Mennonite Heritage Village

When Mennonites Helped Build the Prototype of a Warship

By Gary Dyck

It seems everyone is going to the park this summer. Many of you know that during the Great Wars, Mennonite Conscientious Objectors (C.O.s) helped with the development of several parks including the National Riding Mountain park, where they built roads, brought in the sand for the beach, cleared off infested trees, sawed lumber, and established campgrounds. In 1943 they provided 80,000 days worth of labour. What you might not know is that Mennonite C.O.s also helped with the construction of a bizarre warship prototype in Jasper.

As Bill Waiser shares in his book Park Prisoners: “In the fall of 1942, British inventor Geoffrey Pyke concocted a scheme to fashion a fleet of indestructible warships from “pykrete,” a mixture of ice and wood chips. The idea would undoubtedly have been scorned if not for the fact that Nazi U-boats were wreaking havoc on Allied shipping. The British were desperate, and pykrete seemed to offer hope…it was decided to build a small ice prototype in Canada. This work was secretly carried out in the early new year on secluded Patricia Lake in Jasper by an unsuspecting group of conscientious objectors. According to Abe Dick, who worked on the project for a few weeks, they cut blocks of ice from the lake and then fit them into a wood-framed structure with four-foot-wide walls that men suspected was a barge. The model was kept frozen over the ensuing summer, but the scheme was ultimately deemed unrealistic and quietly shelved. It was not until contacted by the author almost fifty years later, in fact, that Dick finally learned what he was doing on Patricia Lake that February-and more important, how his principles had been violated in the name of science.”

The new ‘Mennonites at War’ exhibit at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) covers a variety of topics regarding Mennonites and war. From the early Anabaptist peace journey, to the Conscience Objectors in the Great Wars, to those Mennonites who participated in greater numbers in World War Two, and finally to Mennonite migrations due to war and violence.

Like all people, Mennonites must try to do what is right and noble. Sometimes the results will be good. Other times the complicated aspects of our world prevent the output to be as good as the input. From frustration to adaptation, we can emerge again from the hard issues and situations that surround us and become a little better yet. Five hundred years ago, many Anabaptists called for an end to violence. While they have kept wrestling with the ‘way of peace’, more and more of the world has come alongside that desire for peace. Come and learn more at MHV’s ‘Mennonites at War’ exhibit!

Oh, and if you want to see the original sawmill that the C.O.s used at Riding Mountain still in action, visit our grounds on Demonstration Saturdays. Every Saturday in August, there will be a variety of activities and fresh waffles to eat. Be sure to check our website for a full list of activities and times.

Photo caption: With a base of ice and wood it was hoped that a new kind of warship could overcome Nazi U-boats.

Upcoming Events

  • MHV grounds and galleries (including the new ‘Mennonites at War’ exhibit) are now open seven days a week to those that are fully vaccinated (see Manitoba Health Order July 17). ‘Demonstration Days’ are every Saturday. Come see a variety of heritage skills in action, eat our famous waffles with vanilla sauce and have a wagon ride with the kids.
  • Village Books & Gifts is open seven days a week to all!
  • Livery Barn Restaurant open Thursday to Sunday starting at 11am for lunch. Dine-in, patio or take-out are all available even for those not yet fully vaccinated.
  • Mennonites at War Speaker Series, August 17, 7:30 p.m. Dr. Ben Nobbs-Thiessen will be presenting “On the Frontlines of the Chaco War (1932-35): Locating Mennonite Settlers Amid Twentieth Century Latin America’s Largest Interstate Conflict” in this online event. Register on our website: