A Tale of Two Chairs

From Russia, with love, and a gold ring for a future bride 


It is a tale with a Russian’s gold ring (traded for flour), a story of surviving through desperate years of famine, of journeying across the Atlantic – and of two remarkable chairs that later shift throughout a family’s history – finally ending up here in Killarney.

For violinist Gertie Martens, the story of her family’s migration, and of the two delicate wooden chairs that sit today in her Park Street living room, the tale is an incredible one.

“My grandfather, Peter Klassen, was born in Tiegerweide, Molotschna, in Russia,” said Martens, 78. “It was 1882. And when he was five, he was orphaned. But his mother had a sister, and she and her husband raised him. He had to take care of the sheep, and he had a dog that he loved. He was a shepherd during his life with them.”

But his life included more than the task of caring for the flock.

“His stepmother gave him a violin, and he learned to play,” said Martens. “And he fell in love with the girl next door, Anna Warkentin, a Quaker, who he eventually married.”

Her grandfather also went to university, and earned his teaching certificate in 1888, said Martens. A year later he married Anna.

“They moved to the peninsula of Crimea, next to the Black Sea,” she said. “He taught in Spat during World War 1. But it was only part time, so he opened a music store, in the second storey of their house. They eventually had 13 children, and my dad was one of them – number eight.”

But it soon became difficult to feed this big family, or even survive.

“There was a famine just after the First World War,” said Martens. “There was no food. So in 1924 his older brother and two older sisters came to Canada. The brother went to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and one sister went to Coldale, Alberta, and the other one to Waterloo, Ontario. Another brother, a soldier, went to London, Ontario. Meanwhile, the famine got even worse in Russia. So two years later, in 1926, the parents left too, with the seven remaining children, including my dad. Two of their children had died before.”

But her father, John Klassen, had sailed away with his family with a long-time love pounding in his chest, and a vibrant gold ring burning a hole in his pocket.

“Before they left, from Spat, my dad had a girlfriend,” said Martens. “He had had his eye on her since she was five years old. He was eight, she was five, and he met her at her mother’s funeral, during the famine years, and it was love at first sight. Her name was Gertrude Wall, and she had been his girlfriend since then.”

Her father was employed at a mill during those hard years, and was still unmarried. 

But events were about to swerve him towards a distant altar.

“Dad worked in a flour mill, and some wealthy Russians came to barter for the flour, using gold rings,” said Martens. “My dad took a gold ring, in exchange for flour, and that ring eventually became the wedding band. He was 24. But he wasn’t even engaged yet. He’s going to sail across the ocean, so they get engaged, and they make plans to meet in Waterloo, and get married there. The family sails, on October 25, 1925. And a month later she sails to Canada too, with her whole family, to Halifax, and then Montreal by train, and then by train to Waterloo. And there they all are, and they plan a wedding for August 15, 1926.”

And this is where the tale of the two chairs begins.

“The marriage was to take place in a hall,” said Martens. “The kids were getting married, but there weren’t enough chairs in this hall. So Grandpa Peter and Grandma Anna decided to buy two new chairs for themselves – which they could also use for the wedding. Uncle Dave was working at Snyder Furniture, so it is possible that the chairs were made there. They had leather covers added to the seats, so the wedding dress wouldn’t catch on the wood.”

The family then walked the several blocks to the hall, carrying the new chairs with them.

“It wasn’t a church service; they were Mennonite, so two ministers married them,” said Martens. “It was at 7 p.m., and that was the first time the chairs were used, by my parents, the bride and groom. And that was also when he placed the Russian’s gold ring on her finger.”

After the wedding, the chairs were picked up again, and carried back home to her grandparents’ house, said Martens. 

But circumstances soon changed again, and Peter and Anna were to move their location yet again, this time to Alberta. 

“My grandparents moved to Coldale, Alberta, to help their daughter and son-in-law, who were farming there, growing sugarbeets,” said Martens. “She had her family to take care of, and too much work. So they got there, but my Grandpa, who was born in 1862, died in 1930. So then Grandma decided to return to Waterloo, and these two chairs were sold, along with her household goods, at an auction in Coldale. She goes back to Waterloo in 1933.”

In the meantime, Martens’ mother and father are offered a quarter section of land in Culross, Manitoba, if they agree to farm with Gertrude’s father. 

They go, and they work hard there, but they lose the quarter section, and go bankrupt. It’s the dirty ‘30s, and times were dicey, said Martens. 

But they don’t give up.

“They rent a farm for a while, near Portage, and they get back on their feet,” she said. “They make money, enough to buy a new farm. My mom and dad buy a beautiful place on the Assiniboine River, near Poplar Point, in 1948. By this time there are six of us children. I was seven years old. It was so exciting, because we didn’t have Hydro at the other farm, and now we did. It was a huge house, like a castle. It was just this lovely farm, and it even had a grain elevator.”

In 1949 her father, now a delegate with the Mennonite Brethren Church, attends a church conference in Coldale, Alberta. He is billeted in someone’s home there for the duration, when the unimaginable happens.

“He walks into the home, and he sees two chairs, with leather still on the seats, the same ones from his wedding that he had sat on,” said Martens. “What were the chances that he would be in that house? He told his host the story, and two months later, he’s back home, and there’s a big parcel at the post office for him. He knew that it must be the chairs. There’s a letter inside, saying that it is a gift from the couple he billeted with, because of his story. They wanted my mom and dad to have the chairs.”

In 1951, her parents celebrated their 25th anniversary, said Martens.

“They had a party in the brand new machine shed, at the farm,” she said. “And my parents sat in the chairs. In 1954, their oldest son, my brother Art, he gets married, and they used the chairs for the couple. In 1971, my parents, John and Gertrude, had their 45th anniversary in Winnipeg, and there they were, in the chairs. It had become a family tradition. We have been using the two chairs for all the family anniversaries, for weddings; they have been used many times since that day my grandparents carried them down the street, from 32 Elgin Street, in Waterloo, Ontario, to the hall on King Street.”

The next appointment coming up for the two lovely chairs is for Martens’ grandson Ben Kroeker, who is marrying Kelsey Miller.

“They are getting married in Puerta Vallarta, in Mexico, but they are having a shower in the morning, and a social in the evening, in Wawanesa on October 19,” said Martens. “On that night they will be the 26th couple to use the chairs. I think it’s amazing.”

Often the family has to ship the chairs, in order to make the special dates, across the country, she added.

“They go back and forth, between Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, and Ontario,” said Martens. “I have become the keeper of the chairs. Sometimes it can cost hundreds of dollars to ship them. The last trip they came from Ontario, and luckily someone was able to drop them off here for us.”

And what about the wealthy Russian’s ring?

“It was passed on to me in 1988, after I lost first my mother, and then my sister,” said Martens. “I have worn it all the time since then, on my third finger, of my left hand. And it still bears the inscription of my parent’s names inside.”

THE KEEPER OF THE CHAIRS – Gertie Martens with the family’s two heirloom chairs, which were lost and found, and miraculously returned – over nearly a century. They were purchased in 1926 by her grandparents, Peter and Anna, (shown in the photo album, taken in the late 1800s), and first sat upon at her parent’s wedding. The chairs continue to be part of family events today. Her mother Gertrude Klassen added the embroidered seat covers. And Gertie still wears the wealthy Russian’s gold ring on her left hand.

STILL ON THE LOVESEATS – John and Gertrude Klassen, holding hands on the heirloom chairs, at their 45thanniversary celebration in Winnipeg in 1971. The chairs’ next appointment will be at the upcoming social for Gertie Martens’ grandson Ben Kroeker and bride-to-be Kelsey Miller, on October 19 in Wawanesa.