Close your eyes awhile and imagine the scene. Four horse-driven Conestoga wagons, towering high with the stuff of daily life, lumber along a rutted dirt road. Children and women walk beside or behind the laboring caravan. The sun is setting and both travellers and horses are bone-weary.
A closer look at the on-board baggage reveals some curiosities alongside bedding, furniture, and cooking utensils. Here’s a brightly-painted coffee pot; a well-worn Bible, a painting embellished in the Amish “Fraktur” style, and a pair of scissors.
The caravan is heading north from the rolling hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, following the winding Susquehanna River. In the days to come, they’ll circumvent the great waterfalls called Niagara and will cross into British North America.
Five weary weeks will pass before the travelers reach their destination.
The pacifist Mennonites of Pennsylvania had been caught unwillingly in the nationalist fervour that gripped the newly-formed United States of America following the end of the Revolutionary Wars. Unconvinced that Congress would uphold their exemption from bearing arms, and burdened by soaring prices for land, the Mennonites looked to Upper Canada for their future.
The first Lancaster County Mennonites arrived north of the 49th parallel in 1786. By 1802, more than 30 families lived around “The Twenty,” twenty miles from Niagara Falls.
In 1807, one Joseph Schneider, his wife Barbara and their four children, (three more would follow), accompanied by Barbara Schneider’s brother Benjamin Eby, a Mennonite Bishop arrived in the tract of land some miles west of “The Twenty. It was known as The German Tract.
This vast area of 60,000 acres of dense bush and bog swamp had previously been given by the British Crown to Indian leader Joseph Brant and his Six Nations band. It recognized Brant’s loyalty to the British during the Revolutionary Wars. Later “on behalf of the Indians,” the British sold large areas of the Tract to new settlers.
Note: The so-called “Cayuga Blockade” of several years ago traces its roots to this situation.
It was to this land-locked virgin soil that Joseph Schneider and Benjamin Eby arrived and took possession of large acreage. Both men are considered to be the founders of the present day City of Kitchener.
Soon other Lancaster County Mennonites followed. Their names are common today in the Waterloo Region–Erb, Gaukel, Nafziger, Betzner, among others. And in recognition of Bishop Eby, of the fledgling community was named Ebytown.
Initially Ebytown was no more than a few rough-hewn houses and commercial establishments strung along a dirt wagon path. Sand hills, uncleared bush and swampland bounded the road. To the west, growing more slowly than Ebytown were the tiny settlements of St. Agatha, New Hamburg, Baden and Wellesley.
Human and domestic animal lodging had been paramount on the Schneider’s’ “to do list” after their arrival in 1807. A utilitarian one-story cabin would have to do for the present. Togetherness was a given for Schneider family of nine!
By 1816, a more substantial two-story frame house rose. Joseph Schneider’s sawmill, the first in the area, turned bush into building materials.
Several outbuildings followed: a wash house for boiling laundry; a bakery, dominated by a large stone oven; a press house for apple cider and a “spring” house under which a cooling “refrigeration” stream ran. Letting not a blade of grass grow under their industrious feet, the Schneiders had also cleared ten acres of dense bush. Wen work was complete on the house, the Schneiders built a road (today’s busy Queen Street) which headed west towards the outlying settlements.
In short order, Joseph Schneider and other forward-thinking Mennonites founded the area’s first school. A blacksmith shop, tavern and various mills followed. Schneider was also instrumental in the founding of the town’s first newspaper “Canada Museum und Allgemeine Zeitung” in 1835.
Joseph Schneider passed away at his home in 1843, aged 71. His life had been long and rewarding. On his death, several treasured artifacts were passed on to his descendants. One was a tall clock, which remains in Schneider Haus today. Another was a rare German Bible, printed in Zurich, Switzerland and containing fine examples of decorative Fraktur writing.
Joseph Schneider’s legacy was carried on by his son Joseph. In 1849, the younger Schneider wrote and published the family’s genealogy. It is thought to be the earliest known family history printed in Canada.
In 1979, Joseph Schneider Haus was reborn as a “working, functional house museum,” managed by the Region of Waterloo. Furnishing the house accurately, more than a century and a quarter past, was done with care, patience and precision.
And, as the Museum sought to re-enact the life of the Schneider family circa 1850, it would see its staff in period costume, performing the tasks of daily life. Visitors are encouraged to try their hand at baking, “schnitzing” and writing Fraktur.
Praise for the authenticity of Schneider Haus was immediately forthcoming from visitors. One said: “One of the things that Joseph Schneider Haus taught me was to have a critical eye when I go in a museum. Do the interpreters wear watches? Do they wear rings? Is everything period–the restorations? the furnishings? When they did the restoration here, it was to detail. It was correct.
Joseph Schneider Haus was designated as a National Historic Site in 1998.