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The Legacy of the 1820 Log Schoolhouse: Part II

With regard to understanding one’s local history it is often advisable to take a step back to understand its events in context. The 1820 Log Schoolhouse is no exception. Where the school originally stood in Waterloo and where it was moved to prior to its final location in Waterloo Park is an interesting story. Also interesting is the “why.”

Although Blair was the first in the area to establish a school in 1802, followed by a second school in 1808 in Preston, the first school in Kitchener-Waterloo opened in Berlin (today, Kitchener) on October 1809 in a little log house on the south side of what later became the junction of Mill and Shoemaker Streets (Kitchener). This school location was only a temporary one as the Mennonites who started it eventually built a larger, permanent log structure that was intended to house both a church (Mennonite Meetinghouse) and an accompanying school. Today, this location is known as the site of the historic First Mennonite Church at the corner of Stirling Avenue and King Street in Kitchener. In its early days, it was known as Ben Eby’s Meetinghouse and school.


An artist’s rendition of Bishop Benjamin Eby’s 1813 log meetinghouse

Bishop Benjamin Eby served as the winter teacher/schoolmaster for many years and wrote instructional material in German in order to supplement the scarcity of schoolbooks in the classroom. This Berlin school was very important for the growing village of Waterloo because, at this point in time, Waterloo did not have a school of its own – but this was about to change.

In the early settlement years, it was not uncommon for children to walk up to five miles to attend school. Ben Eby’s school in Berlin was clearly too far away to accommodate the children in Waterloo. Abraham Erb, founder of (and largest land owner in) Waterloo was eager for his community and its children to have a school of their own. In early 1820, Erb (who eventually died in 1830) conveyed “five acres, 1 rood and 25 perches of land” to form a common school district. The land he conveyed was on the south side of Church Street and west of King Street (today Church is known as Central Street, where MacGregor Senior Public School is located). This land was originally intended to be used for a school house, meeting house and graveyard, but only the log schoolhouse was built.

Initially, Erb did not want to sell the land but it is interesting to note that this land was eventually sold by him to the Township of Waterloo for the sum total of five pounds. Erb had specified that “if there was any rent from the remaining land that it was to be used to pay a schoolmaster and to pay for the education of orphaned children or those whose parents were poor.” By September 3, 1829 the town of Waterloo received an endowment in Erb’s will of $565.35 that stipulated its use to be for school purposes. Erb also left $2000.00 to support four schools in total: the 1820 log schoolhouse in Waterloo (that he had founded), a school near Jacob Schneider’s farmstead (later Bloomingdale), Ben Eby’s school in Berlin and one in Woolwich Township. Other than the 1820 school, the other three schools were tied to local Mennonite meeting houses.

Originally, school convened during the winter months when other outdoor farm duties would have been suspended for the season. Teachers were part-time; many of them were farmers themselves, who were paid a small sum of money as a retainer to teach the children. School attendance was voluntary and the teachers were not licensed.

In the early days, German would have been the language of instruction as well as the language of the teachers and students. Books, supplementary school supplies and paper would have been in short supply so when the school was first built, children would have been using slates and slate pencils. Later, quill pens and homemade ink (e.g. black walnut) would have been more widely available. The Bible would have been a practical sourcebook for reading in the early days and teaching history, among other things. The curriculum, for the most part, consisted of the basic 3 R’s – “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic” or “sums” as mathematics was then known. In attendance, boys would have made up the majority of students as many (but not all) girls were often kept home to learn homemaking skills. One of Benjamin Eby’s books, a German ABC speller (the Neues Buchstabir und Lesenbuch), was used at the 1820 log school for many years.

By 1842, the log schoolhouse was deemed to be too small to accommodate the growing number of children in the village of Waterloo so a new larger stone school was constructed to replace it. Benjamin Burkholder, the last teacher in the log school, went on to teach at the new stone school (hereafter known as “Central School”) and in 1843 passed an examination and received a teaching certificate. (Unfortunately, there are no known photographs of the stone Central School). In 1852, the stone school was replaced with a brick schoolhouse that served the community and its students until 1955 when it was also dismantled and replaced by the present MacGregor Senior Public School. Incidentally, MacGregor School has also had several additions over the years as its student constituency continued to grow.

Left: The 1855 brick Central School. Right: The same school being demolished to make way for the present MacGregor Senior Public School (Source: Ellis Little Local History Room, Waterloo Public Library)

When the 1820 log schoolhouse was dismantled in 1842, it was moved to Berlin where it was to begin a new chapter in its life as the home of Levi Carroll, a former slave from Maryland, and his family. In distance, the school did not actually move very far from the Central Street area. In modern terms, it was moved from the corner of King and Central Streets to a location near where KCI (Kitchener Collegiate Institute) stands today. The school was located adjacent to KCI on King Street in Kitchener (approximately) and across from Central Fresh Market. Pinpointing the exact location is somewhat tricky but a well-known photograph of Levi Carroll and his family is helpful. In it, a ladder poised at the side of the former 1820 log schoolhouse suggests repair work being done to the shingled roof. In the background, the original Berlin High School (KCI, today) features prominently behind the former log schoolhouse.


Seated, Levi Carroll, a former slave from Maryland, poses with his family. A ladder poised at the side of the former 1820 log schoolhouse suggests repair work being done to the shingled roof. In the background, a clear view of the original Berlin High School, built in 1876. Today it is known as Kitchener Collegiate Institute (KCI). This is the only known photograph of Levi Carroll. (Source: Ellis Little Local History Room, Waterloo Public Library)

Levi Carroll’s story is a compelling one. Disabled by modern standards, he eked out a living as a labourer, gardener and even a shingle maker. Census records indicate that he was a literate man and that he could both read and write. Following the death of his third wife, Margaret, in 1891, Levi fell on hard times and eventually ended up in the Berlin House of Industry and Refuge (the Poor House). At this point he was well into his nineties and in poor health. With Levi’s admission into the House of Industry, the former 1820 log schoolhouse became a vacant building.

Locally, the pressure was on as to what to do with it. There were those who simply wanted to demolish it but one man in particular mounted a campaign to re-locate it to Waterloo Park because he felt that it was both a significant reminder of the early settlers who founded Waterloo and represented a material artefact of early education in this area. To him, the building was more than a structure of logs – it had a purpose and that purpose, he argued, was to tell the story of the past to future generations who would come to visit it and hopefully, pay homage.

That man’s name was Isaac Erb Bowman. Bowman was an MPP, a member of the Park Board of Management, the Board of Trade and at one time, a town councillor for Waterloo. One could even say that as a descendant of the log schoolhouse founder Abraham Erb, Bowman’s roots ran deep within the community of Waterloo and I have come to the conclusion that this schoolhouse stood for something very personal for Mr. Bowman. It would seem that preserving the school became as much an emotional project as it was a practical one. Eventually, Bowman’s campaign to save the building was successful and the structure was purchased by the town of Waterloo who had it moved from Berlin (Kitchener) to its present location in Waterloo Park in 1894.

In 1895, following its final move, there was a reunion of that last class of 1842 – photographed (below) at the side of the schoolhouse. In attendance was the students’ former teacher, Benjamin Burkholder (shown as number 14, centre). He
was also one of the featured speakers of the day.


Photograph taken in 1895 of former students of the Log School House (Source: Ellis Little Local History Room, Waterloo Public Library)

The Berliner Journal, dated September 26, 1895 poignantly commented: “after those present, on hearing the various speeches felt themselves transported back to the past, the school was closed at four o’clock and the pupils were gathered together in front of the school and photographed as a group. On their return into the school, they found it had been transformed into a dining room with heavily laden tables, which the old-timers thoroughly enjoyed. After everyone had chatted cordially for awhile longer, the gathering broke up. The company will not meet again in complete numbers, nor in such a way.”

Over time, many came to pay their respects to the school. Some of these visitors were a group of black children. I have often wondered if they were related to Levi Carroll in some way.


A postcard depicting a group of children in front of the log school house (Source: Ellis Little Local History Room, Waterloo Public Library)

In my previous article, I discussed some of the early problems and challenges that the school faced upon its move to Waterloo Park. While it is true that some upgrades and changes had taken place by the early 1950’s (such as the installation of electrical wiring, protective wooden shutters for the windows and an asphalt shingle roof that was supposed to be more durable than the early hand-hewn cedar shingles), the building was still at the mercy of the elements and potential vandalism (Kitchener-Waterloo Record, January 28, 1952).

Once again, a champion came forward to campaign to save the school. His name was Harold Wagner, a member of the Waterloo Public School Board, and he first suggested that the school should be moved near to its original location adjacent to MacGregor Public School and then be renovated. Another group, “the Empire Home and School Association” felt that a move to the Doon historic village would be a better solution (Kitchener-Waterloo Record, November 22, 1956). The debate raged on and the school stayed where it was in the park. Wagner claimed that the schoolhouse was rotting where it was and pleaded for the restoration of the building, claiming its merit thereof, saying “…it’s a disgrace for the oldest school in Ontario to be left like this. It’s being carried away by termites…somebody should do it because it will be a prized historical possession, one of the most prized in Ontario in 50 years” (K-W Record, September 3, 1959).

Finally in 1959, it was decided by the Waterloo Park Board that they would obtain an estimate for the repairs and upon completion of them, they would open the school for summer Sundays – complete with hiring a student as an attendant for that time (K-W Record, June 22, 1959). By 1960, nothing had yet been done and Harold Wagner, by this time chairman of the Waterloo Public School Board, again approached the School Board committee to move or repair it (K-W Record, December 13, 1960). Not until 1961 did anyone come forth with a viable plan – the Junior Chamber of Commerce pledged to renovate the school, with further fundraising planned to raise enough money to furnish it with a historic wood stove and period furnishings (K-W Record, February 9, 1961).

Simeon Martin, a carpenter from St. Jacobs, restored the cedar shake shingles on the roof of the school in 1961 but it was clear that more repairs were needed to the exterior of the building. By 1969, a repair estimate for the exterior of the building was tabled as being $8,500 with the intent that this would enable the building to be jacked up from where it was currently sitting on bare ground in order to replace both the concrete chinking between the upper logs and the bottom logs which were rotten, providing a new concrete foundation on which to rest the schoolhouse. Once this was done they could then the install air vents into the new foundation. The hope was that a new floor would also be able to be built at the same time (K-W Record, September 18,1969). Politics stalled the repair, however – the current city council had reduced the available funding and the repairs were halted. Nothing was done to ameliorate the old house and the building continued to deteriorate.

In 1970, Harold Wagner was back again and this time he was an alderman, still in favour of keeping the school and going ahead with the necessary repairs. He continued his campaign to save the school. By 1971, Wagner had more community support – this time, local school teachers (three teachers’ federations) raised the extra funds needed to match the shortfall of proposed city funding and a group of Laurel Vocational High School students were recruited to complete the repairs. (Laurel Vocational School became University Heights Secondary School and was eventually purchased by Conestoga College. Today it is the Waterloo Campus on University Avenue.) Simeon Martin, by then 79, also joined the project as a consultant (K-W Record, May 6, 1972). Restoration included replacing the foundation, refitting the floor, windows and roof as well as whitewashing the interior. This also changed the elevation of the school. Today, it does not sit directly on the ground as it originally did. Instead, it rests on concrete cinderblocks.

Log Schoolhouse exterior (left) and interior (right), present day

For the next twenty years or so, the school was periodically opened to accommodate special event programming and even hosted a period re-enactment play of 19th century school days by local school children at Macgregor Public School in 1995. In 1991, Ellis Little, a local historian and member of the Municipal LACAC (Heritage Advisory Committee), compiled a great deal of research on the schoolhouse and had contacted the Waterloo Park Committee to see if they would reconsider furnishing the school with period artefacts, with the hope that the school could once again be opened to the public. In 1995, another group of school children, this time from MacGregor Public School, working in conjunction with the City of Waterloo and assisted by Ellis Little, began another repair operation – this time the city installed new windows and provided the students with rough-hewn wood from which to make coat hooks and benches. In December, 1995 the students also wrote and performed their play, entitled, “A Schoolhouse of Yesteryear” (K-W Record, December 11, 1995). The past few years of the twenty-first century have brought more concerns to the log schoolhouse. Again, and ongoing, more repairs are needed and discussions continue to explore potential uses for the schoolhouse. The school received its heritage
designation as recently as April 23, 2012.

For two years in September 2012 and 2013, the 1820 log schoolhouse came alive once again and was opened to the public as a host site for the Doors Open Waterloo Region. I was privileged to be the site coordinator for this event, having already conducted extensive research on the building and its history. For the 2013 hosting, I provided a background lecture on the school and its history and was both pleased and amazed by the warm reception of the community and visitors from as far away as Buffalo who came to be a part of the festivities. The schoolhouse was filled with joy and laughter once again as visitors were so plentiful that they even stood outside in the rain to hear the story of its life history. This certainly remains in my heart as one of my favourite buildings in Waterloo and I am happy that there are so many that share in this sentiment

by Joanna Rickert-Hall

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

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