Mary and John Streets, June 2013

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Was Here?

At the corner of Willow and Allen Streets in Waterloo, across from the former St. Louis Catholic School (see the Nov. 16 blog post St. Louis Catholic School), sits an empty lot that has been mostly vacant for decades. 

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The corner in question – Allen and Willow Streets in autumn, 2012.


Since the City of Waterloo recently bought the space, along with the school building itself, the corner has gotten a lot of attention in the surrounding neighbourhood.  Its future is an open question, but its past is a bit less of a mystery – and it’s pretty interesting.

Walking through this quiet intersection, looking at the empty corner, can your imagination conjure a looming, four-storey factory built right up to the edge of the sidewalk and stretching along both streets? 

Between 1903 and 1930, that’s exactly what occupied this lot.  Prior to 1903, it was apparently empty:

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Part of a c. 1895 birds-eye view of the town of Waterloo, looking west.  Note the undeveloped corner lot at Allen and Willow Streets, where the line of four trees is.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Municipal Heritage Committee.


A 1902 article in the Waterloo Chronicle-Telegraph described Emil Schierholtz & Company, a Waterloo upholstering business, as having “outgrown their premises” (located in the Devitt Block, now demolished, on Erb Street near King).  The same article said the company was planning to “erect a large new building of their own next year in connection with which they have asked a number of concessions from the town.”  The article also noted that Schierholtz was forming a new company to manufacture furniture frames.

The “concessions” requested by Schierholtz & Co. from the Town of Waterloo included a suitable factory site provided free-of-charge, a ten-year exemption from property taxes on the site, and an interest-free start-up loan of $5000.  In return, the company agreed to conduct business for ten years and to employ at least forty workers. 

The proposal was drafted as a bylaw and put to a public vote, and it was passed by a nearly 8-to-1 majority. 

In early 1903 Emil Schierholtz and his partners began construction on their new furniture factory at the corner of Willow and Allen Streets, in the growing residential neighbourhood.  Further research is needed to determine how and why the site was chosen.  Perhaps one of our readers knows the answer?…

As an aside, from 1902 to 1904 several other entrepreneurs, including William Greene and G. C. Raehr, received similar inducements from Waterloo to build factories in the town.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Berlin (Kitchener) and Waterloo courted and facilitated industrial development by offering financial incentives to manufacturers.  The resulting Greene collar-and-cuff factory operated for about ten years at William and Willow Streets, at the edge of the Mary-Allen neighbourhood, and will be the subject of a future blog post (also see maps, below).  The proposed Raehr shoe factory has a good story attached to it; click the text link to read more about it in a recent newspaper article by Jon Fear. 

Although the Schierholtz furniture factory was completed and occupied by the end of 1903, the new venture didn’t last long.  The book New Hamburg as it Really Was, by Ernest F. Ritz, recounts how a 1907 fire at the factory prompted Schierholtz & Co. to move its operations to New Hamburg.  Financial incentives offered to Schierholtz by New Hamburg also played a part in that transaction.

According to a 1972 article published by the Waterloo Historical Society, Eben (E. O.) and Ira Weber, and their father, Louis, bought the Waterloo factory from Schierholtz and his partners, and began operating it. 

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An idealized “impression” of the factory at Willow and Allen Streets, c. 1908.  The illustrator has taken some artistic license in suggesting a far busier intersection than it would have been – a common practice when depicting industrial buildings at the time, and one that conveyed a sense of prosperity.  Allen Street is shown with horse-drawn, streetcar and automobile traffic, as well as pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk.  Reproduced from the publication The Twin-City Berlin & Waterloo and Their Industries, Commercial, Financial, Manufacturing; published 1908 by authority of the Board of Trade.  Image courtesy of the University of Waterloo Library.


The Webers’ Waterloo Furniture Company factory is described in the 1908 publication The Twin-City Berlin & Waterloo and Their Industries, Commercial, Financial, Manufacturing, as well lighted and made of brick, with “a frontage on each street of about 100 feet.” 

The description goes on:

“The plant is thoroughly equipped with the most modern machinery and appliances for the production of their well-known line of upholstered furniture.  All goods sold by them are manufactured entirely on these premises by skilled mechanics.” 

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A section from the 1908-1913 fire insurance map of Waterloo, showing the Waterloo Furniture Company factory and surrounding neighbourhood.  The factory appears to have been served by a rail link with the spur line that passes through the Mary-Allen neighbourhood to this day.  The track to the factory would have cut through the land comprising today’s Mary-Allen Park.  A tall smokestack rose from the square section in the rear (detail below).  Note, at William and Willow Streets, another factory building.  This little industrial building, the W. A. Greene shirt-collar and -cuff factory, was built around the same time as the furniture factory, but was vacant when this map was updated in 1913.  Greene lived for a while at 59 George Street, and was also involved in the large Williams, Greene & Rome Company of Berlin (Kitchener), a manufacturer of shirts, collars and cuffs.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library, Ellis Little Room of Local History.
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A close-up of the map above, showing the Waterloo Furniture Company factory and its outbuildings.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library, Ellis Little Room of Local History.  


E. O. Weber also went on to own other furniture factories, in Preston and Kitchener, and was heavily involved in the development of the Westmount neighbourhood of Kitchener-Waterloo, as well as the Westmount Golf and Country Club.

The business at Willow and Allen Streets that came to be called the E. O. Weber Furniture Company prospered for a while, but fire continued to plague the factory. 

After twenty years under Weber ownership, at the end of a late workday on a Friday evening in November 1928, a finishing room explosion started a fire that killed one employee, John Mitchell.   In a strange turn of events, one local newspaper reported that the ambulance driver who transported John Mitchell to the hospital was Mitchell’s own son. 

In addition to the loss of life, the destruction of stock prepared for the Christmas sale season caused the company considerable hardship.  At the time, the financial loss was estimated at $25,000. 

Only two years later, another Friday fire on October 24, 1930, completely destroyed the twenty-seven-year-old building.  The next day, the front-page headline in The Daily Record began: “Worst Fire In History Of Waterloo.”  

The fire started in the basement, and spread quickly by way of an elevator shaft.  No one was injured, though the factory was reportedly evacuated with no time to spare before the interior began to collapse. 

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Part of the front page of The Daily Record, October 25, 1930, with its lead story about the fire at the E. O. Weber Furniture Company factory.  Printout from the Waterloo Public Library, Main Reference Microfilm collection.


As described in the Record article, “flames shot 100 feet in the air as a crowd of 8,000 people gathered to witness the spectacle.”  And as happened two years earlier, the fire struck, in the words of the newspaper, “just when the Waterloo plant was loaded with goods for Christmas shipment.  Had the fire occurred a month later, at least $50,000 worth of stock would have been moved.”

At least forty employees were suddenly out of work.  E. O. Weber estimated the total financial loss at $200,000, and his personal loss at $40,000. 

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The E. O. Weber Furniture Company factory at Willow and Allen Streets in October 1930, after it was destroyed by fire.  The cars are stopped on Allen Street; the right-hand photograph is a view looking down Willow Street.  Images courtesy of the University of Waterloo Library; E. O. Weber Papers.

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The E. O. Weber Furniture Company factory at Willow and Allen Streets in October 1930, after it was destroyed by fire.  Image courtesy of the University of Waterloo Library; E. O. Weber Papers.

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The E. O. Weber Furniture Company factory at Willow and Allen Streets in October 1930, after it was destroyed by fire.  This is a view of the Allen Street wing of the plant.  Image courtesy of the University of Waterloo Library; E. O. Weber Papers.

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The E. O. Weber Furniture Company factory at Willow and Allen Streets in October 1930, after it was destroyed by fire.  As above, a view from Allen Street, showing the smokestack.  Image courtesy of the University of Waterloo Library; E. O. Weber Papers.


Two fires within two years, with the second fire occurring during the Great Depression, proved too big an obstacle for Weber to overcome.  

While speculation about the E. O. Weber Furniture Company’s future swirled in the months that followed, Weber ruled out Waterloo as a potential site to rebuild, saying Kitchener might be a possibility.  But in January 1931, when he announced the sale of his remaining furniture plant, in Preston, it spelled the end of his career as a furniture manufacturer.

The lot at Willow and Allen Streets was cleared.  Empty once again, on the 1942 fire insurance map it was marked “School Ground”, presumably for the use of St. Louis Catholic School across the street.

Research of the lot beyond its years as a factory site was not done for this article.

But one local resident recalls that is was a baseball diamond in the 1970s…

Do you have stories about this space?  Can you fill in more of the story from the 1940s on?  Please submit your comments!

Many thanks to Susan Mavor at the University of Waterloo Library, and to Karen VandenBrink at the City of Waterloo Museum, for their generous assistance in providing information about E. O. Weber for this article.

1 comment:

  1. Howie Pfeiffer submitted the following recollection of the vacant lot in the comment section for the St. Louis School blog post: "Property was used from the late 40's to late fifties as a sports field. The home plate and fence was right where the hydrant is in the picture. A homer over the right field fence was fairly easy. The rest of the field was a soccer field and playground. In the winter, down by the train tracks, the city put in a outdoor rink along with a change shack that had a potbelly stove in to warm up with and we used to dry our wool mitts on. Shack also had a little tuck shop about the size of a closet, where you could buy penny candies etc. We would walk over from the Bridgeport road/Weber street area to play hockey or skate with our friends just about every night. If you were big enough, you had to help clean the rink to play on, and also before you went home, so that an old guy, "Dinty something" could flood the ice, which he did every night here and at Central school and up at Elizabeth Zeigler. Brings a lot of good memories." - Howie Pfeiffer

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