Jake Siemens
Jacob John Siemens (May 23, 1896 – July 12, 1963), was a Canadian farmer, co-operative leader, social entrepreneur, and adult educator. Born and raised a Mennonite
The Mennonites are a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after the Frisian Menno Simons , who, through his writings, articulated and thereby formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders...

 near Altona, Manitoba
Altona, Manitoba
Altona is a predominantly Mennonite town in southern Manitoba about 100 km south-west of Winnipeg and 133 km north of Grand Forks, North Dakota. It is surrounded by the Rural Municipality of Rhineland. Much of the surrounding area is devoted to farming and agriculture-based business. Its...

, Siemens taught for 10 years before taking over the family farm in 1929. With the onset of the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

 he played a key role in the emergence of the dynamic co-operative movement in southern Manitoba. Since he understood his work as an expression of Christian love, it ignited controversy within the Mennonite community. In his later years he left the Mennonite community and moved to Winnipeg, where he ran for office as a candidate for the New Democratic Party
New Democratic Party
The New Democratic Party , commonly referred to as the NDP, is a federal social-democratic political party in Canada. The interim leader of the NDP is Nycole Turmel who was appointed to the position due to the illness of Jack Layton, who died on August 22, 2011. The provincial wings of the NDP in...

. On his death in 1963 he was buried at a Unitarian church.

Community self-help

By 1931 the farming communities around Altona and Winkler, Manitoba
Winkler, Manitoba
Winkler is a small city with a population of about 9,900 located in southern Manitoba, Canada in the Rural Municipality of Stanley...

 were in crisis. As a result of the extreme financial pressures of the times, only 159 of the 1,240 farmers in Rhineland district retained clear title to their land. That year Siemens helped organize, then served as vice-president of, the Rhineland Agricultural Society. The Society persuaded farmers to accept government extension services, organized agricultural fairs, and taught better practices through a quarterly journal.

The farmers faced an even more immediate need to reduce their costs for basic supplies like gas, oil, grease and binder twine. At Siemen's suggestion they organized the Rhineland Consumers' Co-operative in the same year, electing him president. The directors had to put their farms up as collateral for the $2,500 bank loan. But the co-operative succeeded, paying its first dividend in 1935. By 1939 it had 573 members.

The efforts of Siemens and his fellow co-operators were not appreciated by everyone. A Mennonite commentator observes that "[t]he Bergthal Mennonite leadership rejected his vision as too socialistic and insufficiently orthodox. The resulting pro- and anti-cooperative division in much of the area between Altona and Winkler influenced both church and community very negatively." Peter Reimer, an ardent co-operator who published the Rhineland Agricultural Society's quarterly journal, was forced out of his position as a local school teacher in 1934. Two years later he died, at 51, due to a recurrence of tuberculosis.

Study clubs and a co-operative college

Siemens continued catalyzing community action by helping groups to form study clubs similar to those that were organized by the Antigonish Movement
Antigonish Movement
The Antigonish Movement blended adult education, co-operatives, microfinance and rural community development to help small, resource-based communities around Canada’s Maritimes improve their economic and social circumstances. A group of priests and educators, including Father Jimmy Tompkins, Father...

 and Moses Coady
Moses Coady
Rev. Dr. Moses Michael Coady was a Roman Catholic priest, adult educator and co-operative entrepreneur best known for his instrumental role in the Antigonish Movement...

. And he was active in starting up the Winkler Co-op Creamery and the Altona Co-op Vegetable Oils. Beginning in 1941, Siemens also served as the first president of the Federation of Southern Manitoba Co-operatives.

In 1948 Siemens travelled to Denmark
Denmark is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. The countries of Denmark and Greenland, as well as the Faroe Islands, constitute the Kingdom of Denmark . It is the southernmost of the Nordic countries, southwest of Sweden and south of Norway, and bordered to the south by Germany. Denmark...

, where he visited the folk high school
Folk high school
Folk high schools are institutions for adult education that generally do not grant academic degrees, though certain courses might exist leading to that goal...

s. On his return he worked for the formation of a co-operative education centre in the Prairies, that would be capable of teaching the philosophical and technical aspects of co-operation, carrying out research, and granting degrees. This vision rallied many of the co-operative leader of the time, including Alexander Laidlaw, Barney Arnasson and Harry Fowler
Harry Fowler
Harry James Fowler, MBE is an English actor in film and TV. He started in juvenile roles, most notably in the first recognised Ealing Comedy Hue and Cry, made in 1947...

. When fellow co-operators agreed to the idea, Siemens offered 80 acres (323,748.8 m²) of his own land for the site.

The Western Co-operative College, which opened in Saskatoon in 1955, realized Siemens' educational vision. By the 1960s it was bringing together co-operators not only from the Prairies but from native communities in Arctic, and developing countries around the world.


There has never been a formal assessment of the impact of the southern Manitoba co-operative movement or of Siemen's work. However, healthy and economically dynamic rural communities are the main goal of rural co-operative action, and "one might observe that the Altona area remains relatively diversified (famous across the Prairies for sunflower seeds, sausages and printing, among other things), prosperous and populated."

Like many social entrepreneurs in Canada's early co-operative movement, Siemens strove to balance business with education. This remains a compelling challenge today.

External links

Esther Epp-Thiessen. "Altona: The Story of a Prairie Town" an on-line resource at Our Roots
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