The Village of St. Jacobs: A Glimpse into Ontario’s Mennonite Heritage
Join Margaret Deefholts on this Magic Carpet Journal as she takes you to a heritage Mennonite village in the heart of OntarioStory and Photos Courteous of our Friend and fellow traveller, Margaret Deefholts.
At nine o’clock on a perfect summer morning the Village of St. Jacobs is tranquil, its shops still shuttered and its sidewalks deserted. From where I stand looking down King Street, the only vehicle on the road is a horse-drawn black buggy driven by a Old Order Mennonite farmer in a wide-brimmed black hat. A few minutes later another four wheeled open carriage crests a rise in the road, this time with a young woman at the reins. She, and her companion both wear long sleeved print dresses, aprons and bonnets, while the small boy sitting between them is in white shirt sleeves and suspenders. They look as scrubbed and wholesome as a Norman Rockwell painting.
The clip-clop of the horses’ hooves and the clatter of carriage wheels, the splash of potted geraniums and petunias along the sidewalks, the scent of fresh baked bread wafting out from the village bakery, and the heritage buildings flanking the street are all reminiscent of a long gone era of unhurried simplicity. At first glance it seems as though nothing has changed since the town’s Old Order Mennonite settlers first arrived here in Connestoga wagons in the early 1800s. The notion of time standing still is, of course, illusory, but in St. Jacobs this is a gentle deception. Many of the old buildings still exist, but in a new guise – that of upscale boutiques, craft shops and art galleries.
While most visitors are drawn to St. Jacobs for its antiques, fine linen and furniture shops, many are also intrigued by its unique history. Two centuries ago the Village was known as Jakobstettel or “Jacob’s settlement” after Jacob C. Snyder, the Mennonite farmer who pioneered the early development of the town. Although “Jakobstettel” was anglicized to “St Jacobs” with the opening of the first post office in 1852, the old Mennonite family names still permeate the Village. Eby Street is a well traveled thoroughfare, the old William W. Snyder House, built in 1898, now re-named Jakobstettel Guest House, is an elegant Queen Anne style mansion, while the Steiner House built around 1857, is a four-square Georgian building fronting on King Street. (In the course of recent renovations, a child’s shoe was discovered buried in the wall – a good luck charm, according to an old German belief.) The Steiner House is now a boutique called “Ruffled Elegance” and an Old Order Mennonite lady sometimes drops by to demonstrate the art of quilting in an upstairs room.
Most of us are familiar with the Home Hardware signboard in our local shopping malls, but few realize that St. Jacobs is where it all started. Walter J. Hachborn went into partnership with Henry Sittler back in 1948 and together they developed the chain of independently run stores which now stretch across Canada. Hachborn still lives in the neighborhood and is often seen in the original retail outlet on King Street, or at the Home Hardware headquarters a few blocks south of the town core. The name Sittler is, of course, well known to hockey fans, and St Jacobs was where the former Toronto Maple Leaf captain spent his boyhood years. Darryl’s grandfather Jake worked at St. Jacob’s Creamery in the days when milkmen delivered cream and milk door to door in horse and wagon teams. The local joke is that Darryl’s unerring slap-shot technique was developed in the course of helping his grandfather heave manure out of stables.
A block over from the Home Hardware store, I pause at the corner of King Street and Front Street where another landmark of St Jacob’s Mennonite heritage rises against the skyline: the silos of the Pioneer Roller Flouring Mill. Established by Elias W.B Snider in 1870, this was the first mill in Canada to export its prime quality flour to Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast. Today the silos have been converted into an unusual retail outlet for the Village’s gifted craftspeople, and as a showcase for exquisite collections of crystal cut-glass, brass lamps, stained glass, jewelry, leatherwork, woven mats, quilts, pottery and glass-blown objets d’art.
A couple of hours later, having lingered to chat with craftsmen – not to mention putting my credit card to work in the Riverworks Retail Centre – I emerge onto the street just as the bell-tower of St James’ Lutheran Church begins its noon-hour carillon performance. For a few moments the tourists now crowding the sidewalks of the Village are held captive, their eyes softening into nostalgia as the mellow notes float on the afternoon air.
Lunch beckons and I drop in to Benjamin’s Restaurant & Inn which sits on King Street, kitty-corner from the Silos. Built in 1852 by Joseph Eby as a coach-stop between Kitchner (then known as Berlin) and Elmira, it was flanked by a horse and carriage livery service. The latter has been replaced by Good’s Garage – a business which services a different mode of transport – Home Hardware’s fleet of trucks. The only reminder of a long vanished era, is a sidewalk trough and pump once used for watering horses.
Benjamin’s Restaurant & Inn however, continues the tradition of congenial hospitality. I am ushered into their elegant dining room with its cross beamed ceiling, molded white stucco walls and cozy fireplace, to enjoy my lunch – a piquant seafood entree and crème caramel desert – in an atmosphere of old world charm.
Even though the legacy of Mennonite pioneers lingers on in St. Jacobs’ historical landmarks, few members of the Old Order live in the Village today. Primarily a farming community, their homesteads are dotted across the rural areas surrounding St. Jacobs. As I emerge onto King Street after lunch, it is now lined with cars, pick-up trucks and SUVs, and its sidewalks are thronged with shoppers. I am back in the commercial world of the 21st century, and in its bright glare, no horse drawn buggies rumble over the rise in the road.
IF YOU GO: The Village of St. Jacobs lies approximately 15 kilometers north of Waterloo in the Kitchner-Waterloo area of Southern Ontario.
The Visitor Centre at St. Jacobs houses a Mennonite Interpretation Centre which provides a fascinating insight into the history, beliefs and lifestyles of the Mennonite people, via a multimedia presentation encompassing photos, narratives, lighted displays and a film documentary. Admission by donation. For further information on days and hours of operation Ph: (519) 664-3518 or Fax (519) 664-3786. Or e-mail Mary Price, Tourism Manager, St. Jacobs at [email protected]
The Village also boasts a lively series of theatre performances and special festival events. The nearby St. Jacobs Country Farmers’ Market (and Flea Market) offers a cornucopia of farm grown fruit, vegetables, fresh baked bread, cookies, home made jams, cheeses and summer sausage.
For general information on the Village of St. Jacobs and surroundings, go to http://www.stjacobs.com/
Story and pictures by Margaret Deefholts