Thursday, 2 May 2013

A Tale of Two Schneiders

I am always thrilled when people take an interest in local history. What is unfortunate is that local history is not always so accurate beyond local legend or “myth-tory.”

Take the example of two familiar figures in the local history record and lore. Both were known to have made significant contributions to our growing community in its infancy. Both men are the ancestors of hundreds of descendants—many of whom, still live and work in and around the Waterloo Region. The problem?  Both men share the same last name and are NOT related although many think that they are OR that the two men are the SAME man. The answer is a resounding “NO.”

Many local residents of (and visitors to) Waterloo Region are familiar with the name “Schneider.” “Schneider,” itself, is a very common German surname—much like “Smith” or “Leblanc” or “Gonzalez” would be to their respective culture groups. Deriving from the verb schneiden (to cut), a Schneider (German nouns are always capitalized) is a “tailor” or literally someone who cuts [something].  Since many surnames are cultural relics of a time gone by when a person’s name reflected what he did (and yes, usually it was a male), neither of these two men were tailors. One was a farmer although both grew up on a farm, both were businessmen, and one was an injured factory worker who changed careers.  Neither man was related although they were neighbours at one point. Both were men of faith and one of them was a deacon in his church. Confused? I will explain.... 

If you have read this blog, you know that the first group of settlers arrived here in 1800. These settlers consisted mostly (but not all) of Pa. German Mennonites who had made the long journey here from Pennsylvania in search of good (and reasonably priced) farmland.  They had not been persecuted and had not come here as a result of a war. They were, for the most part, farmers. Most of these farmers also possessed valuable (albeit secondary) trade skills that enabled them to augment their income by providing them with the means to earn money during the year when farming was not immediately profitable. Among these trades, one found cabinet makers, blacksmiths, distillers, millers, coopers, etc. Some even rented out their oxen and wagons for other purposes such as transporting goods over difficult terrain or for plowing fields and removing tree stumps (this is something that occurred in Waterloo Region during the War of 1812 but—that is another blog post....).

In 1807, one of these Mennonite farmers, Joseph Schneider (the elder and pioneer from Lancaster, Pa.) settled in Berlin on Lot GCT17 (in what is now downtown Kitchener, ON) on a tract of land that originally consisted of 448 acres. I have written more about him in previous posts but I will re-iterate some of it again for posterity’s sake. The boundaries of Joseph’s 448 acre farm extend to (on the eastern side) to King Street, south approximately as far as to Stirling Avenue, west to between Westmount Road and Fischer-Hallman Road and to the north, approximately almost up to the edge of Victoria Street.  Today, all that remains of the original farm is less than an acre, consisting mostly of the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum & Gallery. A National Historic Site, the museum is owned and operated by the Regional Municipality of Waterloo.
                                         A View of the Joseph Schneider Homestead c.1890's

Joseph Schneider’s farm prospered and part of his success came from the saw mill enterprise that he had established some years after he first began to farm the land—some sources say that this might have been as early as 1816, just before the permanent Schneider farm house (that we know today as the living history museum) was constructed.  However, for the purpose of this blog post, we are more concerned with the second generation of Schneiders who lived in the farm house. Joseph Schneider had two sons who happened to be twins: Joseph E. Schneider and his brother Moses E. Schneider (“E” for Eby, their mother’s maiden name). 

In the Mennonite tradition, the youngest son was usually the one who took over control of the family farm. In this case, we know that Moses, who was a day younger than Joseph E., married and moved several miles west of the Schneider family farmstead. It was Joseph E., Moses’s twin brother, who took over the family farm and it was he who raised his family there—preferring to operate the mill and conduct business rather than farm, although he also continued to work the land for a number of years until his two sons were grown. The elder Schneider retained control over most of his original tract until Joseph E. took over but, along with his brother-in-law Bishop Benjamin Eby, the elder Schneider had already sold some smaller portions of his 448 acres to local businessmen in the early 1830’s. (Most of the land he sold ran along King Street between Queen and Ontario Streets—in and around where the present-day Walper Hotel is today).  His brother-in-law Benjamin Eby’s land was adjacent to Joseph’s and today would be across the other side of King Street, facing Joseph’s land.

As stated, Joseph E. Schneider continued to work the farm and sawmill for many years following his father’s death in 1843. He went on to raise seven girls and two boys in the large Georgian-style home that serves today as a living history museum. Joseph began his life as a Mennonite but over the years, as a liberal-minded but devout man of God, he was deeply affected by the religio-political tensions that threatened to split the Mennonites into different groups—whereby some adherents espoused a strong conservative biblical (read literal) interpretation and others, a more liberal or “modern” interpretation. (It should be noted that at this point in time, there were no Old Order Mennonites, only Mennonites). As technology and scientific discoveries advanced, there were those among the Mennonites who regarded science and technology as ideologies that promoted a prideful existence, closely akin to consumerism and materialism—something most Mennonites believed was counter-intuitive to God’s biblical mandate for humility and detachment from the material wealth of this world.

Joseph was born in 1810 (three years after his parents had arrived in Canada) and grew up on the family farm.  He was raised Mennonite but by the time of his death in 1880, he had left the Mennonite church and became a member of the Brethren, for whom he served as a deacon.  His was a life well-lived and well respected. As a deacon in his church, his Queen Street home was often the scene of many happy community gatherings. In their diaries, his children--daughter Lousia especially--spoke highly (and fondly) of him and referred to his kind and loving nature when they needed comfort. Today, the museum reflects the home of Joseph E. Schneider as it would have been in 1856—the second generation of Pennsylvania German farmers who prospered and contributed to the early growth and settlement of the area. 
                                          Joseph Schneider Haus Museum & Gallery Today

Indeed, the 1830’s and ‘40’s had brought significant changes to the ever-expanding community of Berlin, ON. Over time, more and more factories and manufacturing shops had been established and provided a steady supply of work for the influx of European immigrants to the area—many of whom were German-speaking, just like their Pennsylvania German neighbours. One of these immigrants was 16 yr old Johann Christoff Schneider who arrived in Berlin, ON in 1847 (just four short years after the elder Joseph Schneider had passed away). Christoff was from a village near Baden, Germany and had been drawn to the area by its reputation for the availability of good work opportunties and its large German-speaking population. Young Christoff found work as a carpenter and later as a mechanic. In 1857, he married a local woman, Anna Elizabeth Metz, and established himself as a successful contractor a year later (1858). Christoph contributed to the built heritage of Berlin and helped to construct some of the notable business buildings of the era—notably the Waterloo County Court House and the Breithaupt Tanneries. Their first child of seven, a son, was born in 1859. His name was John Metz Schneider or as he is more commonly known locally—JM Schneider.
**Note: It is interesting to note that although he was making a living as a contractor, Christophe purchased a 100-acre farm in 1860 (in the area that is now the Victoria/Lawrence St. area of Kitchener, ON which would have placed it just beyond the boundary of Joseph Schneider’s farm). Over time, Christophe cleared his land and spent the next thirty-seven years on it as a farmer. He was a founding member of the Church of the New Jerusalem, a Swedenborgian congregation, joining the likes of John Hoffman (see earlier post). According to his obituary in 1900, Christophe was politically “a staunch supporter of Reform principles.” These are significant facts insofar as JM Schneider was clearly influenced by his father’s example: politically, JM was a forward thinking man and spiritually, he was a practicing follower of the Church of the New Jerusalem. I say “practicing” because JM, espousing his faith and its teachings, was also known for his humanitarian work— both in his community and with regard to the treatment of his meat packing plant employees (see below for details).
                                                                 John Metz Schneider

As a child, John Metz (JM) Schneider, also grew up on his family’s farm, doing chores and no doubt assisting with the butchering and dressing of hogs and other livestock. While I do not feel that it is fitting to call him a butcher by trade, one can certainly make the argument that he learned his valuable meat processing skills from the ground up and from actually doing the work. As a young man, he found work as an assembly-line worker at the Dominion Button Works Factory, working a 10-hour day/6 days a week for the sum of $1.00/day.  In 1883, at age 24, JM married a local girl, Helena Ahrens and they began to raise a family. Three years later (1886), JM injured his hand at work and he was forced to stay home for a month.  

With a family to feed during a time when there were no social programs to assist injured workers,  JM, his wife and his mother began to grind meat and make sausages from a family recipe right in his own home kitchen.  In the beginning, he sold these sausages door-to-door in order to survive but after returning to work in the factory, he would come home and together they would work into the night making sausages to fill orders for a growing clientele. In time, he was able to sell his sausages to local market butchers and grocers until he was eventually able to quit work at the factory in 1890 and launch his full-time meat packing business.

His home became the centre of production but by 1891 a two and a half story structure was erected near his home on Courtland Avenue (which was located just around the corner from the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum). In time his operation expanded and continued to prosper. During the Depression, many businesses lost money and went out of business. Schneider was also hard hit by the Depression but was not deterred. He came up with a plan and appealed to his workers. By enlisting the help of his employees he (and his son, who by now was also working with him in the family business) were able to reduce some of their overall operating costs, thereby keeping his meat packing plant employees working— even when other businesses had closed.

JM Schneider was always a hands-on boss and continued to show up for work every single day well into his ‘80’s until his death in 1942 at the age of 83. His sons followed him into the meat packing business. For more information, see the link below.



  1. Wow, you really know our local history! Great post.

  2. Thank you!
    I do love the Region of Waterloo and I have to say that I consider the scholarship of local history to be a noble pursuit:)

    By the way, there are two courses on local history that will be offered at Conestoga College in September 2013 (taught and developed by myself...shameless plug...) if you know anyone who might be interested, please spread the word. I have tried to keep the course material and text locally focused/sustainable (with the text being published by the Waterloo Historical Society).

    LIBS1750 History of Waterloo Region I-- 1800-1920
    LIBS1760 History of Waterloo Region II--1920-present day

    Thanks again!