Mary and John Streets, June 2013

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mary-Allen Beginnings, Part I

In Waterloo Region, the story has often been told of how a group of Pennsylvania Mennonites bought a 60,000-acre tract of land on the Grand River that today contains much of the Kitchener-Waterloo urban footprint.

In 1806 two of these Mennonites, Abraham and Magdalena Erb, came north to take up their land purchase: hundreds of acres that would eventually become the site of the Waterloo city core. 

Click to enlarge.
Erb-Kumpf House in 2012.  The rear portion was built c. 1812 by the Abraham and Magdalena Erb family.  

Within ten years Abraham had built a sawmill and gristmill on Beaver (Laurel) Creek, and the Erbs had established Waterloo's first settler homestead.  Today, the former mill site lies along King Street, between the freight rail tracks and Erb Street, while the c. 1812 Erb home still stands as the rear section of the landmark Erb-Kumpf House at King and George Streets in the Mary-Allen neighbourhood.  The original front of the home faced north, towards the mill.

Fifty years later, to the north of Erb’s mill and today’s Erb Street, a small village had grown along the Great Road (King Street).  But the Erbs’ vast acreage south of the mill had remained undeveloped by the mid-1800s, even though it had changed hands when the Sniders, another Mennonite family, acquired the Erb mill, house and land in 1829. 

Click to enlarge.  
A sketch of the village of Waterloo from a c. 1853 map of the neighbouring village of Berlin.  This is a view looking north along King Street, towards the junction with Erb Street.  The Erb/Snider mill complex occupies the left side of the sketch.  Laurel Creek is seen passing beneath King Street.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Historical Society Collection, Kitchener Public Library, Grace Schmidt Room of Local History.

It was only after the Sniders finally sold the land that the village of Waterloo began to grow more quickly.  The way it happened makes for a good story…

By the mid-1800s, non-Mennonites – especially skilled tradesmen, merchants and farmers from the British Isles and German-speaking Europe – were streaming into Waterloo County, and would eventually help transform sleepy villages like Waterloo into busy towns. 

But by about 1850 the village of Waterloo, which included a hotel, Lutheran Church, general store, blacksmith, post office and several breweries, was home to little more than 200 people.  Berlin (Kitchener), just a short trip down King Street, was much larger, with a population of nearly 800.  Preston was larger still, with about 1,100 inhabitants, making it the largest village in Waterloo County.

One of the reasons Waterloo had remained small was the reluctance of Mennonite families like the Erbs and Sniders to subdivide their land; the Mennonite settlers were not primarily town builders.  Even so, by the 1830s the Sniders had begun to sell a few small lots to non-Mennonite newcomers, and the beginnings of a village with homes and businesses slowly began to take shape.

Enter John Hoffman, Berlin furniture manufacturer and one-time miller.  Hoffman was eager to buy, divide and sell the somewhat wet land that lay to the south of Jacob Snider’s Waterloo mill. 

Hoffman saw his opportunity when Snider sold the mill and adjacent land to his son Elias in 1853.  Although at first Elias Snider refused Hoffman’s appeals to buy the 300-plus acres of mostly undeveloped land (centered around King Street, between today’s Erb and Pine Streets), he relented the following year, keeping the mill but offering the land to John Hoffman and Hoffman’s son-in-law, Isaac Weaver, for $37,500.

The Snider/Hoffman sale would lay the groundwork for what was likely the first “building boom” in Waterloo, and would also lead to the creation of the first house-sized lots in today’s Mary-Allen neighbourhood. 

Hoffman set to work immediately.  In 1855 the Sniders moved to a farm north of Waterloo, and the Hoffmans moved into the old Snider house (mentioned above).  The land was then surveyed, divided, drawn up onto a tidy map, and auctioned off. 

Click to enlarge.
Part of the 1855 Hoffman Survey of Waterloo.  Buildings in the village are concentrated to the north of Erb Street.  Hoffman’s house, today’s Erb-Kumpf House, is clearly indicated along King Street.  Note the area labelled "orchard" behind the house, and note that Allen and George Streets are not present.  Image courtesy of the City of Waterloo Museum, 2004.14.1

One account of the auction sale described how it was conducted from the back of an oxcart pulled from lot to lot, laden with complimentary food and drink for the bidders. 

The effects of the Hoffman survey and sale, though modest in scale, were immediate.  And although the number of new lots created by the subdivision proved larger than the demand, and many would sit undeveloped for decades, by 1856 Waterloo doubled in population to about 500 residents and spread south onto John Hoffman’s survey lands.  New shops and small factories were set up, houses were built, and the village grew steadily on.

Note: some of this article is adapted from a booklet I prepared for Bob and Margaret Nally about their house, 189 Mary Street, in 2005.  It was re-worked and reproduced here with their kind permission.

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