Joseph Schneider Haus Museum opens a window to Ontario history. Experience the life of an immigrant Mennonite family in 19th century Ontario.
This handsome Georgian farmhouse perched on the edge of Victoria Park in downtown Kitchener Ontario is sure to pique the interest of anyone curious about Ontario history and traditional crafts. If you enjoy decorating your home in the “country style”, this place will inspire you and give you a taste of the Authentic. I know it got the wheels in my head churning when I visited it recently during Oktoberfest in Kitchener.
A little background
The Joseph Schneider Haus was built in 1816, although the interior is set up to look the way it would have in the 1850s. The museum tells the story of the changes brought to the Region of Waterloo in the 1800s by immigrants of Germanic heritage and gives us a taste of daily life during this period.
The people who built the house, Joseph and Barbara Schneider, came here from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1807 with their four oldest children (they later had three more offspring). They were part of a group of Mennonites who immigrated to Canada together in search of farmland in the decades following the American revolution. Although the house is named after Joseph (ever notice how museums are always named after the husband?), I’d bet you any money that Barbara had a lot to say when it came to designing, planning and decorating this place!
Yard and outbuildings
The Joseph Schneider Haus once stood on a very large farm property but is now squished in between a couple of much newer buildings (and the back yard is the park).
Still, the land surrounding the Joseph Schneider Haus is worthy of attention. Before you even before you enter the house, you’ll see several interesting outbuildings and artifacts including a hand pump, an open fireplace, a cookhouse that smelled of apple when I was there, and a very cosy-looking two-seater outhouse (thank God for progress! Some things do get better with time). Also near the house is a garden.
This is a “kitchen garden”, which was traditionally tended by the women of the house. Within the white picket fence, the women grew vegetables to eat (this was sort of your “corner store”), as well as herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes. As the interpreter on duty explained, during this era, the women were the “doctors” of the house, using the knowledge passed on from their mothers to care for their families and treat common ailments.
Inside the Joseph Schneider Haus
Once you’ve entered the museum centre and paid your entrance fee (a mere $2.25 in 2009), you have the choice of going left or right. Left is the house and right is the gallery. I visited the house first.
The tour is self-guided. There are costumed interpreters on hand if you want to ask questions, but no signage. I would have preferred the usual panels that you find in most museums and am not sure why they didn't have these to aid visitors.
In any case, the first room you enter is the kitchen, a large space dominated by a very hot cast iron stove. Although this technological innovation must have seemed like quite an improvement over the open fireplace, where for centuries women were getting burned alive when their clothes caught on fire, it still seems like a dangerous tool to me! If I had to use that contraption, I’d probably be adopting the raw food diet pretty quickly.
The reason the stove is so hot is that this isn’t just for show. Volunteers dressed in mid-19th century clothing are constantly cooking up meals here. On the day I was there, one woman had just made a pork roast. The delicious smell wafted through the entire first floor of the house and made my belly rumble. Unfortunately, no one offered me a taste!
The kitchen also holds a long wooden table used for food preparation and for dining. There’s no separate formal dining room here, so I guess the family ate in the kitchen.
On the same floor, right next door, is a fully-stocked pantry with beautiful old glazed cookware and serving dishes – the pride of any homemaker.
The parents' bedroom comes next after the pantry. It’s clear, uncluttered and almost Spartan in its simplicity, but it contains one endearing feature: a miniature cradle for a doll.
The door between the bedroom and the spacious living room is decorated with delicate embroidered folk art.
The living room in the Joseph Schneider Haus has some of the finest furniture in the house, including a wonderful grandfather clock, a good example of cabinet-work from the 19th century and one of the rare luxury items in the house. I have coveted grandfather clocks since I was a child, but I doubt I will ever own one. It’s nice to “visit” them, at least.
Up the steep stairs you’ll find the children’s bedrooms, with their handsome rope beds, colourful throws, and huge armoires and chests.
You’ll notice beside the boy’s bedroom a narrow room without windows. In one side of the room there’s a long window-like cut-out that lets in light from the adjoining room.
This to me is the most interesting room in the house. I didn’t know what it was until I started researching this place. It’s the “tramp room” – a small space set aside for “travellers”. Many Mennonite homes had a space where they sheltered strangers for the night. These could be travelling tradesmen or homeless people. The way some people talk, “the social safety net” was invented just a few decades ago, and in their opinion was a very bad idea, because before then “everyone stood on their own two feet”. But a room like this proves that homelessness has been an issue forever, and some people at least, in every era, have recognized the need to help others and even provided a permanent space in their own homes to accommodate that need.
A curious note: this particular tramp room is featured in a Canadian novel. Nancy-Lou Patterson wrote a children’s book set in the Joseph Schneider Haus called “The Tramp Room”. It’s a fictional tale about a run-away apprentice who takes shelter in this family’s tramp room. You can buy the book in the museum store. (If you’re interested in this topic, by the way, another eye-opening place to learn about real Canadian social history is a former poorhouse that has been turned into the Wellington Country Museum, not too far away.)
Above the second floor is an attic with bags of very soft wool, a spinning wheel and other household equipment. The basement contains farm equipment.
Craftsmanship at the Joseph Schneider Haus
Throughout the house you can admire the fine craftsmanship of the period: Fraktur art, embroidered and signed hangings, hand-painted trunks, woven baskets, punched tin items, even some cheerfully coloured wash stand pottery.
The furnishings in this house remind me of the Jordan Historical Museum of the Twenty, in Jordan Ontario. The eye can roam and rest because there’s very little clutter. However, the few useful items that do exist are handmade of close-to-nature materials and often decorated with bright, cheerful colours, so the home feels warm and welcoming, not cold and off-putting like so many of today’s sleek modern settings. That’s the difference, I think: the use of colour, texture and the handmade touch.
The Joseph Schneider Haus has a modern addition built onto its back end, and this wing houses the art gallery and a lecture space.
The gallery features rotating exhibits and one of the two rooms contains work by the current artist in residence. Each year the museum selects one artisan and that person creates works inspired by the museum and leads workshops and lectures on their particular craft. It helps to keep folk traditions alive. The museum has had all kinds of craftspeople including quilters, storytellers, stained glass artists, knitters, and basket-makers. This is such a neat idea! Every museum should have this.
In 2009 they have Rosemary Aicher, a local Ceramic Artist. (You can buy some of her work at the gift shop at Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery in Waterloo, not very far away. Another great place to visit, by the way, if you love well-made objects.) I adored her pots with eyes, and her funny sculptural pieces.
A small store sells books, craft items, etc, perfect for gifts for anyone on your list with a love of art or history.
Special events at the museum
The museum hosts an annual Heart & Hand Festival every September where you can watch traditional crafts being made by local artists and former Joseph Schneider Haus Folk Artists-In-Residence. They also have lectures and workshops throughout the year.
Joseph Schneider Haus, 466 Queen Street South, Kitchener Ontario.
For more information
For current fees and opening hours and events, visit the museum web site at http://josephschneiderhaus.com