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The Legacy of Jacob Gaukel Stroh and the Homestead of 72 Erb Street East

Tanner, business owner, historian, amateur botanist, archeologist, photographer, educator, local champion, council member, and member of Berlin’s (Kitchener’s) 29th Militia Regiment: this was Jacob Gaukel Stroh (1848-1935). A man ahead of his time, Stroh was keenly interested in the natural world, First Nations culture and local history at a time when such topics were neither broadly recognized or appreciated.

Stroh was born to a family of great entrepreneurial spirit. His mother Susannah Stroh (nee Gaukel), fa­ther Henry Stroh, and grandfather Frederick Gaukel were all engaged in various businesses ranging from shoemaking (Henry) to hotel ownership and management (Frederick and Susannah). Fred­rick was a spirited citizen, and with the aid of his daughter Susannah, operated a two-story hotel oc­cupying the corner of King and Queen in Kitchener (known as the Commercial Hotel). This location would serve as the main source of accommodation for travelers using the developing railway systems of the late 1850s. Changing multiple times in built form and name, today the former Commercial Ho­tel can be recognized as the Walper Terrace Hotel.

Stroh initially worked as a tanner – a job that involved the processing of animal hides for use in harness and saddle making and other leather prod­ucts – under the guidance of Louis Breithaupt of the Breithaupt Tannery in Kitchener. Breithaupt would eventually become the City of Kitchener’s young­est mayor in 1923. After working under Breithaupt, Stroh established the Spring Tannery (also known as the Waterloo Tannery) at the corner of Bridgeport Road (now Laurel Street) and Erb Street in Water­loo. His home at 72 Erb Street East was located im­mediately adjacent to the tannery.

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Children on the porch of 72 Erb Street East, Waterloo Ontario, ca. 1890, picture taken by Jacob Gaukel Stroh. Source: Jacob Gaukel Stroh, Region of Waterloo Archives, JGS 064

 

Beyond his business endeavours, Stroh was also member of the Board of Health, Public Library Board, Historical Society, and an active member of Town Council for several years. As a lifelong Lib­eral, Stroh took an active interest in matters related to the County and in various provincial campaigns.

Stroh was a well-recognized historian and an amateur archaeologist. His interest in archaeol­ogy began during the early years of his youth with his exploration of First Nations communities and culture. He is reported to have discovered a number of Aboriginal settlements in the Waterloo Region, including the Strange Street Earthwork which was a large, mid 1600s Attiwondaronk village that ac­commodated up to 1000 people. Beginning at the age of twelve, Stroh developed a rich collection of Indigenous artifacts that included arrowheads, spearheads, stone axes and skinning tools. His col­lection of artifacts was donated to the Doon Pioneer Village (now the Waterloo Region Museum). He also donated a pair of Aboriginal grindstones to Waterloo Park, which can still be found in the park today. As described in an earlier Foundations article about the log school house, one of these grindstones is hollowed out on one side for grinding corn us­ing a method of pounding and rolling with a hand stone. The other has a smooth flattened top, used for dressing skins and for other general purposes.

An interest in photography led Stroh to capture scenes and people by camera through the 1880s and 1890s. Stroh would have been one of only a few Waterloo residents with a camera during this time. The recent discovery of 126 of these photographs and their donation by an anonymous donor to the Waterloo Public Library and Region of Waterloo Ar­chives gives us a rare glimpse of the region’s early industries and townsfolk.

As a self-taught botanist, Stroh also facilitated nu­merous botanical field trips for young school chil­dren. During these trips students would learn how to navigate through woodland areas, understand basic forest ecology, and how to locate rare plants in various habitats. Combining his passions of botany, history, and education, Stroh would later donate to Waterloo Park a huge section of a 700-year-old oak tree, showing the size of old growth oaks in this vicinity. A small roof was constructed to protect the “stump” from the elements. Old growth trees and tree stumps featured prominently in Stroh’s photos, as can be seen in this article’s photo of a stump that is large enough to hold seven children.

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A group of children stand on a large tree stump in this picture taken by Jacob Gaukel Stroh. Source: Jacob Gaukel Stroh, Region of Waterloo Archives, JGS 107

 

Stroh died at his Erb Street home in 1935 at the age of 87. The house, constructed around 1890 and still standing today, is a Queen Anne residence with Ital­ianate influences. Built of buff to salmon coloured brick, it was originally stained red. Its most unique architectural feature is an elliptical fieldstone and brick lintel above the front parlour window.

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The Jacob Stroh house at 72 Erb Street East as it appears today

 

In recognition of the historical value of 72 Erb Street East, the property’s new owners, Vanguard Devel­opments, are proposing an 11 unit, multi-residential building that will retain most of the original Stroh house. The proposed contemporary addition, designed by ABA Architects Inc., will use modern, contrasting materials such as siding, concrete, and glass, but in a neutral colour palette to complement the brick and stone of the existing house. Angled rooflines of the new addition have been designed to blend with the gable rooflines of the Stroh house, while fascia and glass features will span both the old and new structures to tie them together. The same approach of melding old with new is pro­posed for the interior units, where reclaimed lo­cal barn boards and doors for selected walls and entrances will visually connect the contemporary addition to the original Stroh building.

The proposed changes to the Stroh property demon­strate how historic properties may be developed to conserve their heritage values while accommodat­ing growth. Construction is expected to commence in the summer of 2015 with occupancy in early spring of 2016.

 by Joshua Schram with Phil Elsworthy

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