January 19, 2020

By BRADLEY ZORGDRAGER

Though the history of Waterloo Region may not interest the average college student, you might not be able to read this article without the region’s contributions.

The idea to bring in hydro power from Niagara Falls via overhead wires was born of three Waterloo Region natives. But hydro exhibits aren’t the only interesting thing you’ll find at the Waterloo Region Museum.

Tom Reitz, manager and curator, said a museum is a collection of objects, but it’s also much more.

“It’s one of those things that is innate to being a human being – we all collect things,” said Reitz. “Museums just do that on a different scale, on a different level and then we try to make sense of those collections; we try to put them in a context.”

The context of objects might interest different people in different ways.

Glen Hahn, a visitor at the museum, used to work for Uniroyal Tires and found a personal connection in the various tires throughout the exhibits – a nod to the region’s historically strong manufacturing sector.

“It’s very interesting,” said Hahn of the museum. “There are a lot of things I didn’t know. Just seeing how the land has developed since they’ve come up – the German people – from Pennsylvania, it’s very interesting.”

The museum houses one of the vehicles that brought migrators up from Pennsylvania. Reitz called the museum’s original Conestoga wagon from 1770 one of the five must-see sites in the museum. It arrived in Waterloo Region in 1807 and is one of the less than 150 similar wagons left in North America.

Other must-see objects are no less interesting.

Just 100 years after that wagon arrived, Kaufman Footwear opened its Kitchener doors as the Kaufman Rubber Company. As you walk into the What Makes Us Who We Are exhibit, the first object on the right is a big flywheel, nicknamed Hazel, from the Kaufman plant in downtown Kitchener.

And while electricity would eventually power such plants, it may not have been possible without “Beck’s Circus.” Nicknamed after Adam Beck, a Waterloo Region native and founder of Ontario Hydro, the flatbed truck was outfitted with lights, household appliances and farm equipment. It toured around to different cities and was hooked up to batteries to demonstrate that hydroelectric power could make lives easier.

Strange as the truck may seem, it’s nothing compared to what Reitz called “just a crazy object, literally.” What looks like an upside-down bicycle is suspended from the museum’s ceiling. In 1869, a daredevil from the area named Professor Jenkins rode it across the gorge of Niagara Falls.

But the public felt cheated by the supposedly daring demonstration.

“If you actually look at the gizmo that he rode and the way the rope threaded through it, the only way his life was in danger was if he had let go and fallen off because it was attached to this rope,” said Reitz.

An angry Mark Twain called Jenkins a sham in a newspaper article.

However, Twain isn’t the only historical figure with a connection to the museum.

Hidden within the colourful façade of the museum’s outer wall – itself one of Reitz’s favourite sites – is a coded quote from Wilfrid Laurier: “We do not want, that any individuals should forget the land of their origin or their ancestors. Let them look to the past, but let them also look to the future; let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children.”

The quote is a sentiment Reitz agrees with. He thinks everyone can relate to museums.

“So the reality is, while somebody might not think that a museum in itself is important, my guess is they all have their own individual museums; they just might not think of it that way,” said Reitz.