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The Legacy of the 1820 Log Schoolhouse: Part 1

I am often asked about the 1820 log schoolhouse that sits prominently in the centre of Waterloo Park and although I usually tell its early story, I rarely get to share how or why it came here or what happened to it once it did. I would like to rectify that.

By the 1890’s, a number of factors had contributed to the schoolhouse’s ultimate move to Waterloo Park. Built originally by Mennonite settlers (at the bequest of founding father Abraham Erb) in 1820 as a school, it served its constituency well for the next 22 years. As the town settlement continued to develop, so too, did its population of schoolchildren. By 1842 it was deemed as being too small to accommodate the growing student enrolment as so it was sold and moved to its 2nd location (near present day KCI) where it served as a family dwelling for the Levi Carroll family. Upon the death of his wife Margaret in 1891, Levi and his remaining family members vacated the house and entered the House of Industry and Refuge. For the next 3 years, it stood vacant until the Waterloo Park Board purchased it in 1894 with the intent of preserving it. Original discussion had stalled regarding whether to demolish the building or not but Isaac Erb Bowman, a member of the Park Board of Management, strongly advocated to have the school moved, instead, to Waterloo Park (originally known as “West Side Park”) whereby, he argued, it could serve as a visible icon for the importance of education for the early settlers who built it as a “cultural link with the past”.

 

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The Schoolhouse in Waterloo Park, with the 700-year-old old growth oak stump to the left

 

The timing for the purchase of the former schoolhouse was particularly expedient. Barely a year before, on August 1, 1890, the Waterloo Board of Trade had met in council chambers with the expressed purpose of purchasing land in order to establish a public park. At this point, Waterloo did not have one, but their neighbours in Berlin had already established a lovely but small park (known aptly as “Town Park”) on Queen Street South almost 20 years earlier although it had not been developed nor was it regularly used by its citizens. Waterloo was determined to do better.

 

The Jacob Eby farm in Waterloo was the preferred choice for a location as it met all the requirements: it was centrally located, it lay beside a mill dam that would lend itself, upon reconstruction, to boating as a family leisure activity on Silver Lake, and there was an expanse of land that could potentially be converted into athletic grounds for various sports. A Park Board of Management was formed from existing Board of Trade members and in December 1890, the town of Waterloo, assisted by the Board of Trade, effectively purchased Jacob Eby’s 60 acre farm from his widow, Elizabeth, for the sum of $74.00 an acre.

 

The farm was initially considered to be an undeveloped and “rough-looking” expanse that sloped towards a man-made mill pond (the former 1816 grist mill pond of Abraham Erb and what we what we know today as Silver Lake). It was obvious that they had a great deal of work to do if they were to develop the former Eby farm fields into a leisure space. A park superintendent was hired (for a monthly salary of $30.00 per month) and was allowed to live in the Eby house with his family.

By the time the park opened in August 7, 1893 over 8,600 loads of earth had been moved from the east side to the hill and over 2, 000 trees were planted. In time, tennis courts, bicycle tracks and even an underground plumbing system were installed (for watering the expanse of lawns).

 

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The Log Schoolhouse, pictured in 2013

 

Following several years of hard construction and design work, West Side Park (Waterloo Park) officially opened in August 1893 — but it was not yet finished. Over time, many structures continued to be added to the park’s function and aesthetic. As we know, one of these structures was the 1820 log schoolhouse. By the turn of the 20th century, people with more free time, continued to visit the new Waterloo Park, both in search of pleasant leisure activities but also for its “attractions.” The park boasted bicycle tracks (cycling was as popular then as it is today), an athletic field, tennis courts, swimming in Silver Lake, extensive manicured gardens and even picnic facilities that included outdoor cookhouses. As early as 1905 there was also a zoo and the park continued to enchant those who visited it. Woldemar Neufeld, for example, a well-known local Mennonite artist who loved to paint the world around him, took an interest in the park as well as the school and painted a picture of one of the ever-popular toboggan runs or “glissoires” that were erected seasonally adjacent to the school throughout the 1920’s and well into the 1950’s. At one point, the schoolhouse was even a concession and ice cream stand for park visitors.

 

Over the first few years, the park and its attractions continued to grow—in quantity and diversity. Jacob Stroh, an early 20th century archaeologist and regional historian donated two aboriginal stones that he had found and placed them in front of the schoolhouse—both were grindstones but were used for different purposes. Stroh had discovered the first one at Gennies’ Springs, north of Conestoga, Ontario and surmised that it had been used to sharpen tomahawks and other stone implements. The second stone, having been found at Surarus Springs on the Huron Road (2 miles south of Mannheim, ON), had two sides—the first one was flat and would have been used to grind corn, nuts and other food while the second side was polished and smooth and would have been used to dress furs for clothing Stroh was well know for his ability to collect all sorts of pertinent, historical artefacts, no matter how unusual. In 1910, in addition to the grindstones, Stroh also “rescued” an old-growth oak tree stump that had been discovered near the Conestoga River bottom flats, near St. Jacobs, ON and presented it the park. Its was estimated to be about 700 years old and its size was massive compared to the trees we see today—18 ft. in circumference and 6 ft. 7 in. In diameter. For years it sat in the park next to the old schoolhouse, covered by a little roof that was built to protect it.

 

I suppose that one could argue that the “fight of its life” began when the schoolhouse was first moved to Berlin in 1842. Even its final move to Waterloo Park was fraught with strong discussion and convincing arguments made to the town councillors in charge of deciding its ultimate fate. Although it was eventually preserved and moved to the park, this did not guarantee its safety. In the earliest of its days in the park vandals exploited the school’s vulnerability as it sat empty at night. On May 28, 1903, the Waterloo Chronicle-Telegraph ran the following notice:

“Some mischievous boys have been in the habit of breaking the windows of the old school house in Westside Park.  If they are caught in the act their parents will be held responsible and will have to pay costs.  Kindly take warning.”

 

This was not the school’s only problem. Over time, the ice cream stand that was in the schoolhouse closed and a few years later, the school was vacant, again, and only opened periodically for special programming events. By May 18, 1961, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record had again reported vandalism, this time a little late—during an inspection by the Park Board members, they noticed that the schoolhouse building had names and initials carved in its sides dating back to as early as 1900! It was clear that ongoing maintenance and funding would be needed.

 

To be continued……

 

 

Joanna Rickert-Hall is a cultural historian whose research and teaching focuses on local settlement history. For further information see her blog at: http://www.logschoolhouse.blogspot.ca

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