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History

Waterloo County, which since 1973 has been known as the Region of Waterloo, falls into three regions: the southern and river lands of North Dumfries Township and Cambridge, the western lands centred on the town of New Hamburg, and the Mennonite farm lands of Wellesley and Woolwich.

Each region is characterized by the traditions of its primary settlement groups:

  • The west area and the Mennonite Tract were settled by people of German Pennsylvanian background. The traditional arts and crafts of this group are strongly related to their longtime German heritage and the influence of their years in Pennsylvania.
  • The southern and river-based areas are largely characterized by the Scottish Celtic traditions of their settlers. This tradition is strongly expressed in a string of settlements along the Grand River, including Galt and Preston (now part of Cambridge) in the south and West Montrose, Elora and Fergus in the north. (Elora and Fergus lie beyond the boundary of Waterloo Region.) 

The mapping and subdivision of the lands began shortly after the American War of Independence. Joseph Brant, a key native leader in the war, aided the British and unified the Iroquois alliance against the Americans. The natives fought alongside the Canadians and the fear they instilled in the Americans was a significant factor in preserving Canada from the revolution.

In 1784, in recognition of their war efforts, the Six Nations were granted a substantial tract of land along the Grand River. The land extended six miles wide on each side of the Grand, taken at the mouth extending to the head of the river. By 1798, Blocks 1, 2 and 3 had been sold, and in 1816 they became Waterloo, Woolwich and Dumfries Townships.

Towns and Villages

The towns and villages of the region grew up to serve the needs of the surrounding farm communities. The primary industries of the province in the first three-quarters of the 19th century were agricultural, milling and manufacturing.

The towns were service centres for farms. Town merchants provided the goods essential to running a successful farm. Hotels were available for arriving settlers and travellers, and industry, including smithing, cabinetmaking and pottery, produced items for a growing population.

Services

Other services such as milling (lumber, grist, flour) and the storing and shipping of produce were also available. Many towns were established where water power was available to drive mills.  

The competition for the location of roads and highways, and perhaps more importantly railroads, was fierce. Railroads connected a community to the larger world, increased development and allowed businesses to flourish. Railways were largely developed in the 1850-1870 period, with growth up to the turn of the 20th century.

Rivalry for institutional development led to further dominance and growth as towns were selected for sites of post offices, court houses, registry offices and the county seat. Berlin (now Kitchener) won over other contenders in this competition, which set it on a path to become the lead community in the county.

Industry

Until the 1870s, most of the industrial growth had been limited to crafts shops and smaller operations, but as the century progressed significant investment in more substantial industries took place. This was also true elsewhere in the province as the age of inventions and discovery unfolded and the demand for high-quality manufactured goods increased and society shifted toward a consumer base.

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