadian branch of the family, many of whom still live in or around Slave Lake. That could be the subject of a separate story. In fact it already has been, as written by Hilda Eben for Pioneers of the Lakeland, the Slave Lake history book. For some reason, Reinhold’s story did not make it into that book. Roland figures his dad was likely too busy, or perhaps not interested – or maybe just out of touch out in the bush, which is where he preferred to spend his time.

Roland says his dad put an old butter tin on the table, into which the travelers would put some coins by way of compensation.

Reinhold’s place was right next to the wagon road between Slave Lake and Wabasca. When he found a lot of people on their way back to Wabasca were showing up late in the day (being late getting out of town on their return trip), Reinhold built a barn and a bunkhouse for them to stay in and provided hay for their horses. It became a regular stopping place on the route, which usually took three days and two nights.

“The bunkhouse is now one of my cabins,” he says. “I rebuilt that barn, too.”

Reinhold had made a point of becoming a Canadian citizen before the war. But that didn’t stop the authorities from regarding him as a person whose loyalties were suspect, once hostilities commenced in Europe in 1939. The RCMP duly showed up at the homestead. The officer probably knew Reinhold and appreciated how ridiculous the situation was. He apologized, but did what he had to do, which was put him under ‘house arrest’ and confiscate his guns. But only the ones Reinhold gave him.

“I think that’s sort of how it went,” Roland says.

Reinhold Eben-Ebenau with the skull of one of two record grizzlies shot in the Swan Hills in the 1950s.

Kinuso was the ‘big town’ in the area in those days. Anti-German sentiment was strong there and Reinhold took his lumps when he had to visit.

“He didn’t dwell on it,” Roland says, but it likely resulted in him “spending even more time in the bush.”

For whatever reason, Reinhold’s first marriage – to public health nurse Barbara Whittaker – didn’t work out. It produced two children, Rosamund and Bill.

In the 1950s, along came Marie Luise, Roland’s mom. She was part of what Roland calls “a wave of immigrants” from Germany escaping the post-war hardships. In her case, times were especially hard, because her family had suffered terribly in its flight from the advancing Russians in the waning weeks of the war. Marie Luise lived in Vancouver for a time.

“She was interested in hunting,” Roland says. Eventually, somebody who knew somebody else told her, “you should go up and visit this guy.”

‘This guy’ was Reinhold, who by then had a well-established guiding and outfitting business, with some renown in Germany thanks to a book he’d written that was published there. A couple of months each fall he’d guide hunters – most of them well-to-do Germans – on horseback excursions into the mountains west and south of Grande Prairie. Maria Luise joined up as a cook, initially. But she became a guide in her own right, Roland says. She and Reinhold shared a love of the lifestyle, got married, had two kids and spent the non-hunting seasons on the North Shore homestead.

“She died too young,” Roland says, in 1994.

The Eben-Ebenau ‘museum’ with its notable collection of horns, skulls, cars and other items.

Besides being a hunter, trapper and homesteader, Reinhold was an avid collector and recorder with a scientific appreciation for detail and a historian’s view of the value of records and artifacts. His collection of animal skulls and skeletons became so large a separate building was constructed to house them. This is now what is called ‘the museum,’ which is a highlight for many people visiting the area. Among other things, it features a couple of record grizzly bear skulls. One was shot by Reinhold; the other, is the famous Bella Twin grizzly.

Her husband followed her three years later, age 92.

The big house is itself a museum piece, there being nothing quite like it in the region. It’s still in good shape, and, as noted, has been converted in recent years into rooms for rent.