K. H. Neufeld
The Winkler Festival of the Arts
In the year 2007, the Winkler Festival of the Arts celebrated 75 years of festival activity in Winkler. As well as being one of the oldest festivals in Manitoba, it can also claim to have been part of a festival that was once, the second largest festival in Manitoba, in the whole British Empire, in fact. Only the Winnipeg Festival was larger.
Over the years, it has undergone several name changes, has been sponsored, in turn, by the Winkler Teachers' Local, the Winkler Male Voice Choir, the Canadian Legion in Morden, and various groups of community volunteers, and has drawn competitors from Winkler, Morden, Altona, and surrounding communities - Gretna, Darlingford, Lowe Farm, Letellier, St. Pierre... with entries coming as far away as Steinbach and Teulon, in its glory days.
Many people helped to bring the Winkler Festival into being. In particular, it appears the festival came about mainly because of the work and inspiration of K. H. Neufeld, who frequently almost single-handedly organized festival events. He rented halls and hired adjudicators, he selected test pieces, and as an editor and printer, he printed the annual festival syllabus.
However, in the beginning, it wasn't a festival at all. It was a Music Night, held in conjunction with Education Week. The first Music Night was held in November, 1930, with members of the Winkler Teachers' Local in charge. That first Music Night was for performance only. It took several more years before it emerged as an adjudicated event. The first adjudicated event took place on October 19, 1933 and featured fifteen musical items.
The first competitive festival took place on October 19, 1934 with 29 entries coming from eight communities. Following the success of that festival, plans were made to hold a musical festival the following spring. This is the first time the festival was held as a separate event.
In 1937, the festival was held in Morden, sponsored by the Legion. Three sessions with 70 entries were held at the Morden United Church, with a Friday evening concert featuring finalists from these sessions. From 1938 - 1943, the festival, now the Southern Manitoba Musical Competition Festival, was organized and sponsored by the Winkler Male Voice Choir, under the leadership of K. H. Neufeld. By 1940, there were over one hundred entries and four trophies were awarded.
Location appears to have dogged the footsteps of the festival relentlessly. Competitions were held in local churches. However, sometimes, the festival, or rather, the adjudicators, ran afoul of the sense of propriety of church members, and organizers were left scrambling to find other locations.
However, the festival continued to grow. Locations were added, with sessions being held in local churches and the Winkler and Altona schools in 1946. In those years, the final concerts were very popular events, with people often being turned away at the door. Finding a space large enough became a problem. In 1946, the final concert was held in the new showroom of Kroeker's garage, with the large double doors thrown open and extra chairs placed outside in the parking lot. Because these final concerts provided the committee with their main source of revenue, they were anxious not to lose a single patron.
In 1944, entries totalled 124. By 1947, they had increased to 313, then doubled again to over 600 entries in 1951, and doubled again in 1958 to 1,224 entries.
In 1951, the Winkler Sports Arena was used for four and a half days of sessions, with the Agricultural Hall seating an audience of 600 people at the final concert. In 1953, no facility was found in Winkler. Sessions were held in Morden in the still uncompleted new school auditorium, with seating for 300, and the final concert in Altona.
In 1954, Winkler's new school auditorium was completed, and the final concert was held in this auditorium, which seated approximately 800 people. With these new school gyms now available, sessions were held simultaneously at these three locations, with final trophy nights being held at each of these centres.
These years of expansion continued until the middle '60s. From the mid-sixties until 1975, the festival organization experienced struggles, changes, and much did soul-searching, which eventually led to the disbanding of the Southern Manitoba Music Festival, and the reorganization of separate festival boards in the three centres, all of which is still in existence today.
However, the Winkler festival is experiencing perhaps the greatest irony of all. According to long-time president and strong festival mainstay Linda Enns, finances, which were so much the problem in the early years, are not the problem. The problem can be condesed to one word: volunteers. Or rather, lack of them.
"We are on a good footing with regards to finances, but we only have two sections left, the vocal and piano sections," she said in a recent telephone conversation. "We had to close the band and instrumental sections down, as well as the speech section, because we have no one to run them."
And perhaps that rumble heard throughout the community earlier this spring was not thunder after all. Perhaps it was K. H. Neufeld, turning restlessly around in his grave, because 'his' festival is in serious jeopardy.
By Ellie Reimer, with files from Viola Hoeppner
As published in 'Heritage Happenings'