Waterloo Historical Society
Greetings! Welcome to the WRX Property Group website and blog. Today, we’ll be looking at the Waterloo Historical Society: a historical society that not only endeavours to preserve the Waterloo Region’s history, but a historical society that is itself quite historical.
How It All Began
It was March, 1912, and local librarian B. Mabel Dunham pointed out to the Berlin Library Board (Berlin had not yet switched its name to Kitchener) that it was time for the Waterloo Region to start preserving its history, lest it be lost forever.
So after meeting with an executive from the Ontario Historical Society, the board went about creating the Waterloo Historical Society. Its first president was prominent local businessman W. H. Breithaupt, and its first official meeting took place on April 13th, 1913.
As an aside, B.Mabel Dunham is an incredible woman in her own right: she was a librarian in the Berlin/Kitchener Public Library from 1908 to 1944 (through both World Wars!), she was the only female original member of the Waterloo Historical Society (she would go on to serve as one of its presidents, too), and she published several books about life in the Waterloo Region (including the Trail of Conestoga, which features a foreword by fellow-famous Kitchener resident William Lyon Mackenzie King).
But let’s get back to the Waterloo Historical Society (WHS).
The WHS has now existed for over a century, and in that time they’ve lived up to their goal of preserving the history of the Waterloo Region, and the histories of its constituent parts (Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, and the Townships of North Dumfries, Wellesley, Wilmot, and Woolwich).
They publish an Annual Volume; they’ve had two major books published on local history (view them here); and they continue to enable the public to learn about and better understand the region’s past.
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Over the years, the WHS has collected maps; newspapers, texts, and other written artefacts; and many, many photographs. The second floor of Downtown Kitchener’s Central Library is where these items are kept, in the Grace Schmidt Room of Local History.
This room opened in 1984; it gets its name from Grace Schmidt, a long-time librarian at Kitchener Public Library and active member of the WHS.
You’re able to visit the Grace Schmidt Room of Local History at certain hours, but excitingly, you can access over 400 digitized photographs from the WHS’s collection online! These photos range in date from the mid nineteenth-century up to the late twentieth-century, and they feature a wide variety of subjects taken in numerous locations throughout the Waterloo Region.
They range from the familiar (Kitchener City Hall in 1954 – that clock tower ring any bells?) to the unfamiliar (a New Hamburg resident in the 1880s, with a massive moustache and an even more massive bicycle).
If you’re at all interested in history, or you want to learn more about the Waterloo Region’s past (you can see what Jacob Hespeler looked like!), please do yourself a favour and check out their full online archive of photographs, and the impressive Grace Schmidt Room of Local History!
Looking through historical documents and images is great, but if you’re in search of something even more immersive, you can check out the WHS’s historical plaques, located throughout the Waterloo Region. They started placing these plaques in 1925; the prominent one at Pioneer Memorial Tower went up in 1926.
The plaques commemorate specific sites, events, and people, and they’re a great way to see the traces of history that still stand among us.
For example, the plaque at First Mennonite Church near Downtown Kitchener highlights the first church in Waterloo County. It’s not uncommon to stroll past a building or a place and not realize its significance; the WHS’s extensive series of plaques enables us to better understand our history.
You can check out the plaques’ locations here (as you’ll notice, they’re quite spread out – if you plan to visit them all in one go, it would behove you to bring a picnic).
Newsletter and Annual Volume
The Waterloo Region has a long history, and at this point, the Waterloo Historical Society itself has quite a lengthy history, too! And one of the best ways to understand that history, and to better understand the purpose and beginnings of the WHS, is through their newsletter and their Annual Volume.
You can view the current newsletters, as well as several back issues, here.
The Annual Volume is replete with Waterloo Region-related articles written by local researchers, and it’s been published annually for over a century! You can read about it, and see pricing information on past issues, here.
One of my favourite discoveries is the index of past Annual Volumes, at this time stretching from 1913 to 1940. They’re completely free to read online at your leisure. They provide a fascinating opportunity not only to read more about the region’s distant past (the nineteenth-century, during which time the Mennonites from Pennsylvania settled in the Waterloo Region), but also to learn about the times during which they were written.
You can view the index here.
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Throughout the year, the WHS is either directly involved in or affiliated with several events and special occasions. There are a few ways to make sure you don’t miss anything you want to take part in: the WHS online calendar, naturally, is designed specifically for this purpose.
You can find the date, time, and location of upcoming events, as well as a brief description of what that event will entail. July 7th, 2018, from 1:30-3:00pm, for example, will be a session of History Under the Trees called “These Old Things,” in which two antique specialists will identify vintage items brought in, providing historical context.
The Historically Speaking blog is run by Karen Ball-Pyatt, Local History Librarian in the aforementioned Grace Schmidt Room in the Kitchener Public Library. It covers announcements, projects, and upcoming events in the Grace Schmidt Room, as well as news about the Waterloo Historical Society (and a few others).
Finally, there’s the (also aforementioned) WHS Newsletter: a great way to both look forward at what’s to come, and look back at what’s past.
The WHS is invested in preserving this region’s history, and in sharing the stories of past inhabitants through writings, photographs, stories, and more. So if your only interaction with the WHS is browsing through their incredible photo archives online (they’re really quite fascinating), perusing one of their publications, or spending some time in the Grace Schmidt Room, that’s great!
But if you want to get more involved, there are several ways in which to do so.
You can purchase a year-long membership. This confers quite a few benefits and privileges, including voting rights at the Annual General Meeting (weigh in on decisions for the coming year!); a copy of their Annual Volume; and more.
Memberships run from October 1st to September 30th, and prices vary. Get all the details here.
Alternatively, if you have ideas, a specific talent that might be useful, or simply a desire to help out and the time to do so, you can volunteer. Financial contributions are welcome, too.
If you love learning about the history of the Waterloo Region, be sure to check out the Waterloo Regional Heritage Foundation and the Kitchener Public Library, both of which the WHS recognizes in its Acknowledgements, and the latter of which has been an integral part of the WHS’s growth and success for over a century (from when it was called the Berlin Public Library, all the way up to today).
There’s something special about learning the history of a place – particularly if this is a place you call home. The names on street signs may now remind you of specific people; the successes and sacrifices of past generations, all of which led to the Waterloo Region’s present prosperity, might instil a mixture of duty and pride; and you can begin to feel a connection to the many people who lived and worked here in decades and centuries past.
History can be both informative and exciting, and the Waterloo Historical Society is doing great work in ensuring that present and future generations can look back at and reflect upon everything that happened here in past centuries.
The WHS records and maintains the histories, both shared and individual, of Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge (often subdivided into Galt, Preston, Hespeler, and Blair), and the communities in the Townships of North Dumfries, Wellesley, Wilmot, and Woolwich.
The Waterloo Historical Society truly has so much to offer that I fear we’ve only scratched the surface. If you’re keen to learn more, please check out their website! It’s worth your time.
Written by Will Kummer
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