Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Waterloo Park & The Designation of the Log Schoolhouse

After my last blog post about Maple Syrup, I have to confess that I have really been getting cabin fever. This year, it seems that the arrival of Spring is overdue and like many I am longing to take a sunny walk in the park--in this case, Waterloo Park (formerly known as West Side Park). It has also been nearly a year since the former 1820 log schoolhouse was designated as a heritage building (April 23, 2012). To this end and while I am waxing nostalgic, I believe that it is also fitting to reminisce about what happened to the schoolhouse following its final move to the park in 1893.

A Little History of West Side Park

On August 1, 1890, the Waterloo Board of Trade met in council chambers with the expressed purpose of purchasing land in order to establish a public park. Their neighbours in Berlin had already established a park—albeit a small one known aptly as “Town Park”—on Queen Street South, almost 20 years earlier but it had not been “developed and few citizens ever used it” (mills, 1996: 7). The Jacob Eby farm in Waterloo was the preferred choice for a location as it met all the requirements: it was centrally located, it lay beside a mill dam that would lend itself, upon reconstruction, to boating as a family leisure activity on Silver Lake and there was an expanse of land that “could be converted into athletic grounds for various sports” (Zavaros, 1990: 83). A Park Board of Management was formed from existing Board of Trade members and in December 1890, the town of Waterloo, assisted by the Board of Trade, effectively purchased Jacob Eby’s 60 acre farm from his widow, Elizabeth, for the sum of $74.00 an acre (Ibid: 85). 

The Eby farm was initially considered to be an undeveloped and "rough-looking" expanse that sloped towards a man-made mill pond (the remains of the former 1816 grist mill pond of Abraham Erb and what we know today as Silver Lake). It was obvious that a great deal of work would be needed to transform this farmland and work began to formulate a park plan to manage the land development. A park superintendent was hired at a salary of $30.00/month and as part of his employment, was allowed to live in the former Eby farmhouse with his family.
                                                       The Eby Farmhouse Today

By the time the park opened in August 7, 1893 over “8,600 loads of earth had been moved from the east side to the hill” and over “2, 000 trees were planted in rows and groves” (Ibid: 86). In time, tennis courts, bicycle tracks and even an underground plumbing system were installed (for watering the expanse of lawns).
It should be noted that the timing of the park’s creation was anything but random. Nor was it a response to the fact that Berlin already had its own park (well maybe a little but certainly not the only reason). For the answer, one must look well beyond Waterloo Township...

While it was true that ordinary citizens (here and abroad) were enjoying more leisure time than previous generations and were searching for ways and places in which they could spend that time, something much larger was happening--an international "revolution" was taking place. The drivers of that revolution, arguably, were the city planners and architects who were responsible for managing urban development changes that were happening in towns and cities all over the world. These changes (or perhaps a better word would be "challenges") involved finding ways to respond to urban and social growth problems such as higher birth rates, increased migration from small towns and rural areas into cities that were vastly overcrowded and short on inner city housing. Although this is not happen to the same extent in this area of Waterloo Region, in Europe and beyond, urban populations continued to grow exponentially and available inner city land for affordable housing was becoming increasingly scarce. In some areas, slums and crowded tenements (especially in England and other parts of Europe) became a breeding ground for devastating social problems—domestic abuse, other forms of violence and most certainly, deadly diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever.

In response, municipal officials began to re-think how and in what way urban space was being constructed and used in city planning. Working together with municipal officials, planners and architects were redesigning cities (and on a smaller scale, towns) to make them more beautiful, more accessible and more affordable. Movements such as the “Garden City Movement” in Britain were followed by the “City Beautiful Movement” in North America and at their core was the desire (and belief) that proper urban design could achieve a revitalized ideal urban work/live space that cleaned up inner city decay and overcrowding while providing an affordable, manageable and safe city where people could live. One of the more famous names associated with the design of beautiful city parks was Frank Law Olmstead (a landscape architect) who, along with his business partner and fellow architect, Calvert Vaux, created and designed New York’s famous Central Park (1859), Chicago’s Riverside Park (beginning in 1872) and many others. These architectural movements were pivotal in shaping the aesthetic consciousness of the municipal fathers in many towns in Great Britain, Australia and North America and as such, affected urban space and park design strategies well into the early 20th century. Local park development in Waterloo Region was also affected and West Side Park in Waterloo was no exception.

Following several years of hard construction and design work, West Side Park (Waterloo Park) officially opened in August 1893 but it was not yet finished. Over time, many structures continued to be added to the park’s function and aesthetic. As we know, one of these structures was the 1820 log schoolhouse.

By the turn of the 20th century, people with more free time continued to visit the new Waterloo Park, both in search of pleasant leisure activities but also for its “attractions.” The park boasted bicycle tracks (cycling was as popular then as it is today), an athletic field, tennis courts, swimming in Silver Lake, extensive manicured gardens and even picnic facilities that included outdoor cookhouses—not to mention that as early as 1905 there was also a zoo. Woldemar Neufeld, a well-known local Mennonite painter, loved to paint the world around him. He also took an interest in the park as well as the school, painting a picture of one of the ever-popular toboggan runs or “glissoires” that was once adjacent to the school throughout the 1920’s (and well into the 1950’s).

Over the first few years, the park and its attractions continued to grow—in quantity and diversity. Jacob Stroh, an early archaeologist and historian in the region donated two aboriginal stones that he had found. They were placed in front of and adjacent to the schoolhouse—both were aboriginal grindstones but had been used for different purposes. Stroh had discovered the first one at Gennies’ Springs, north of Conestoga, Ontario and surmised that it had been used to sharpen tomahawks and other stone implements (Wells, 1928:22-23). The second stone, having been found at Surarus Springs on the Huron Road (2 miles south of Mannheim, ON), had two sides—the first one was flat and would have been used to grind corn, nuts and other food while the second side was polished and smooth and would have been used to dress furs for clothing (Ibid). 

Stroh was well know for his ability to collect all sorts of pertinent, historical artefacts, no matter how unusual. In addition to the grindstones, above, in 1910 he had also “rescued” an old-growth oak tree stump that had been discovered near the Conestoga River bottom flats, near St. Jacobs, ON and presented it the park. Its was estimated to be about 700 years old and its size was massive compared to the trees we see today—18 ft. in circumference and 6 ft. 7 in. In diameter.

 For years it sat in the park next to the old schoolhouse, covered by a little roof that was built to protect it (The Free Press, October 28, 1950). When renovation work was undertaken in August, 1961 to re-shingle the school’s roof with period cedar shake shingles, Mennonite craftsman, Simeon Martin (then 69), a carpenter and barn builder from St. Jacobs also re-shingled the little wooden roof covering the tree stump (The London Free Press, August 23,1961). Eventually the tree stump rotted to the point that it could no longer be saved and so it was removed in the early 1970’s.

In the early days, the log school was an important tourist stop for many visiting the park. On October30,th 1920, an article in the Kitchener Daily Record described the final resting place of the schoolhouse thus on its 100th birthday: 

 Among the many points of interest of the attractive Waterloo Park the old schoolhouse of 1820 holds an important place. There it stands old and gray among the trees, like a silent ghost of the past, one of the few reminders of a fast-disappearing generation. Even in its extreme age the old school is not deserted. The birds sing their songs in the trees above it, and the squirrels scamper and chatter around it in much the same way as they did 100 years ago, when it was a proud new building, standing in the primeval forest."

At first glance, these are words that most certainly could have been written today. Instead, the author is describing in pastoral detail what we all  know to be the truth--"the only thing that is constant is change.” Indeed, we are told that the schoolhouse, once the repository for young minds in search of an education and later a family home had been repurposed and the author showed a wry sense of humour as he disclosed its current incarnation:

“...finally Waterloo began to improve the park and the old log school was moved to its present location, to be an emporium for ice cream instead of hard problems and hard “lickens.”   

Nonetheless, the notion of repurposing the old building is something that I am sure that the Mennonite forefathers would have approved of, having been the practical and thrifty culture that they were. The problem with repurposing older buildings is that they need repairs and all too often, these repairs are seen as being costly—sometimes, too costly for the value of the structure. Perhaps even worse, they are also perceived as political hot potatoes).

The Fight of its Life Really Begins

One could argue that the “fight of its life”” began when the schoolhouse was first moved to Berlin in 1842. Even its final move to Waterloo Park was fraught with strong discussion and convincing arguments made to the town councillors in charge of deciding its fate but, as we know, Isaac E. Bowman was successful in getting the councillors to agree that the school needed to be preserved by moving it to the park--although this did not guarantee its safety.

Even in the earliest of its days, however, vandals exploited the school’s vulnerability as it sat empty at night. On May 28, 1903, the Waterloo Chronicle-Telegraph ran the following notice:

 "Some mischievous boys have been in the habit of breaking the windows of the old school house in West Side Park.  If they are caught in the act their parents will be held responsible and will have to pay costs.  Kindly take warning."

This was not the school’s only problem to contend with. Over time, the ice cream stand that was in the schoolhouse closed.  A few years later, the school was vacant, again, and only opened periodically for special programming events. By May 18, 1961, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record had again reported vandalism, this time a little late—during an inspection by the Park Board members, they noticed that the schoolhouse building had names and initials carved in its sides dating back to as early as 1900!

While it is true that some upgrades and changes had taken place by the early 1950’s (such as the installation of electrical wiring, protective wooden shutters for the windows and an asphalt shingle roof that was supposed to be more durable than the early hand-hewn cedar shingles), the building was still at the mercy of the elements, regardless of any potential vandalism (Kitchener-Waterloo Record, January 28, 1952). Once again, a champion came forward to campaign to save the school. His name was Harold Wagner, a member of the Waterloo Public School Board and he first suggested that the school should be moved near to its original location adjacent to MacGregor Public School and then be renovated. Another group, “the Empire Home and School Association” felt that a move to the Doon historic village would be a better solution (Kitchener-Waterloo Record, November 22, 1956). The debate raged on and the school stayed where it was in the park. Wagner claimed that the schoolhouse was rotting where it was and pleaded for the restoration of the building claiming its merit thereof, saying “...it’s a disgrace for the oldest school in Ontario to be left like this. It’s being carried away by termites...somebody should do it because it will be a prized historical possession, one of the most prized in Ontario in 50 years (K-W Record, September 3, 1959).

Finally in 1959, it was decided by the Waterloo Park Board that they would obtain an estimate for the repairs and upon completion of them, they would open the school for summer Sundays—complete with hiring a student as an attendant for that time (K-W Record, June 22, 1959).  By 1960, nothing had yet been done and Harold Wagner, by this time chairman of the Waterloo Public School Board, again approached the School Board committee to move or repair it (K-W Record, December 13, 1960) but not until 1961 did anyone come forth with a viable plan—the Junior Chamber of Commerce pledged to renovate the school, with further fundraising planned to raise enough money to furnish it with a historic wood stove and period furnishings (K-W Record, February 9, 1961).

Simeon Martin, a carpenter from St. Jacobs restored the cedar shake shingles on the roof of the school in 1961 but it was clear that more repairs were needed to the exterior of the building. By 1969, a repair estimate for the exterior of the building was tabled as being $8,500 with the intent that this would enable the building to be jacked up from where it was currently sitting on bare ground in order to replace both the concrete chinking between the upper logs and the bottom logs which were rotten, providing a new concrete foundation on which to rest the schoolhouse. Once this was done they could then the install air vents into the new foundation. The hope was that a new floor would also be able to be built at the same time (K-W Record, September 18, 1969). Well, politics stalled the repair—the current city council had reduced the available funding and the repairs stalled. Nothing got done and the building continued to deteriorate.

In 1970 Harold Wagner was back again and this time he was an alderman, still in favour of keeping the school and going ahead with the necessary repairs.  He continued his campaign to save the school although at this point did not see the value of keeping it open on a continual basis—rather, he argued that the exterior fa├žade was seen as the more pressing and immediate concern for repairs and preservation (K-W Record, June 15, 1970). By 1971, Wagner had more community support. This time, local school teachers (three teachers’ federations) raised the extra funds needed to match the shortfall of proposed city funding and a group of Laurel Vocational High School students were recruited to complete the repairs. Simeon Martin, by now 79, also joined the project as a consultant (K-W Record, May 6, 1972). Restoration included replacing the foundation, refitting the floor, windows and roof as well as whitewashing the interior.
For the next twenty years or so, the school was periodically opened to accommodate special event programming and even hosted a period re-enactment play of 19th century school days by local school children at Macgregor Public School in 1995. In 1991, Ellis Little, the local historian and member of the Municipal LACAC (Heritage Advisory Committee), compiled a great deal of research on the schoolhouse and had contacted the Waterloo Park Committee to see if they would re-consider furnishing the school with period artefacts, with the hope that the school could once again be opened to the public. In 1995, another group of school children, this time from MacGregor Public School, working in conjunction with the City of Waterloo and assisted by Ellis Little began another repair operation—this time the city installed new windows and provided the students with rough-hewn wood from which to make coat hooks and benches. In December, 1995 the students also wrote and performed their play, entitled, “A Schoolhouse of Yesteryear” (K-W Record, December 11, 1995).

The past few years of the twenty-first century have brought more concerns to the log schoolhouse. Again, and ongoing, more repairs are needed and discussions continue to be bantered about concerning what to do with the schoolhouse. It is hard to believe but for all of its lifetime, this important heritage icon was never recognized as a designated heritage building until April 23, 2012--nearly one year ago!

~mills, rych (1996) Victoria Park: 100 Years of a Park & Its People, published for the Victoria Park 100th Birthday Historical Committee by Twin City Dwyer Printing Co. Ltd.: Kitchener, ON.

~Wells, Clayton W. (1928) “A Historical Sketch of the Town of Waterloo, Ontario” in the Sixteenth Annual Report of the Waterloo Historical Society, 1928, Pp.22-67.
~Zavaros, Margaret (1990) “Waterloo Park 1890-1990 in Waterloo Historical Society Annual Volume No.- 78, Pp. 83-99.


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