The Bretz Mennonites

By Christopher Bretz

 

The Mennonites, or 'plain people' as they are known, are a Protestant religious group founded by Menno Simons in the mid 16th century. They are distinguished by the rejection of infant baptism, the swearing of oaths, military service, and worldliness. They practice strong church discipline in their congregations and live simple, honest, loving lives in emulation of the earliest Christians. Unfortunately, because Mennonites refused to assume state offices, to serve as police or soldiers, or to take oaths of loyalty, they were considered subversive and as such severely persecuted. This led at various times to the emigration of Mennonite groups seeking peaceful coexistence with their neighbors.

Our oldest direct ancestor, Jacob Bretz (1766-1843), was born November 1, 1766, into a community of Germans in rural Pennsylvania, where they are known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Unfortunately it is not yet known with certainty who Jacob's parents and siblings were, or what was his connection was to the other Bretz families living in the surrounding areas. There were several distinct groups of Bretz immigrants coming through Philadelphia during the early 1700s and it is possible that Jacob is a descendant one of 6 or more distinct families. Complicating research, there were several local variants of the Bretz name used at the time including Pratz, Britz, Bretch, Fretz and Bretzius. See some of the Bretz immigrant ship records we have found here.

One clue we have is from a biographical sketch of Robert Bretz (1860-1944) conducted in 1937 where he mentions that "the German language was retained by the family until the fifth generation in America". Assuming he was referring to his father's generation, that would suggest the Bretzes arrived prior to 1750 during the first wave of Palatinate settlement, and also references two unknown generations for which we have no records.

Many of the Bretz immigrant lines after 1750 have relatively complete documentation, so Jacob’s parents absence in the record possibly points to an older arrival for his line. Another thing to note is that the German emigration to the Waterloo area of British North America was centered around Rapho, specifically the Eby farm, a family central to the Ontario Mennonites and with whom Jacob would have been familiar with. Even given all these clues however, there are at least 5 documented Bretz immigrants to Philadelphia pre-1750 who have very incomplete records, and any of which could be part of Jacob’s family line.

There is a record of a Jacob Bretz in Rapho on the 1800 US census, and although we can not be sure, it seems plausible that this is our Jacob. The same person is not found in the taxation lists of 1798, just two years prior, when almost all of the other persons listed can be found on both. This implies his homestead was setup between 1798-1800, which given our Jacob would have been 32, might make sense as a young man who had just married around that time. The other Bretz' listed on the Rapho sheet during time are Philip, and Philip Junior (a joiner), John, and John Junior, and a George Britz.

We currently favour the theory that Jacob is the eldest son of Philip 'the Joiner' Bretz (~1745-1815) of Mannheim and was brought up Lutheran, only later converting to Mennonite upon his marriage to Maria Strickler. The Strickler's were a large and wealthy Mennonite family in the Rapho area with roots back to Switzerland in the early 17th century.

Next to nothing is known about Jacob's early life in America, but several inferences can be made from the history of the area.

 


 

Pennsylvania Emigrant Period (1710-1800)

Pennsylvania's first Germans were Mennonites who emigrated from the southern German Palatinate or Rheinland-Pfalz region at the end of the 17th century. As a group they had endured many difficult years of persecution and other hardships for their worship and way of life. Local German electors taxed them incessantly, Catholics and Lutherans sought to have them expelled, and French invasions and wars caused great economic disruption and hardship for the entire area.

The colony of Pennsylvania was founded by its namesake William Penn as a place of religious freedom and tolerance, and community leaders thought this might offer a chance for Mennonite families to begin anew. The average Pennsylvania farm of 125 acres was six times larger than a typical peasant holding in southwestern Germany. In addition, the soil was more fertile, yielding three times as much wheat per acre.

Lacking princes and aristocrats, or an established church, Pennsylvania neither demanded taxes nor conscripted its inhabitants. The word was soon spreading among the brethren, and immigration intentions picked up in earnest. Beginning with 1710 there was a continuous migration of Mennonites from Switzerland and the German Palatinate. By 1732, some 3,000 Palatine Mennonites had arrived in America to settle, mainly in Pennsylvania.

The earliest known records of a Bretz family making the journey is of Jacob Pretz and his wife, and sons Jacob and John, landing in Philidelphia on September 25th, 1732. And of Mennonites John and Christian Fretz arriving sometime between 1710-1725.

Before they could get to America however they had to journey down the Rhine to Rotterdam. Passage could take 4 to 6 weeks, with tolls and fees demanded by authorities of the territories through which they traveled. And they were not alone, many thousands of non-Mennonites were also fleeing the Palatine during those war torn years. In 1709 alone 33,000 refugees (7,000 of them Mennonites) made their way to camps outside Rotterdam looking to sail to a better life.

The Atlantic crossing would typically cost £5-6 ($8-10,000) per head, and to pay for their voyage, many impoverished immigrants resorted to selling themselves or their family members into indentured servitude, legally bound to an employer in America for several years, until their debt was paid. Once aboard a ship the voyage could take 6-10 weeks or more to reach the New World. This second part of the journey first led from Rotterdam to one of the English ports. Most of the ships stopped at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. In England a delay of one to two weeks might be necessary while the ships waited to be passed through the custom house with another possible long wait for favorable winds. Food storage on board ship were minimal and primitive, so much of what they ate would have been either heavily salted (as a preservative) or partially spoiled when served. People lived in very close conditions on these small ships and sanitation was a serious problem. Diseases spread easily and often and many immigrants arrived quite sick.

Gottlieb Mittelberger in his book, Journey to Pennsylvania in the year 1750, 1898 wrote:

The real misery begins with the long voyage. The passengers being packed densely, like herrings, without proper food and water, were soon subject to all sorts of diseases, such as dysentery, scurvy, typhoid and smallpox. Children were the first to be attacked and died in large numbers. [Thirty-two children died on Mittelberger's 1750 voyage]. The terrors of disease, brought on by poor food and lack of good drinking water, were much aggravated by frequent storms. The misery reaches a climax when a gale rages for two or three nights and days, so that everyone believes that the ship will go to the bottom with all human beings on board. In such a visitation the people cry and pray most piteously. When in such a gale the sea rages and surges, so that the waves rise often like mountains one over the other, and often tumble over the ship. When the ship is constantly tossed from side to side by the storm and the waves, so that no one can walk, or sit, or lie, and the closely packed people in the berths are thereby tumbled over each other, both the sick and the well--it will be readily understood that many of these people, none of whom had been prepared for hardships, suffer so terribly from them that they do not survive.

Once safely in Philadelphia it was still another several weeks journey out to the fertile Pennsylvania hills. Since they could not bring horses and cows with them on the ship, they had to purchase animals and supplies upon arrival. The settlement of Germantown, near Philadelphia, became a gateway settlement for many of the new immigrants. What relief and joy it must have been to finally have ended such a journey. Over 4 months of continuous travel under very unpleasant conditions, with little more possessions than what they could carry, arriving to a land full of potential and promise.

Philip Bretz arrived in Philadelpia in this manner aboard the ship Phoenix on October, 20th 1744, William Wilson, Captain. Whether or not he came with family is not known. The name of Philip Bretz was first recorded being in Rapho township by 1752, as noted in the Old Home Week 1812-1912 Souvenir Book, p. 11. 

As they had done for many years in the Palatinate, the settlers depended more upon themselves than upon others. They were excellent and knowledgeable farmers, and with their rugged character, felled the majestic oaks, and laid low the towering hickory; persevering untiringly until the forest was changed into arable field. But the life of a settler was hard. The first lesson the Mennonites taught to their children was "To fear God and to love work".

Jacob Bretz's father was likely born during the 1740s, and although it is not yet known if he was born in Germany or America, he was certainly part of this early group of settlers to Pennsylvania.

The French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754-1763, marked a slowing of immigration to the Americas for a few decades to come.

By the time Jacob was born there were over 50,000 German Palatine immigrants in Pennsylvania (not all Mennonites) and their numbers and special character had not gone unnoticed. As early as 1738, Pennsylvania Lieutenant-Governor George Thomas had said of the German immigrants; 

"This Province has been for some years the asylum of the distressed Protestants of the Palatinate, and other parts of Germany; and I believe, it may truthfully he said, that the present flourishing condition of it is in a great measure owing to the industry of those people; it is not altogether the fertility of the soil, but the number and industry of the people, that makes a country flourish."

When Jacob was 9 years old the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) erupted between England and American patriots. Although there are records of distant Lutheran Bretz relations serving in the Continental Army, Jacob’s family and their neighbors being Mennonite were pacifists who refused to take part in fighting. Mennonite and German Baptist leaders said in 1775 at the start of hostilities;

"We have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of men's lives, but...we are not at liberty in conscience to take up arms to conquer our enemies, but rather to pray to God, who has power in heaven and on earth, for us and them."

When hungry, sick, or wounded soldiers, whether patriot or redcoat, needed aid, the nonresistant Mennonites gave it. The American patriots did not understand this philosophy and would threaten pacifist men with a whipping. In 1777 most states passed Attest Acts. They required everyone to take an oath of allegiance promising to defend the revolutionary cause with arms. Pennsylvania law decreed banishment and confiscation of all property for those who refused the oath. In the small isolated congregation at Saucon in Lehigh County the whole male Mennonite population was at one time committed to jail for refusal to take the required oath. Many were required to pay double taxes, or more, for refusal. Jacob would have been too young for any involvement in this, but his father or other family members certainly would felt these pressures.

Some of the records of Mennonites during the Revolutionary War were compiled in A Guide to Select Revolutionary War Records pertaining to Mennonites and other Pacifist Groups in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. 1775-1800, 1974. Unfortunately there is no explicit mention of a Bretz.

This treatment upset a lot of families and many fled to British controlled lands, including British North America (Canada). One of the reasons the Mennonite brethren had chosen to settle in Pennsylvania was to escape this type of persecution of their beliefs. In 1793, the British government promised them exemption from military service in their lands, encouraging even more immigration.

Starting in the summer of 1786 and lasting through 1788 America suffered a from post-war economic depression including a shortage of currency, high taxes, nagging creditors, farm foreclosures and bankruptcies. Jacob was in his early 20s and would have been likely working his family’s farm through these years.

The Pennsylvania Tax and Exoneration Lists recorded Philip Bretz in Manheim several times starting in 1772.

The Septennial Census of Pennsylvania recorded Philip Bretz numerous times in Manheim starting in 1779.

In 1790 the first US census records the family of Philip Britz in the Rapho area. The proximity to the Strickler family (soon to be in-laws) in the area is too close to dismiss the possibility. The family of John Bretz (1737-1812) lived at the north end of Rapho.

In 1791 British North America was divided into English speaking Upper Canada and French speaking Lower Canada.

Through the 1790s there were outbreaks of Yellow fever in the region , and in 1793 when Jacob was 27 years old, there was a virulent flare up in Philadelphia. One in ten was killed. It is likely that events like these during Jacob’s formative years shaped his character for the rest of his life, and also influenced the decisions of his neighbors in the coming years.

Jacob Bretz would have met and courted his future bride, Mary Strickler, in the mid 1790s. They seem to have met each other relatively late in life that was typical for for the day. Maria's family was also known to be Mennonite, whereas Jacob's family religion is not known. The family of Philip Bretz in fact does appear to be Lutheran as several of Philip's children's birth records are found at the Zion Evangelical Church in Manheim. This could mean that Jacob joined the Mennonite brethren though his marriage to Maria.

The practice of 'bundling' was an accepted part of courting among many communities of the day, including Mennonites. The custom was to have two young people occupy the same bed, fully clothed, except for their shoes, for the opportunity of warm embrace, or perhaps more. Among stricter parents, the girls would be placed in bags before allowing their suitor to crawl into bed with them. Jacob and Mary very likely bundled in this way as well.

Jacob might have married Maria (Mary) Strickler (1766-1853) around 1795 when he was 29-30. No marriage record has yet been identified, but it likely occurred in Lancaster county. He would have courted Maria for several years, and as was the custom, would have asked both parents and church leaders for permission to marry.

Weddings, like the plain people themselves, were a simple affair. There was no fancy dress, ring, or kissing, though everyone dressed in their Sunday church clothes and the bride wore a special, but plain, new apron that was used for Sunday church. The ceremony was held at the bride's family home. After services, a large meal was served, with dishes brought from all of the visiting families. Most weddings took place in November and December, after the harvest. For the couple's honeymoon, they often traveled for several months to visit with families in their congregation and friends. During this time that they also received wedding gifts at each visit, largely practical items that they will need for their new home and life. One of these was likely a large handcrafted blanket box.

Jacob and Mary's marriage was also likely marked with an illuminated document crafted in the traditional art of fraktur script, something still common at that time (it use lapsed in the 1840s-50s). Unfortunately this beautiful document has been lost to time.

Maria's father, Ulrich Strickler (1734-1804) was a successful farmer in the community, and was listed among the taxables of Rapho Township in 1772 as owner of a farm of 150 acres, 4 horses, 5 cattle and was assessed a tax of £17, 6s (about $20,000). In the first census of 1790 he was enumerated among the heads of families as being the head of a family of seven, which would include himself and wife and five of his children, including Maria.

Jacob and Maria’s first son, John Bretz (1798-1835), was born on January 11, 1798. Their children were likely born in Lancaster county, but no definitive records have been found. Their younger children are Jacob (1800-1879), Elizabeth (1804-1882), and Catherine (1805-1888). It is likely that the children all had fraktur script birth announcements created for them, but these too have been lost to time.

Jacob Bretz of Rapho is found on the 1800 US census, and given that he wasn't shown on the taxation lists of 1798, just two years prior, it would appear that this record is a new household. Although we cannot be sure, it seems plausible that this is our Jacob and his family.

In British North America, the first settlers to the Niagara area began arriving in 1798. Several small groups of Mennonites from Pennsylvania journeyed north to survey the lands beyond and made it as far as the to be known as Waterloo County. Certainly some must have been encouraged by the British promises of tolerance, but just as much a factor was that farmland was becoming more scarce and expensive in central Pennsylvania. They liked what they saw and purchased land from a Richard Beasley and returned to fetch their families, spreading the word among their neighbors.

In June of 1800 the United States capital was moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.

A Philip Britz was again recorded in the US census of 1800. At this time there are 7 family members in their household near Rapho; the parents, an elderly woman, and 4 small children. Again it is unknown if there was a possible relationship to Jacob.

On November 29, 1804 there is a record of Jacob and Maria attending the will reading of Maria’s father Ulrich. This is the only known official record of the couple together uncovered so far while in Pennsylvania. The full Will record shows that Ulrich was quite a wealthy man and upon his death in 1804 he divided his estate equally between his children. Maria recieved 50 pounds per year for about 10 years (at least $15,000/year in 2012 dollars), and this perhaps financed the family move to Waterloo in the coming years. The will was filed at Lancaster and can be viewed here.

Will Book J, Vol. 1, p. 258.

Executors were his son, John and nephew, Henry Strickler. His wife was Elizabeth. Children were John, Abraham, Henry, Barbara wife of John Leaman, Maria wife of Jacob Bretz, and Elizabeth wife of Abraham Hostetter.

His will is dated 8/29/1804, and was probated on 11/29/1804.

 

 

Canadian Pioneer Period (1800-1840)

Mennonite settlement began in Waterloo county in the spring of 1800 when Joseph Schoerg and Samuel Betzner, with their families, arrived on the banks of the Grand River, from Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The land was from the Beasley Tract, some 94,012 acres of Six Nations Indians' lands in the Grand River Basin purchased from the natives in 1796 by Richard Beasley from Joseph Brant, their leader, through the government of Upper Canada.

Beasley was a land speculator. In 1800 he owned about 14,000 acres which he sold to a number of Mennonite settlers from Pennsylvania (including Betzner and Schoerg). However, as other families started arriving, a problem arose, because it was discovered that until the Six Nations received full mortgage payment for the entire sale, Beasley was prohibited by deed from subdividing the land or selling plots within it. When Beasley’s actions were revealed a short time later, panic rose among the Mennonite buyers who feared they would lose everything they had paid. Immigration to Waterloo temporarily ceased at the end of 1802.

To correct the situation, a formal agreement was arranged between Brant and Beasley. This arrangement allowed Beasley to sell the bulk of the land in order to cover his mortgage obligations completely, while giving the Mennonite buyers legal title to land they had previously purchased.

Subsequently, in November 1803 an agreement was signed between what was known as 'the German Company' on the one hand, representing the Mennonites, and Beasley, on the other hand, for the purchase of 60,000 acres of his land for the sum of £10,000 (~$8,000,000), and with a mortgage of £20,000 (~$16,000,000 today).

It then fell to Joseph Sherk and Samuel Bricker to go back to Pennsylvania to raise this money from the brethren, both to aid the existing settlers in the north, and to encourage more immigration from Pennsylvania. After several failed attempts to convince families in other counties, a large meeting was organized at the home of John 'Hannes' Eby in Lancaster County, near Rapho. It is not known what was said, but his rousing speech convinced the congregation to act, and within two years, on June 29, 1805 the deed for the 60,000 acres was executed in the Registry at Berlin, Ontario.

Continuing the tale from the Eby book;

'The large payment of cash was transported from Pennsylvania by German Company members Samuel and John Bricker; and Daniel, Jacob, and John Erb. As tradition has it, this journey was an eventful one. The payment money was secured in an oak keg attached to a wagon that was led by one of the Company men. The remaining men, armed with muzzle-loaders, mounted on horseback to guard the wagon as it made its journey north. While the men were resting one evening, several bandits dashed in on them suddenly with the intention of stealing the money. Prepared for such an invasion, the Company men scattered the bandits off in all directions. Apparently, the bandits had been following the group  suspiciously for several days, and so the men were ready for such a surprise attack. In the end, the full payment price for German Company land was safely delivered intact to Beasley in Waterloo. Beasley’s sale to the German Company not only cleared him of a mortgage debt, but left him with 10,000 acres of land which he continued to sell into the 1830s. '

During these first few years, many heads of families would ride up on horseback to survey the country before agreeing to move their families. Perhaps Jacob did as well at this time.

The 60,000 acres of land that the German Company acquired was surveyed into equal lots of roughly 200 acres each. Each shareholder’s lot was randomly selected so that all would be given an equal and fair chance to win the best lots.

Families from Rapho area first left for the new lands in the spring of 1805. The Erbs, the Stauffers, the Corrells, the Krafts, the Hammachers, later the Ebys, and many others early names made the long journey north, into what was still untamed wilderness. Only a handful of other settlers from other Pennsylvania counties had previously arrived  and setup homesteads, but word was spreading quickly among the brethren, and other communities were soon talking of resettling in British North America.

In 1806, when Jacob Bretz was 40 years old, he moved his own family from Lancaster county, Pennsylvania to the area of Waterloo. It is unknown if he was an actual member of the German Company itself. More likely he bought into some shares, since when they arrive they settled on some land just south from John Erb’s place, and do not purchase substantial land for several years.

The journey north would have been at least 5 weeks long, and done by traditional Conestoga wagon team. It would have been stressful. There were only a few 'roads' through New York state to Niagara, and at that time the area was considered a frontier land, where many tribes of Indians (some hostile) lived. It is said it could take 3 days just to travel from Dundas (the nearest civilization at the time) to Waterloo due to the dreadful conditions through the swamp. Also, quite frequently one of the large four-horse, covered wagons would be upset and a great amount of damage would done to the contents. Although they likely traveled with other families, it still would have been a trying journey for Jacob and Maria with 4 newborns and toddlers.

Interestingly, Maria's brother's and sister's families all seemed to have remained in Pennsylvania. Jacob himself likely left other family behind as well, but their names are lost to later generations. The Eby Book simply notes Jacob Bretz being "the father of this family in our Country".

On May 6th, 1806, not long before Jacob and his family arrived, the young community had the misfortune to suffer a large fire. It swept through the area, burning many barns and homesteads, and much valuable timber. It had started from a small clearing fire, which would have been common at the time, blown out of control by an ill tempered wind.

Jacob's first task would have been to build a home for his family, so as to begin the labour intensive task of clearing the land. From records of other settlers in the area, it was most likely a log home.

Several of the more senior pioneers soon began constructing mills to aid the young settlement. In 1806 John Erb built a saw mill near the fork of the Speed and Grand rivers, and followed with grist mill the following year. The area became known locally as Cambridge Mills. Many roads were just starting to be built through the heavily forested and swampy areas, but the majority of the surrounding lands would have been wild.

A school was built early on according to the Waterloo Historical Society; "The people of Waterloo township have the honor of opening the first school in the county, in 1802, in a small shanty near where the village of Blair is now situated. The first teacher was a Pennsylvania German named Rittenhaus. Six years later (1808) a second school was opened about one and one-half miles north-east of Preston by one David Strohm, and the same year another near the junction of Mill street and Shoemaker avenue in the south ward of Berlin."

The second school stood in a grove of stately pine trees. The teacher, David Strohm, was a local man endowed with teaching ability, and who would buy some land off Jacob Bretz in the coming years. Furnishings were primitive, just a few benches and a fireplace. The only books were the ones the settlers had brought with them from Pennsylvania. It is certainly possible that Jacob's children attended instruction here.

The large first annual meeting of Mennonite ministers in British North America was held in 1810, which eventually led to founding the Mennonite Conference of Ontario.

Young sons John and Jacob would have reached the 'age of accountability' around 1812-1815, and would have been baptized then, as is the practice of the Mennonite church.

The War of 1812 (1812-1814) broke out between America and British North America over various trade disputes, and interrupted settlement for a few years. The Mennonites refuse to carry arms so were employed in camps and hospitals and as teamsters in transport service during the war. Many young boys were drafted in this manner. Jacob Bretz's young sons, Jacob and John, would have been entering their teenage years when war broke out and could have been employed in this manner, though it is impossible to know if they actually were or not. On April 27, 1813 the American’s burn York, and later the British burn Washington. Both sides exhausted, peace comes with the Treaty of Ghent in late 1814.

On December 20, 1812 Jacob Bretz purchased 1024 acres of farmland from Robert Beasley in Waterloo County, a very sizable tract. It was located to the north near the future site of Hespleler along the Speed river. An approximation of its value can be calculated from the German Company figures of about 3 and a half shillings per acre, meaning Jacob might have paid £180 (about $35,000 today) for it. Over the years he sold off portions of the land, but mostly kept lot 12 for decades. From 1812 through 1865 Jacob Bretz and his descendants lived on this homestead. For more on the Canadian Bretz Homesteads see here.

From data from the Ontario Archives:

Lot No. 9, Second Conn. 1024 acres, R. Beasley to Jacob Bretz (Pratt), December 20th, 1812. This consisted of Lots 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, Second Conn., Lower Block.

Jacob Bretz disposed of his property as follows:

Lot No. 10, 200 acres to William Ellis, August 10th, 1815. 
Lot No. 12, 10 acres, to David Strome, August 10th, 1815. 
Lot No. 11, 200 acres, to David Strome, August 11th, 1815.
Lot No. 9, 200 acres, to Christian Strome, June 16th, 1823. 
Lot No. 13, 200 acres, to Joseph Fisher, 1842*. 
Several small parcels of Lot 12 between 1838-1858 to various people.
Lot No. 12, 172 acres, to Aaron Clemens, July 15th, 1865.

*unclear if Bretz owned this still

The map shown here is from 1880, but it still uses the same lot and concession labels. The Bretz farm is the large vertical area in the center, right across from the Wanner church.

The land records, censuses, and early township assessments often spell the family name differently than Bretz is spelled today. The deed to Jacob's land from 1812 spells his name 'Jacob Pratt'. Early records from Waterloo through the 1820s spell it 'Jacob Pritz' or 'Jacob Pretz'. These variations might reflect how the individual clerk heard the name when it was spoken, particularly with a German accent.

Where the original farmhouse was located remains somewhat of a mystery, as it was of log construction and is now long gone. It might have been in the very location as the later stone home (see below). This photo is of the Christian Schneider house which dates from 1807 and would have looked similar.

The Strohm family was from Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, and moved up the same year as Jacob. It is unknown how close the relationship was between the two families, but clearly they knew each other well and had dealings. Interestingly, the ship which is thought by some to have brought the Strohm family to Pennsylvania in 1753 also had a Ludwig Pretz aboard. As mentioned above, David Strome was also an early teacher for the Mennonite community.

Also in 1812, Benjamin Eby was confirmed as the first bishop of the District. He would go on to remain a strong Mennonite community leader for decades.

Mennonite women have a long tradition of excellence at quilting, and it is certain that Maria and her daughters were no exception. Young girls learned their needle skills at an early age and were expected to complete several quilts by marriageable age. It was normal for a young bride to receive the gift of quilts at her marriage.  And it was not uncommon to use good used fabric for these quilts, so it is quite likely that a girl receives a quilt that has patches in it made from a dress she wore as a little girl.

Families worked hard, but also they ate well. German Mennonite cooking was always hearty, and many wonderful and tasty dishes were enjoyed, including; 'Knödels' (dumplings - of all kinds), 'Semmels' (butter rolls), 'Zwieback' (rich two-layered Christmas rolls), 'Fastnachts' (a type of raised donut), 'Bobbat' (battered sausage or pork), many varieties of simple soups, and 'Shoofly' (a molasses crumb pie). Pie was served three times a day. For a snack they enjoyed pickled beets and eggs. They drank simple herb teas and occasionally enjoyed whisky.

A homestead would have had a 'spoaheat', a large outdoor brick oven to cook with. On baking day a roaring wood fire was started in the oven. When the heat was great enough, the coals were raked out and a dozen or so loaves of bread were set in to bake. After the bread came 16 to 20 pies, then perhaps trays of fruit to dry.  As well was built what was called a 'miagrope', a bricked-in kettle. Here water was heated for washing or butchering. In it lard was rendered, apple butter cooked down, or soap manufactured.

Butchering pork or beef typically took place in late fall/early winter after crops had been harvested and temperatures had dropped. Many hands were required and often families and neighbors helped each other on butchering day. Many of the tasks were done outdoors and scrapple was cooked in an iron kettle over a wood fire. Scrapple and sausage are made at the end of butchering process, after the main cuts of meat are cut and salted/smoked. Scrapple is a very old dish that traces back to the broth and grain gruels of medieval Europe. The word 'scrapple' is considered a Philadelphia term and the original rural term was 'Pon has'.

Across the world in Indonesia, in April of 1815 a volcano called Mount Tambora erupted explosively. It was the largest volcanic eruption in over a millennia and its effects were widely felt. The volume of ash released had a cooling effect on the entire globe, so much so that 1816 became known as the 'Year Without a Summer', and famous for many weather anomalies. In early-mid 1816, a persistent dry fog was observed in the northeastern U.S. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight, such that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Neither wind nor rainfall dispersed the "fog". On 4 June 1816, frosts were reported in Connecticut, and by the following day, most of New England was gripped by the cold front. On 6 June 1816, snow fell in Albany, New York, and Maine. Snow 30 cm (12 in) deep accumulated near Quebec City. Such conditions occurred for at least three months and ruined most agricultural crops in North America. The staple food oats, for example, rose from 12¢ a bushel the previous year, to 92¢ a bushel, an 8-fold increase. Crop failures would have effected the Waterloo region farmers as well.

In 1816, the Government of Upper Canada elevated the German Company Tract to the Township of Waterloo. The establishment of the Township also marked the beginning of a steady migration of German speaking Europeans to the area. Population growth and improvements made to roads helped establish the beginnings of a true urban centre that would become a hamlet named Berlin in 1833, in honor of the settlers' German heritage.

These cold years coincided with Jacob starting to sell off part of his land in 1817 to his neighbors, the Strohm family. Perhaps this was this due to a failed crop and a need to raise money. It is said that it was so chilly in harvest time that the men wore their coats while reaping the grain. Also perhaps also due to the cold, there was a new economic crisis in England, encouraging larger scale emigration to North America, and a resulting influx into the Waterloo area.

The first map of the local families of the Waterloo area was produced in 1818. The local population was about 850 and it is a marvel that they had built a thriving community in just 13 years. The Bretz’s are not on the confines of this map.

There are many surviving Waterloo township Assessments which record the Bretz family, and which date from 1818 to 1840. These provide a wonderful snapshot as they lived. From them, for instance, we learn that in 1818 the family lived in a single story log house somewhere on the property. This was the first time we have found them recorded by a census roll anywhere. Jacob cultivated only 50 of 200 acres available, and had 2 horses, 2 oxen, 5 cows, and 5 calves.

Also in 1818, the border between British North America and the United States was defined as the 49th Parallel, west from Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains.

Jacob's son John was married to Christina Detweiller around 1820 at Wellington, Ontario. The Detweillers were a recently settled family from Pennsylvania. It appears that John and his new wife dwelled on the family farm at this time.

During the mid 1820s, increasing numbers of Amish, a conservative Mennonite sub group, emigrated into the area and settled to the northwest of Waterloo.

In 1822-23 we find that the family had built an additional home on their lot, this one of wood frame construction, and a single story. It would appear that the elderly Jacob and and Maria continued to live in the old log home (perhaps a Mennonite dawdy haus), while the younger family members moved into the new house.

Jacob sold off a another portion of his land around 1823, Lot 9 to Christian Strome. This was the lot which crossed the Speed River. Exactly why he sold off the lot will never be known, but Jacob sold it around the same time his son John was first married. John bought a lot in the upper block in 1825, so it could be that the sale helped to fund this. Before this,John and his young family might have been living on his father's farm, as there are 13 people recorded by the census that year. This total dropped the following year.

Jacob's son John bought 221 acres from Sam Bricker on June 3rd, 1825. It was located at Lot 91 of the Upper Block.

In 1825 there was terrible hardship back in Pennsylvania and many more Mennonites came north to settle in the years 1826-29. Many failed financially and in order to procure homes for themselves and children, some came to British North America where land could still be had very cheap.

John Bretz and his young family suffered heartbreak in 1826 when his wife Christina died. She would have been 26. The cause is unknown. John would remarry after a few years to Elizabeth Reist and have two more children. But sometime around 1834 John himself would be stricken down, as no more records are found of him. A very sad time for the family no doubt.

On the late 1820s Assessments, Jacob Sr and Jacob Jr are both recorded on the same farm, but listed seperately. Jacob Jr is the main farmer of the land and has 75 acres under cultivation, with 3 horses, 2 oxen, and 8-10 cows and calves. However his father is listed owning 2 cows and continued living in the old log home.

Jacob's daughter Catherine was married on May 1, 1828 to John Steen, another Pennsylvania family. They would go on to have a very large family and according to the Eby book, "lived a little south of Tuck's Hill". From the township assessments we know that it was the east side of Lot 93 of the Upper Block, right next to her brother John. This lot remained in the family for some time and was later lived on by the Wielers, Catherine's sister-in-law's family.

On May 22, 1829 young Jacob Bretz was married in the Waterloo area at age 29 to Nancy Wiehler (1809-1894). Interestingly, Jacob’s first child seems to have been born about a month before the wedding. He and his wife would go on to have 9 children in all (8 boys and 1 girl) steadily over the next 20 years. Gerhard (1829-1905), Mary Ann (Polly) (1831-1903), Benjamin (1835-1882), John (1837-1908), Samuel (1839-1915), Jacob (1843-1926), Henry (1846-1920), Abraham (1850-1940), and Aaron (1853-1920).

In 1829 the first local Union meeting house (which would eventually become the Wanner church) was built just opposite the Bretz' original property line and highway 24. It was used by both Mennonite and Tunker denominations, and also used as a school until 1848. This is likely where many of elder Jacob's grandchildren first were first educated. 

The summer of 1829 had some very violent weather. On June 2nd the early settlement of Guelph was destroyed by a powerful tornado. And closer to the farm, another tornado killed someone in the town of Galt on August 7th.

Up until this time, the closest 'town' to the Bretz family was Berlin (Kitchener), some miles distant. But that was soon to change. In 1830, Joseph Oberholtzer purchased land along the Speed River, just east of Jacob Bretz' Lot 9. A settlement grew there over the next decade which became known as New Hope. As well, although John Erb resisted development of his land at the fork of the Speed and Grand rivers while he was alive, after his death in 1832 the lands were surveyed and sold off to become the town of Preston. The population grew rapidly from about 250 inhabitants in 1836 to about 1600 in 1855. Preston's location on the Great Road into the interior of the province made it a natural stop for travelers and with its eight hotels and taverns attracted more Europeans than any other village in the area. 

In 1831, the Gore District Assessment Rolls found Jacob Bretz to own 200 acres, and had 75 acres under cultivation. The land's value was set at £211 (at least $240,000 today).

Jacob Strickler Bretz took ownership of the family farm (Lot 12) from his father on July 18th, 1832. Jacob senior was 66 years old and at that time the size of the lot was 204 acres, 3 roods, 18 perches. Lot 13 is a bit of a mystery as it is known to have been sold to Joseph Fisher in 1842, but not by a Bretz.

The photo to the right is of what is believed to be the original Bretz family homestead which dates from the 1830s or 40s. It is of a similar style to early Mennonite homes, however it has been extensively renovated and added to over the years. The house is found on a list of Heritage buildings for the town of Cambridge. The home today located at 355 Chilligo Road.

In 1834 the City of York was renamed Toronto.

In 1835, neighbor Christian Strome built a sawmill downstream on Bretz Creek on Lot 11. Chilligo creek is the original First Nation name for the creek but didn't come into use again until the 20th century.

There was a particularly bad harvest in Ontario in 1835. These happened from time to time and the close nit Mennonite community would have pulled together to help out their neighbors.

In August, 1835 pastor John Bernheim, a Lutheran missionary, recorded in his journal that while traveling back to Berlin (Kitchener) from Puslinch "a violent and continued rain forced him to take shelter for the night with a local mennonite, W. Bretz." We are not sure who this W. Bretz was, but the road from Puslinch to Berlin would go by Jacob Bretz' farm. Perhaps a transcription error?

Sometime between 1834 and 1837 the old log home appears to have been replaced with a second wooden framed, single story house. Elderly Jacob and Maria continued to live there, apart from their son's family, but there also always is a young girl or two listed with them. Perhaps grandchildren.

On June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria took the throne of England and became sovereign of all of it's lands, including of course, British North America.

In 1837 the new Wanner church and graveyard was built at its present location on Beaverdale road. It was small and and made from brick. 

On July 16th, 1837 Jacob Bretz became ordained in the Mennonite church. He was 37. He likely preached at the nearby Wanner church just down the road from him, but records say he would have circulated to various churches further away. He also likely continued to farm for many years to come, since on average Mennonite worship held a service only every 4 weeks.

North America suffered a severe economic depression from 1837-1843, stemming from what was the financial Panic of 1837. It started in the United States as a speculative fever, but the bubble burst on May 10, 1837 in New York City, when every bank stopped payment in gold and silver coinage. The Panic was followed by a five-year depression, with the failure of banks and record high unemployment levels. In terms of severity on the population it was comparable to the Great Depression which would follow in the next century. Few regions were unaffected and the Bretz family and their community would have been no exception.

At the same time during 1837-1838 there was revolt in British North America with both the Upper Canada Rebellion and Lower Canada Rebellion. Although stemming from cultural conflicts which had existed for decades, the depression likely exacerbated the emotions and economics of the time.

Jacob sold just over an acre of the western edge of his lot to Charles Crossin on March 3rd, 1838. This began the chipping away of his land on the far side of Bretz creek. Mr. Crossin added to his lot in 1844 and built a small hotel on the site, which was known as the Globe Hotel. It was later sold to Octavius Seagram in 1847, and kept in the Seagram family for 22 years.

In 1839 Jacob Bretz began leading worship for a group which became known as the Blandford church. Although he was not the sole minister at Blandford, he is considered the founding leader of the group. Early family names in the community were Basinger, Newschwander, Strickler, Miller, Baer, Stauffer, and Bingeman. The congregation began services in 1839 in little more than a field south from Plattsville, and formally organized a few years later. The first frame building was occupied in 1846 not far from Bright. Records from as early as 1851 show services in the Meeting Calendar every fourth Sunday. Jacob would lead worship from Blandford for many decades to come.

Mennonite 'churches' were really just small simple meeting houses used for worship. There was no ornamentation inside or outside, only functional simplicity. The services were conducted in German in a simple style. The congregational singing was unaccompanied. Traditional hymns and lighter gospel songs were sung, but there were no choirs or singing ensembles as this was considered an expression of pride and classified as a performance rather than act of worship.

The Bretz families were recorded by the census in 1840. It listed heads of households and numbers of male and females of different ages within. Jacob Jr in this instance refers to Jacob Strickler Bretz. It appears that Jacob Sr's daughter Elizabeth was living with her parents. Interestingly, Jacob Jr is listed with 5 boys and 2 girls as children. Officially the couple had 4 boys and 1 girl in 1840, so these other two children are a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they be any of John Strickler Bretz' children, who had died some years earlier.

1840 Census, Waterloo township, Gore district

M under 16 M over 16 F under 16 F over 16 Total
            Jacob Bretz Sr

1

2
3
            Jacob Bretz Jr 5 1 2 1 9

The 1840 Assessment also noted that Jacob had 100 acres under cultivation, and possessed 3 horses, 2 oxen, 5 cows, and 5 calves.

Sometime after 1840, but before 1861, both of the wooden frame homes on the Bretz property were replaced with a two story, stone structure. An example of Mennonite stone construction typical of the early settler period can be seen in the Brubacher house example, which was built in 1850. For a better breakdown of the family's property and assets over time, as reported in the township assessments, see here.

On February 10, 1841 the Act of Union of the British parliament unites Upper (English) and Lower (French) Canada, into the Province of Canada. It was partly in response to the two rebellions a few years earlier. The Union Act was ultimately unsuccessful, and led to calls for a greater political union in the 1850s and 1860s. The same year, a new currency was introduced called the Canadian pound to replace the British unit.

In a letter written by an early settler of Blenheim in the 1840s, Daniel Wakefield, the cost of things of the time were recorded: one yoke of oxen, $65.00; one span of horses, $163.00; two cows for milking, $54.00; two barren cows for feeding, $28.00; seven pigs for feeding, $18.00; one wagon, $94.00; two plows, $10.00. A shanty could be built for $17.00 to $23.00, and a good log house cost $78.00. Labourers' wages averaged $97.00 per year and carpenters, 38 cents a day and board.

On July 11, 1843, at age 76, Jacob Bretz senior passed away. He was buried at the Wanner Mennonite cemetery not far from his homestead, and at the church where he worshipped for many years. The gravestone looks to have been replaced at some point in more modern times.

Traditional Mennonite funerals were occasions for very large, almost festive gatherings. Neighbors would tend to the grieving family by helping to cook and serve a large feast to the community. Food was offered, and invitations extended after a simple graveyard ceremony. Many hundreds of people would show up later at the homestead to eat and drink and remember into the evening.

It was once said by a neighboring Lutheran of the Pennsylvania Dutch funerals;

"Our Germans look forward all their lives to their funerals, hoping to be able to entertain their friends on that great occasion with the hospitality due to them, and honor due to the memory of the departed."

In 1845, Jacob Hespeler arrived in the settlement of New Hope. Hespeler purchased land along the river and built several industrial mills, encouraging more growth. Also that year, Abraham C. Clemens bought the Bretz family's old Lot 13 and moved his family there.

The Clemens family and the Bretz family had many dealings. Jacob Bretz's daughter, Mary Ann 'Polly' Bretz, would marry Jacob Miller Clemens, the nephew of neighboring Abraham Clemens. Abramham would later become ordained at the same church as Jacob Strickler Bretz and became Deacon. The Eby book states that the old Bretz homestead was later owned by John Clemens, who is shown to still occupy Lot 13 in 1880.

The area around the Bretz farm started to get more crowded in the mid-1840s and 50s. One of Jacob's neighbors, Jacob Fisher, opened a grist mill downstream from him in 1848, but the operation was not initially a success. Thomas Stewart bought the mill in 1854 and this was soon attracting more settlement. In the 1864 township directory, the mill is referred to as being located on Lot 11, of the 2nd concession, on Bretz creek. The growing hamlet became known as Fisher Mills.

From the Waterloo Regional Museum website;

The hamlet of Fisher Mills was located on Chilligo Creek about 2 km. north west of Hespeler, where Jacob Fisher built a dam and established a grist mill in the 1840s. The mill produced flour until about 1890, when the building and equipment were dismantled and moved to Manitoba. A saw mill, a feed mill and a cider mill later operated on the site. Hydro-electric power from the dam was supplied to the nearby village of Hespeler in the late nineteenth century before the advent of hydro-electricity from Niagara Falls. In the nineteenth century, a hotel, a blacksmith shop and other small trades were located at Fisher Mills. In its early years, the hotel was owned by the Seagram family of distillery fame, who owned property at Fisher Mills, and where Joseph E. Seagram was born. In 1870 the village's estimated population was 100. It was not on a direct route between any of the main communities of the area, and never had railway or postal service; its population declined as other centers such as Hespeler gained in importance. The Fisher Mills dam was demolished in 2000. The historic settlement was situated near the present-day intersection of Chilligo Road and Beaverdale Road.

During the 1840s-50s there was a daily stagecoach which connected the towns of Preston and Guelph, and one of the stops along the way was Fisher Mills. The postal service also used this route for delivery, although the hamlet never had a post office.

A blackmith arrived in 1848 and bought over 12 acres on the western edge of Jacob's property. The shop was set up at the corner of Beaverdale and Fisher Mills Road.

Probably Fisher Mill's most famous son was Joseph E. Seagram, who was born there in 1841. Joseph's father, Octavius Seagram moved to the area in 1837 and both farmed and owned the local Globe Hotel. He is also known to have bought a half acre parcel of land on December 1846, from Jacob Bretz on Lot 12, perhaps as an expansion to the business. Sadly Octavius and his wife died during the mid 1850s and his sons were sent to boarding school in Galt. Joseph returned briefly to the area in the early 1860s to work as a bookkeeper at the grist mill, before moving on to learn about distilling at a flour mill in Waterloo. After nine years at that mill, Joseph became the one hundred percent owner of the company and renamed it Seagram in 1883. Making whisky became the most important part of the business and Seagram built it into one of the country's most successful of its kind. His 1907 creation, Seagram's VO whisky, became the largest-selling Canadian whisky in the world today. Being such a small community, there certainly might have interactions between the Bretz family and the Seagrams during those early years. Joseph's brother, Edward, returned to Fisher Mills to run the family hotel in the 1860s.

The small lake which is shown on the Bretz property on several maps probably dates from the building of the larger mills as they dammed the creek in the late 1850s. In later years it was known as Fisher Mill's Pond or Chilligo Pond. One wonders about the conversations with Jacob Bretz to discuss this, as it was his land being flooded. Land records do show that in April 1858 there was a transaction between Jacob Bretz and Thomas Stewart, the owner of the mill at that time, for a 'water privilege', and this could be its origin. The dam and pond would remain in place until the year 2000.

 

 

Worldliness Period (1840-1890)

Abraham Bretz (1850-1940) was born at the homestead at Fisher Mills on August 25, 1850 to Jacob and Nancy. He was born later than his siblings, with his parents already in their 40s and 50s, and some brothers nearly 20 years older. It is interesting to speculate that this might have encouraged a certain distance between Abram and his younger siblings with the rest his family. For example, when Abram turned 20, his own father was already 70 years old.

Whether due to this generation gap, a shift in cultural attitudes, or perhaps just the encroachment of civilization upon the small Mennonite communities, Jacob's children would seem to have been less restricted to conform to the social norms of the old Mennonite order. Many would abandon the traditional life and pursue other careers, and other religions in the decades ahead. This is somewhat surprising given their father's generation seem to have been quite traditional and pious.

The recorded population of the Waterloo region in the 1852 census (the first Canadian census with full surviving records) was 8,878. The other Bretz families listed on it was that of brother John Bretz's son, Jacob Jr. and his wife Suzanna and their children. As well John's daughter Susanna. Jacob's own son, listed as Gerhart Britz, worked as what appears to be an apprentice wagon maker in Waterloo township.

The 1852 census of the Province of Canada found 9 members in the Bretz household.

1852 Census, Waterloo County, district 38
            Jacob Bretz 53
            Nancy Bretz 43
            Benjamin Bretz 16
            John Bretz 15
            Samuel Bretz 12
            Jacob Bretz 9
            Henry Bretz 7
            Abraham Bretz 2
            Mary Bretz 20

The Mennonite presence in Waterloo Township was weakened during the 1850s. The passing of Bishop Benjamin Eby in 1853 meant the end of his long era of community leadership among both Mennonites and non-Mennonites. The world was also creeping in on the communities, with the steady stream of non-Mennonite immigrants slowly making them a minority. By some accounts the population of Canada West doubled during the 1840s. The character of the whole region was changed.

Numerous towns and villages were formed in the 1850s as a result of the influx, including; Galt (1850), Guelph (1851), Preston (1852), Berlin (1854), New Hamburg (1857), and Hespeler (1859). The hamlet of Fisher Mills around the Bretz homestead also grew and had nearly 100 people living there by 1870.

On July 19, 1853 Mary Strickler passed away at 86 years of age. She was buried at the Wanner Mennonite cemetery with her husband.

In 1853 Jacob Bretz' name is found on the The Wayland List of Deacons and Ministers of the Mennonite Church in Canada for the township of Waterloo.

Railways had been slowly spreading in Canada West and in 1855-56 the Waterloo region was finally connected to Toronto by the Grand Trunk Railway. This reduced the journey time immensely and increased the ease of shipping goods. In 1856 the line was extended to Sarnia and passed within a few miles of Plattsville. The coming of the railway would have made the world that much smaller for the Mennonite communities, and exposed their children to even greater worldliness.

When the local railways were being built, not all of the bridges across the Speed and Grand Rivers were ready ahead of the grading. As a result, in 1856 two locomotives had to be hauled over land from Galt by way of Fisher Mill's and Kossuth to the station at Shantz. Local farmers with teams of draft horses were contracted to help pull them over the hills, all of which took several weeks. It was, however, apparently a huge thrill to the children of the area, and the Bretz family was likely no exception.

In 1857, Jacob Hespeler called for a census of New Hope to find out if the number of residents in the settlement would be enough to name it a village. It was, and in 1859 the new village of Hespeler was also connected to Guelph by rail. The line was built across the Bretz family's original Lot 9

Ottawa was chosen to be the capital of Canada by Queen Victoria in 1857, and soon after the cornerstone of the Parliament Buildings was laid. The decision was also made to introduce a decimal coinage into Canada, partly to align trade with the United States, and so in 1858 the first Canadian dollars were circulated.

Gerhard Bretz appears to have finished his wagon making apprenticeship and moved to near Washington around 1858, soon after his marriage. He is the first of his family to live in Blenheim township

Uncle John Bretz's son, Jacob Jr. was listed again on the 1861 census. They were the only other large family of Bretz's in the Waterloo area. Family gatherings must have been quite the event. Between the Steens (Catherine Bretz's family) and the two large Bretz families there were nearly 30 young cousins and first cousins of all ages around during the 1850s.

The Canadian census takers also recorded occupation, religion, and other information. Members of the Bretz family were most often recorded as being Mennonite or Menonist, but some individuals were also written as Wesleyan Methodist and Tunker. Both of these are somewhat related to the Mennonite Church and its ideals, so perhaps the association is understandable. Tunker was a movement which came out of Pennsylvania and German Mennonites in the late 18th century and was carried to Ontario. They were distinguished to outsiders by baptisms which immerse the whole person, as was the practice in Biblical times. Wesleyan Methodists were a more recent American church influenced by the mid 19th century idea of Holiness, or a personal salvation through faith and piety, and were evangelical in nature. They were very progressive in their beliefs, championing women's rights, and were anti-slavery.

The census records pose some interesting questions. On the 1871 census Jacob and his wife were listed as Mennonite, while right below his children were listed as Wesleyan Methodist, except John, who had no listed religion. Ten years earlier however, on the 1861 census they are all called Menonist. It would be fascinating to know what prompted the conversion of the children. The 1850-60s would have been the time period that Wesleyans were reaching Canada. Interestingly, all of the available census records list Jacob's nephew, Jacob Bretz Jr's family as Tunker.

The 1861 census found 11 members in the Jacob Bretz household. It states that they lived in a two story stone house.

1861 Census, South Waterloo
            Jacob Bretz 61
            Nancy Bretz 52
            Benjamin Bretz 24
            John Bretz 22
            Samuel Bretz 20
            Jacob Bretz 17
            Henry Bretz 15
            Abraham Bretz 10
            Aaron Bretz 7
            Leah Wheeler 19
            Eliz Gingerich 11

The records of 1861 also show Jacob in the list of landowners of Waterloo living on this farm. The land is listed as being 168 acres and worth $3,200 (at least $450,000 today) at the time.

To the left is a portion of an excellant map of Waterloo from 1861 by the Tremaine brothers. On it you can clearly see Jacob Bretz' farm next to Fishers Pond. It also shows the local blacksmith (BSS), the Wanner Church and graveyard, and the mill owned by Thomas Stewart. The owners of Jacob's former lots are all visible, such as the Clemens to the north.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) broke out between the secessionist Confederate south and Union north over the issues of taxation and slavery. The war had a direct effect on the people of British North America for many years. Many in fact had predicted a Confederate victory, and anticipated an attack on British soil by the Union army, which they thought would seek territory in compensation for the loss of the south. But the period was one of booming economic growth for British North America. The war in created a huge market for agricultural and manufactured goods, most of which went to the Union north. The farmers of Waterloo county very likely benefited from this.

As the war progressed, rising concerns over the security of railways in British North America led to the 1862 creation of the Grand Trunk Railway Brigade to patrol the tracks, including in southern Canada West and the Waterloo area.

In existance from before the war, but more active duing it, the Underground Railroad helped over 100,000 slaves escape to the free northern states. In the end, 30,000 of these refugees made their way on to British North America seeking new lives, where most would settle in southern Canada West. Given the Mennonite beliefs against slavery, some brethern back in Pennsyvania are known to have actively supported the network, and would have had connections in the Waterloo area. It is unknown if there was any Bretz family involvement however.

The 1862-63 Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Oxford recorded Gerhard Bretz as an officer of the local Lodge in the Temperance Order in the town of Washington. He was listed as: W. P. W. C. T., Garhard Bretze. His land lay just to the east of town about 3 miles.

In 1864 the nearby dam on Bretz Creek was bought by Aaron and John Clemens, the grandsons of Christian Strome, who built it to a higher water level. Whether or not this influenced the Bretz family's subsequent move is not known. By 1871 the mill was the biggest flour mill in Waterloo township, and it ranked 8th in the country based upon the value of its output.

The Waterloo township directory of 1864 shows the Bretz family still living on the old homestead, on Lot 12, concession 2. It also lists the businesses found in Fisher Mills at the time, right on their doorstep.

There is a surviving diary entry from February 1865 by Moses Weber, a young local boy, which mentions Jacob Bretz. It is recorded in the book From the inside out: the rural worlds of Mennonite diarists, 1863 to 1929, 1999.

"we the 15 A midlen fine day. Jacob hauled wood. Father and Mother went to Absalom Schneiders, on visit, and to Jacob Bretz's over night, and to Abraham Clemens and to Joseph Hegis. I went with John Marting to Hespeler's [Mill]; we had a load of wh[eat]. Andrew Groff's wer here on visit."

The Bretz family moved to near Plattsville in late summer 1865 after Jacob bought a lot from Aaron Clemens on July 25th. Abram Bretz mentions the move himself in a 1940 newspaper interview. The new farm was on the 13th line of Blenhiem, about a half mile west of the town. This map from 1880 shows the land in Jacob's name just below the town (map is rotated, north is left). The family would own this farm for nearly 20 years. Jacob's son Gerhard had been living in the area for some years, and of course Jacob himself had been conducting worship here for nearly 20 years, so the family knew the area well. The old family homestead was sold for $2,930 (at least $490,000 today), and much of this sum was still found in Jacob's Will many years later.

Jacob might have retired somewhat from preaching at the Blandford church as John Basinger was ordained Deacon there on October 22nd, 1865. Jacob would have been 65 then, but it is indicated he was still actively involved in the church. His name was listed on a German language broadsheet calendar for Mennonite services in 1865.

A Wesleyan Methodist church was erected at Washington on January 1st, 1860. Reverends Samuel Fear and David Chalmers were the first pastors there (and also at Plattsville).

Plattsville's first physician was a Dr. Morrison.

Both Jacob and his son Gerhard are listed in the 1867 Oxford county directory.

Sometime in the mid to late 1860s daughter Mary Bretz and her husband Jacob Clemens and their family moved away to Grey county and settled in Bentinck township there. This would have been the furthest any of the immediate family had lived from the others.

The Dominion of Canada was formed July 1, 1867 with Queen Victoria signing the British North America Act. While the BNA Act gave Canada more autonomy than it had before, it was far from full independence from the United Kingdom. Foreign policy remained in British hands, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remained Canada's highest court of appeal, and the constitution could be amended only in Britain.

The 19th century saw the slow rise of the alcohol Temperance movement. Although it would not reach its height until the early 20th century, there were many local initiatives to educate people about the risks of over indulgence, and attempts to ban its sale completely. It originally arose from the belief that self-discipline was essential to economic success, and that alcohol was an obstacle to self-discipline. Moral and religious associations only were attributed later. Many believed that the urban poverty developing with the growth of cities in the mid 19th century was caused by drink. This change in attitudes would even have influenced the insular Mennonite communities, albeit much more slowly. The Canadian government soon allowed communities to pass their own prohibition laws. And after just a few generations, by the early 20th century, most Mennonites had become total abstainers, even to the extent of using unfermented grape juice instead of wine for the communion service.

During the 1860s-1870s the Bretz and Steen cousins were getting married and starting new families. Many of them spread to other townships in southern Ontario, but always held a strong presence in the Waterloo region. It was this generation which started to move off the farms and into towns, as well as move away from the traditional Mennonite lifestyle. One thing they kept however, was a strong Mennonite work ethic and sense of independence.

Schools were set up in the district by mid century according to an essay on the BlandfordBlenheim township website, by Norman Peat;

The township had been divided into sections, schools erected and qualified teachers secured. There was always keen rivalry between the schools and the teachers and each teacher sought to show the highest results at the quarterly examinations, which were set by the local superintendent and trustees. The last meeting of this kind took place in Drumbo on Wednesday, April 25th, 1868 and between two and three hundred people representing fifteen of the eighteen schools took part. Springhill, Plattsville, Drumbo and Richwood mustered the strongest while there were two or three pupils from each of the other sections. This unique educational tournament appears to have been a complete success.

Jacob's second youngest son Abram attended Normal School for teachers in Toronto around 1868-69. Those applying had to be over 16 years of age, be able to read and write, do simple arithmetic, and have a clergyman's letter attesting to their sound moral character.

Soon after his accreditation, in January 1870 Abram, at just 19, began teaching near the town of Wilmot at Green's School. He was quite successful and in 1873 moved to take over the school at Blink Bonnie, near Plattsville for 3 years. Abram is formally listed as a teacher in the local 1874-5 Directory for Oxford County.

The life of a teacher in early rural Ontario was not easy. In return for poverty level salaries, teachers prepared for and taught all grades, and maintained discipline through harsh measures. They kept the schools clean, hauled wood for the stove, brought water from the well, and started a pot to boil in the morning so students, bringing whatever meager offerings they could from home, would have a hot lunch at noon. Some teachers tended gardens on the school site to provide additional food for themselves or their students. The average annual wage for someone like Abram in 1870 was $260 ($30,000).

Many foreign arrivals to Canada seem to have been naturalized in 1871, possibly during the census, including Jacob Bretz.

The 1871 census found 7 members in the Jacob Bretz household.

1871 Census, Oxford North, Blenhiem
            Jacob Bretz 71
            Nancy Bretz 62
            John Bretz 33
            Jacob Bretz 28
            Henry Bretz 25
            Abraham Bretz 19
            Aaron Bretz 17

Russian Mennonites, concerned that the Russian government's reforms of the time would be the end of their way of life, decided to emigrate with the help of North America's long settled Mennonite communities. In the years after 1873, some 18,000 of them would choose to make the journey west, and the Waterloo community alone welcomed many hundreds of them. As part of the resettlement agreement with the Canadian government, the Waterloo elders had agreed to provide initial support of the new arrivals, and so many families took in Russian families for a time. There are several accounts of somewhat of a culture clash between the two groups as the local Waterloo Mennonites found the Russians to be much more conservative in their ways. The Russian arrivals also were astounded by the bounty of food available, as they had often lived much more meagerly. There were so many Russian immigrants that arrived it is hard to imagine that any of the Bretz families did not have some sort of interaction with them.

From 1873-1885 there was another severe economic depression in North America. In some places, like Canada, it lasted well into the 1880s earning the nickname the 'Long Depression'. The cause was the Panic of 1873, a credit market crash formed by runaway railway and real estate speculation. It probably can't be underestimated the effect those hard times had on the families of Waterloo.

The 1874 Oxford county directory shows Jacob and his son Gerhard still on their same farms, but now also lists Jacob's other son, Henry Bretz has having his own farm just down the road. from his father.

In time some of Jacob's younger children would choose to leave the rural life and pursue lives in the cities and towns, but the older siblings would continue on the farms. Perhaps this was as a result of the Long Depression, or perhaps just a shift in the attitudes of generations. Jacob's eldest son Gerhard was a wagon maker by trade, Samuel worked as a blacksmith and later a painter, John was a farmer, and Benjamin toiled as a farm laborer for many years. Part of the explanation is that, being so much older, they didn't have the same choices as their younger siblings. They literally grew up in a different world.

This photo to the left is currently believed to be of Jacob and Nancy Bretz from the 1870s.

While most of Jacob's children stayed in the Oxford area until the 1880s, daughter Polly and her family probably moved to Lambton county near Lake Huron by 1875. There appear to have been a lot of members of her husband's family, the Clemens, in the area. Her brother Abram and his family also appear to have moved there for a least a few years in 1883. And both brothers Samuel and Benjamin would also move there. From the records it is clear there must have been visits between them and the rest of the family. They all lived within a few miles of the Grand Trunk Railway and might have traveled the 100km distance this way. The once bustling homestead where Jacob and Nancy lived and raised a family also would have grown more empty through the 1870s. Their son Jacob would move to Toronto to start a business and Abram would marry and move on to start a new family.

On July 26, 1874, Alexander Graham Bell displayed his invention, the telephone, to his family on the outskirts of Brantford, Ontario (not far from Kitchener/Waterloo). He went on to demonstrate it in Boston the following year.

There is a record of Abram being witness to the wedding of John Johnson and Barbara Gibson on May 30, 1876 at Blenhiem. The same day his own brother Henry also married John's sister Catherine Jane Johnson. Clearly the two families were close. Abram himself was married later that year on Dec 25, 1876 to Alice Hobson, of the town of Bright. It must have been quite the year for celebration.

The 1876 Oxford county directory shows a few more of Jacob's sons had moved out onto their own. John now lived in a house on the lot of his brother Henry, and Samuel had his own farm very near, if not neighboring his brother.

In 1879 Jacob Strickler Bretz died and was buried at the Blenheim Mennonite Cemetery north of Plattsville. He was 79 and had led a long and successful life. From the newspaper Herald of Truth Obituary, January 1880. Broadly speaking, the long, traditional Mennonite heritage of our part of the Bretz family also died with him, as most of his children's families identified as Methodists by this time.

Aug. 17th near Plattsville, ON, Pre. Jacob Bretz, at the age of 79 years, 7 months and 6 days. He frequently manifested a desire to depart this life and be with the Lord, which is far better. On the morning of his death, his prayer was that the Lord would take him to Himself very soon, if it was the divine will and before 11 o'clock his spirit was gone, and the family left to mourn their loss; but their loss is his eternal gain. He was in the ministry 40 years. He was buried on the 20th. Funeral services by George Smith & ______ Fisher, from the latter part of the seventh chapter of Revelation.

Jacob's last Will and Testiment was written in 1872. A copy of it can be found here. At the time of his death he owned the farm in Blenheim and also had another $1,250 in assets (about $175,000 today) which was earning 6% interest. The interest was used to provide for his wife Nancy's remaining years, but interestingly the only other named item he gifted her was a cow. He also noted that over the years he had given/loaned his children various sums of money, presumably from the sale of all of his land over the years. These funds likely greatly helped their families in hard times. His Will also indicates he gave the option for any of his sons to buy the farm from his Estate, but it appears none of them did or were able to.

Also from his Will it is learned that Jacob was very good friends with his Plattsville neighbours Jacob G Stauffer and Jacob C Stauffer (two cousins), who he named as his Executors. The Stauffer families were also originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

From the land records we find that Jacob G Stauffer bought the Bretz farm for himself on March 20th, 1880 for $3,149 (at least $450,000 today), although he had to take out a mortgage to do it. There must have been some kind of arragement between the Stauffers and the Bretz family as they are still found living here on the 1881 census.

Gas lamp street lighting came to Kitchener in 1879-83 and quickly grew popular. Like in many places, street lights were considered a wonder of their time because prior to them, when night fell - it was truly dark. In the United States, Thomas Edison demonstrated one of the first commercial light bulbs in 1879.

The 1881 census found just 3 members in the Nancy Bretz household on the old homestead near Plattsville. But living with them, at least temporarily, was her son Henry and his young family. Aaron would marry a few short years later and move on, while Henry and his family would move to Shelburne. John, the bachelor, probably remained with his mother until her death.

1881 Census, Oxford North, Blenhiem
            Nancy Bretz 71
            John Bretz 43
            Aaron Bretz 28

            Henry Bretz 34
            Catherine J. Bretz 30
            Gilbert Bretz 1
            George Bretz 7 mo.

Shortly afterward it appears that the Bretzes all left the farm and scattered. Some moved to the east around Washington. In 1883 John and Henry and his family were all known there from the Oxford county voter list. Nancy was also known to have been there.

Nancy and Jacob's son Benjamin died suddenly in 1882 of a type of stomach inflammation at the age of 47. He left behind his wife Nancy but no children.

In 1883 another large volcano in Indonesia exploded called Krakatoa. The eruption is so large it destroyed the island (but is still smaller than Tambora years earlier). The eruption darkened the sky worldwide for years afterwards, and produced spectacular sunsets throughout the world for many months. Weather patterns continued to be chaotic for years, and temperatures did not return to normal until 1888. The Bretz families still farming around Waterloo and Lambton counties would also certainly have felt it's effects.

Around 1885, Abram Bretz decided to move his family to Toronto, perhaps influenced by his older brother Jacob's success. Being a school teacher probably did not pay enough to support a growing family, especially in rural areas. So it might not be surprising that on his marriage certificate in 1876 he already listed himself as an accountant (But just two years later when his son was born he is listed again as a school teacher). In Toronto he went to work for the London Life Insurance Company. Some years later his brother Aaron will also join him at the company.

The younger Bretz brothers were somewhat entrepreneurial in spirit. Jacob's success was running a small Tobacconist shop, Henry owned a store for books and curiosities, and Abram and Aaron working for London Life insurance where helping to grow a new type of business that was unknown in Canada before 1870.

The end of the 19th century saw all sorts of technological developments take place around the Bretz families. The Canadian intercontinental railway was completed in 1885 and was considered a heroic achievement. In Toronto numerous streetcar companies were started and began services, at first horse drawn, but later electric. In the 1880s electricity was still in its infancy and used only for telegraphy and the newly invented telephone, but the first local power generation stations and transmission grids were beginning to be considered. Wealthy homes built in the 1890s started to be wired with copper electrical lines, but it would still be many years before it reached the rural areas. In 1886 the first hydroelectric plant was completed at Niagara Falls.

There appears to have been something of a resettlement movement in the Waterloo area around 1890. Many, many families decided to relocate to areas quite far away, perhaps in search of cheaper land. In 1888 two of Jacob's nephew, Jacob Jr's, children resettled their families in Michigan. A few years later in 1890 at least one of Jacob's grandchildren through Samuel also resettled to Michigan. More grandchildren through Polly would head to Indiana. Several other family members decided to move to Saskatchewan in western Canada. Jacob's own son Gerhard had his wife die quite young, and soon afterward he moved himself and some of his family to Oklahoma in 1893. His son Robert Bailey Bretz had gone west looking for good land a few years earlier. Robert was documented in a fascinating biographical sketch in 1937.

Unfortunately there is no record of Nancy Bretz and the family homestead in the 1891 census. There are several family members missing (or not yet identified) from that year's records.

During the 1890s the Mennonite churches of Ontario started conducting worship in English, rather than German. While the previous generations of the Bretz family were almost certainly bilingual German-English, Jacob's children were probably the first generation to lapse this part of their heritage. They all would have spoken German for worship and around the home when they were younger, but then used more and more English as adults and Methodists starting in the the 1870s. Perhaps Jacob's older children and their families held on to the language longer than their younger brothers.

Jacob's wife Nancy died in 1894 and was buried with her husband at the Blenheim Mennonite Cemetery north of Plattsville. She was 84. From the newspaper Gospel Herald Obituary, June, 1894.

On May 1st 1894 at Washington Oxford Co., ON, of the infirmities of age, sister Nancy (Wieler) Bretz, widow of the late Pre. Jacob Bretz, aged 84 yrs., 11 months. She was a faithful member of the Mennonite denomination for many years, and leaves, to mourn her loss, seven sons and one daughter. She survived her husband for 15 years. Buried in the Blenheim Mennonite Cemetery on May 4th, where funeral services were conducted in German by Jos. Nahrgang, and in English by Pre. Kennedy, from Phil. 1:21. During her last years she expressed herself as waiting for the summons.  

Sometime during the 1890s, John Bretz (1863-1847), son of Jacob Detweiller Bretz (Jacob Strickler Bretz' nephew's son) and his family came to Blenheim from Waterloo. Comparing the 1901 census and the 1880 map it appears that they settled north of Washington, perhaps in the very location of where the modern Bretz Dairy and Egg Farm is still run by his descendants. John and some of his children are also buried in the Blenheim Mennonite cemetery. His son Burley Bretz is buried down the road from Plattsville at the Chesterfield cemetery. Many of the Bretz family members living in the Kitchener area today are descended from John. In an interview with Washington resident Clara Baer in 2009, she mentioned that the Bretz family of the area in the 1930s had the only local threshing machine.

By 1904, interest in the old Blandford church where Jacob Bretz had conducted worship for so many years had dwindled so far that the Mennonite Conference decided to sell the building. The cemetery continued to be maintained by the community. It would later be torn down.

In 1926 a small tower was built near Preston to memorialize all of the Pennsylvania Dutch and Mennonite pioneers who first settled  the Waterloo region. It is called Pioneer Tower and near several of the original farmhouses and a graveyard from the 1830s.

The early Bretz family is also remembered by a street in Hespeler named for them (along with the Clemens family), which would have been very near Jacob Bretz senior's original homestead 200 years before.

 

 

 

 

Many Bretz descendants would continue to farm in the Lambton, Kitchener and other areas into the 20th century. Even today there is a dairy and egg farm near Plattsville called Bretz Farms Ltd.

While most of the Bretz family in Canada has moved away from their Mennonite roots, some of cousin Jacob Bretz Jr's descendants continued to identify as Tunkers for at least several generations.