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.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mary-Allen Beginnings, Part II

The Grand Trunk Railway came to Berlin (Kitchener) in 1856, drawing the region to within reach of the far-flung world, and broadening its cultural, commercial and industrial potential.  

In Waterloo, the land made available by the 1855 Hoffman survey (see the Nov. 13 blog post Mary-Allen Beginnings, Part I) meant that commercial and industrial enterprise could now gain more of a foothold.  The population increased to 1,274 by 1861, and it would continue to increase steadily into the thousands during the late nineteenth century.

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Part of the 1861 Tremaine's Map of the County of Waterloo, Canada West.  By the mid-1800s, the town of Berlin and village of Waterloo had become surrounded by subdivided agricultural lots.  Showing the original size of the lots as they were created in 1805 is the nearly 450-acre, undivided lot labeled “Saml. S. Snider”.  The black and white line in the lower part of the map marks the Grand Trunk Railway (this rail right-of-way is still in place today, north of Victoria Street).  In Waterloo, King, Erb and Albert Streets are all shown, as are Mary and John Streets.  The school is indicated at Central and King Streets, and the millpond – forerunner of today’s Silver Lake – is shown near Erb and Albert Streets.  The triangular area in black along Albert and King Streets, north of Erb, marks the oldest urban development in Waterloo.  Image courtesy of Marion Roes, from a map at the Region of Waterloo Archives.


The old mill was expanded, and brewing, distilling, barrel-making, and furniture and farm implement manufacturing developed alongside other large- and small-scale industry.  Waterloo also eventually became known as a seedbed for firms dealing in insurance, which grew into a local specialty. 

Much of this fresh activity got its start on the new Hoffman Survey lots north of William Street. 

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A portion of the 1861 Tremaine's Map of the County of Waterloo, Canada West.  By the 1860s, development in Waterloo village had spread south of Erb Street (which passes left-to-right through the center of the map) along King Street.  Albert Street (at upper left) is already well lined with houses, as is upper King Street.  To the south, the public square at William Street persists to this day.  Image courtesy of the City of Waterloo Museum.


Manufacturing sites would eventually come to dominate the area south of the mill that is occupied today by Waterloo Public Square, the adjacent mall, and the newer buildings between Willis Way and William Street, while commercial buildings lined the opposite side of King Street (between Erb and William) by the 1860s.

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This 1950s aerial view looking north shows the mark that the nineteenth century left on King Street in central Waterloo.  On the west side, the empty lot near the several large trees at center is the former site of one of Waterloo’s first buildings, the Erb/Snider flour mill.  Continuing towards the bottom is the large Waterloo Manufacturing Co. complex and the Snyder Furniture factory buildings.  Across King, large and small buildings from the 1800s make for a more varied streetscape.  St. John's Lutheran Church is visible in the distance, as are the old town hall and fire hall (just to the right of the circular garden) and the “Button Factory” on Regina Street.  Of all the buildings specifically named above, only the last one still stands today.  Open fields are visible just beyond Central Street.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library, Ellis Little Room of Local History; photograph G-5-7 (oversize).


With all of this growth, the development of residential neighbourhoods was inevitable.  South of the commercial district, the long strip of mostly undeveloped land on the east side of King Street that included the Hoffman home, an orchard and a pond in the 1850s (see the blog post Mary-Allen Beginnings, Part I) would undergo a dramatic change as well. 

A writer in the 1920s had remembered the hilly grove adjoining the Hoffman property as a favourite pleasure ground in the 1860s; one of Waterloo’s earliest spots for picnics, band music and social gatherings.  But soon after the Kumpf family bought the Hoffman house and property in the late 1860s, they, along with several other owners of larger tracts in the future Mary-Allen area, had more surveys completed.  These surveys enabled further subdivision.

Much of the Mary-Allen neighbourhood was surveyed as part of the Kumpf-Devitt-Snider survey of 1875.  Christian Kumpf was the town postmaster, former publisher of the Waterloo Chronicle, and future Mayor of Waterloo.  Barnabas Devitt was the adopted son of the Magdalena and Abraham Erb, and Barnabas's son, Benjamin, was also a future Waterloo mayor.  The Sniders (and Erbs) are covered in a bit more detail in the blog post Mary-Allen Beginnings, Part I.

The 1875 Kumpf-Devitt-Snider survey established most of the Mary-Allen street grid as it exists today.  George, Allen and Willow Streets were created, and the already-existing John and William Streets were extended to Willow. 

References to the nineteenth-century surveys show up occasionally, even now.  For example, today’s Mary-Allen neighbourhood property owners can look at their municipal property tax bills to find their “lot” and “plan” numbers.  The plan numbers are the original registered survey numbers.  The Kumpf-Devitt-Snider survey is registered plan number 498.  That plan number is on my property tax bill.

Later surveys between 1884 and 1890 paved the way for the eventual extension of Allen, John and Union Streets beyond Willow Street, and for Moore Avenue to be laid out through the former Devitt estate (owned at the time by George Moore).

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Part of a c. 1895 birds-eye view of the town of Waterloo, looking west.  Factories and commercial buildings crowd the center of town north of William Street, while the fledgling Mary-Allen district is residential, with a few factories and open lots at the edges.  The land between George and Allen Streets, behind the old Hoffman/Kumpf house, was undeveloped in 1855 but is full of houses in this view.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Municipal Heritage Committee.


In the wake of the land surveys, subdivisions and subsequent lot sales, the construction of new homes had begun to speed up in the Mary-Allen neighbourhood by the late 1880s.  All over Waterloo larger homes had begun sprouting up among the few smaller, earlier ones, announcing the growth and health of the town.  Many of these homes remain; some do not.

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The Queen Anne style 186 King Street South (at the corner of Allen Street) was built by the Bauer family around 1897, along with the house just behind it: 189 Mary Street.  Number 186 was recently demolished, but 189 Mary still stands in a fine state of preservation.  The Bauers operated a felt factory at King and Allen Streets beginning in 1888, and built several fine homes in the Mary-Allen neighbourhood.  Reproduced from the publication 100 Years of Progress in Waterloo County, Canada: Semi-centennial Souvenir 1856-1906.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library, Ellis Little Room of Local History.  

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Allen Street near King Street, looking west towards Herbert Street, c. 1905.  St. Louis Church is visible in the distance.  The Queen Anne style house on the left may be the William G. Weichel house (see below).  Reproduced from the publication 100 Years of Progress in Waterloo County, Canada: Semi-centennial Souvenir 1856-1906.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library, Ellis Little Room of Local History; photograph F-7-13

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The home of William G. Weichel, on Allen Street near King Street, c. 1905.  Several houses in this style still stand on Allen Street.  Beginning in the 1890s, Weichel operated a Waterloo hardware store.  He defeated William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1911 to win the MP seat in the North Waterloo riding.  Weichel was Mayor of Waterloo 1922-1923, and then MPP for Waterloo 1923-1929.  His civic and business interests were numerous.  Reproduced from the publication 100 Years of Progress in Waterloo County, Canada: Semi-centennial Souvenir 1856-1906.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library, Ellis Little Room of Local History; photograph F-6-8



By the 1890s, the new and imposing St. Louis Roman Catholic Church on Allen Street presided from its hill over new streets lined with young trees. 


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St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, c. 1900.  Image courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library, Ellis Little Room of Local History; photograph A-2-4.




A bit of the new industrial development, for the most part concentrated north of William Street, also came to border the Mary-Allen neighbourhood.  These businesses included a felt factory, a shirt collar factory and several furniture factories. 

At least one of these factories will be the subject of a future blog post.  Stay tuned…

Note: some of this article is adapted from a booklet I prepared for Bob and Margaret Nally about their house, 189 Mary Street, in 2005.  It was re-worked and reproduced here with their kind permission.