Life Upstairs

Stories from Brubacher House's live-in hosts

Changes on North Campus

Since Brubacher House’s opening as a museum in 1979, hosts have witnessed dramatic changes to the surrounding landscape of the University of Waterloo’s North Campus.

Golf course by Brubacher House, 1982.
Columbia Lake, down the hill from Brubacher House, 1982.
Drum and bugle corps practising on the sports field.
Working on the new football field for the University of Waterloo, summer 1993.
Canada geese on soccer fields at Brubacher House, 1993.
Hockey school exercising up and down the bank. Taken from the veranda of Brubacher House, 1993.

”Major changes happened after our years. From 1994-2000, very little changed. The golf course was still in operation and no ‘new’ buildings had been constructed on the north campus. The north-south gravel driveway was fully functional as a second access. In many ways it felt like a rural property.”

“HUGE changes. When we moved in, the north campus was still completely undeveloped. There were big trees lining the 9-hole golf course, and the only traffic we saw was sports field participants and the odd lunch time rendezvous in the parking lot. A year or two after we moved in, development began in earnest. The golf course was razed, most of the trees were removed, the topsoil was pushed aside, and the view out our bedroom window became a barren landscape. The earth-moving was happening on such a large scale that dust covered the inside of the house that whole summer. Dishes in the kitchen would often rattle from the packers driving by (it was an interesting thing to explain to visitors). Fortunately nothing broke. While we understood this project had been in the works for many years, we were sad to lose the peaceful, idyllic backdrop to the house.”

“One advantage of the earth-moving happening on the north campus was the open space it created to launch rockets. Jennie’s brother hosted more than one “rocket building” event in the basement during our time there. Wrapping paper tubes were just the right size, and the access chambers for the new underground services provided an ideal level, non-flammable launchpad. The absolute lack of vegetation of any kind meant that it was easy to see where the rockets landed, and family could send their young energetic children off running to retrieve rockets and parachutes without worrying anyone would get lost.”

Hockey on the pond, winter 2002.

“We also made good use of the new ponds that were dug. They often froze perfectly smooth, which made them great for hockey games and skating in the winter (even while pushing 6-month-old Naomi in the stroller).”

“In the summer of 2005 Columbia Lake was dredged and re-configured to support more growth of plants, and a better habitat for the local wildlife. The round-about at Frank Tompa Drive had just been built a few months prior to our moving in and it was one of the first round-abouts in the Region. A month after we started our time as hosts in 2004, and had returned from our honeymoon, they began breaking ground on the large OpenText building which continued to shake us awake at 6am each morning for the entire summer. The Accelerator Centre was also completed in 2005.”

“The David Johnston Research and Technology Park continued to expand. With the new roundabout and more buildings, there were issues with being able to find the museum and we had many discussions about increased signage.”

Sunset on OpenText, our next door neighbours, 2008.

“While we were there the football team returned and the stadium went up just off to the side of the grounds. Lots of buildings were added to R and T park during our time.”

“We never got used to drones flying around the house. View of obstacle course from veranda, February 2017.”

“Evolve1 was built on UW’s North Campus. The LRT was also completed, with a stop in the R+T Park. At one point, there was an e-scooter pilot project that saw many people riding around North Campus on lime scooters just for the novelty, but that ended after one season. In 2018, UW installed a baseball diamond directly behind Brubacher House and later built an indoor field house where the old baseball diamond was on the upper sports field. In 2019, the university also created a disc golf course across the road from the house, which has become enormously popular--especially during COVID-19. An Indigenous garden was created on North Campus, near the Community Gardens on the other side of Columbia Lake.”

Updates to Brubacher House

Brubacher House when Dorothy Bean and Ida Habermehl moved in, September 18, 1982.

Digging along foundation at Brubacher House. Construction work at Brubacher House to replace the water pipe to well, along the west wall, 1988.

Photo credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario

“The changes we implemented: expanded the vegetable garden, began perennial flower gardens around the perimeter of the House, added two external signs, both on large rocks (Brubacher House, and Hour sign). Most people, we felt, did not realize the house was open for people to visit.

“In 1999 we developed several panels that we hung in the basement that gave a brief historic overview of the Brubachers and the wider community they represented. Years later, we’d now likely write that history differently, but we offered it because we found so many visitors did not want a verbal (or certainly not a formal) tour, but would be helped with a self-guided, read what you want, set of panels. It was also our attempt to gather materials we had researched over our time and offer that to hosts who followed.”

“When we first moved in all of the exterior windows were repainted.

“We worked with the Brubacher House committee to create the video tour and purchase the projector and speakers for the summer kitchen. On Canada Day in 2004, prior to opening for tours, we hosted a group of actors dressed in historically accurate costumes to shoot some live action footage for the museum AV presentation.”

“In October 2006, shortly after we moved in, the old wooden windows were replaced with vinyl. The roof was redone with cedar shakes and the eavestrough and back porch were replaced.”

“Once, Jacquie arrived home to find UW caretakers taking our hot water heater out for a few days. That was an exciting period - those caretakers were very surprised to learn that anyone lived in the house! The back porch was painted, and the front porch steps were fixed up while we lived at BHouse. The front porch also had some underground chicken wire installed to keep out groundhogs - but that is a whole other story!”

“The University of Waterloo rebuilt the veranda. Grebel (Werner Fieguth) had to create handmade front door keys so that we could use the front entrance of the house during the construction.” May-June 2020.

New wooden hooks for the basement event space, 2020.

The University of Waterloo replaced the eavestroughs with historically-appropriate lead-coated copper eavestroughs, after having replaced them already in 2019 (without consultation with the City of Waterloo), 2021.

“We installed new indoor and outdoor information panels, 2021.”

“We installed a new Brubacher House Museum sign out front, 2021.”
Digging to connect Brubacher House to the sanitation line, April 2021.
Ida Habermehl and Dorothy Bean

Ida Habermehl and Dorothy Bean began their retirement as the first “live-in custodian-hostesses” of Brubacher House. In a letter from Brubacher House committee member Lorna Bergey, these two women were asked whether they were planning to retire immediately into rocking chairs with their knitting or could they be interested in becoming involved with an interesting project for the next few years?

In a letter to Nelson Scheifele, Dorothy and Ida stated: “We have an active interest in our roots and in the preservation of Mennonite history. Our memories go back to grandparents who lived in the 19th century, building homes, rearing families in that century and giving us a ‘goodly heritage’….To be involved in meeting individuals who are interested in this era and interpreting this life to tourists is exciting and a real challenge for us.”

Howard and Carol Gimbel

Howard and Carol Gimbel were approached by the Brubacher House Committee to consider hosting at Brubacher House. The Gimbels were interested in the idea and thought that Brubacher House fit in with their desire to do voluntary service. Howard was adventuresome and liked people and was more involved in providing the tours. The couple completed two terms at Brubacher House while renting out their home on Bridge Street.

The photo above shows Howard and Carol Gimbel at the Brubacher House display for Heritage Week 1991, at Conestoga Mall.

Arlyn and Judith Friesen Epp

Arlyn and Judith Friesen Epp were moving to Waterloo to complete their university studies and were looking for affordable student housing and employment opportunities. A contact of theirs linked them to Brubacher House. Judith was drawn to the beauty of the space and the chance to be rooted in some of Waterloo County’s history and geography. Arlyn was enrolled to finish his BA in History (specializing in Mennonite history) and one of his favourite summer employment gigs was conducting tours of his hometown. They had just finished a pastoral assignment and were glad to continue working together as a couple.

Colin and Jennie Wiebe

Colin and Jennie Wiebe were asked by Paul Penner, Chair of the Brubacher House Committee, to take on the role of hosts. At that time, the North Campus around Brubacher House had a 9-hole golf course and fields. Moving there was like living in the country again, which is where Colin and Jennie both grew up. It also fit well with Jennie’s summer job as an agricultural interpreter at Doon Heritage Village. It was too good an opportunity to pass up!

Chris Steingart and Jillian Burkhardt

As life-long residents of Waterloo Region, Chris (a history major) and Jillian (a religious studies major) were drawn to the unique and historically significant opportunity that Brubacher House offered. They loved the huge back porch and the deep window sills. Of course, being newly married, it didn’t hurt that the rent was free!

Brandon and Bethany Leis

Bethany Leis had recently completed her Mennonite Studies minor at Conrad Grebel University College and the host position was a great connector between her schooling and life. The setting and location along with an exchange of free rent for hosting duties seemed like a wonderful way to live in the city, save money, work and continue education in a master’s program when newly married.

Mark and Allison Brubacher

Allison and Mark met working in costume at a history museum. They both finished their history degrees while they dated each other. It felt like a natural fit.

Joshua and Laura Enns

Joshua and Laura are the current live-in hosts at Brubacher House. 

This article, published shortly after they moved in, details some of Laura and Joshua’s reasons for wanting to become Brubacher House hosts.

They had spent the previous year-and-a-half living and travelling in the UK, Europe, and the Middle East. Visiting so many museums and historic sites really renewed their interest in history–particularly their own Mennonite family histories. And volunteering with Christian Intentional Communities, like the Iona Community in Scotland, opened their eyes to the ways in which heritage buildings could offer a sense of place, vitality, meaning, and rootedness to faith groups, community arts, and social justice movements. As a recent MA Community Music graduate, Laura was dreaming about historic buildings in Waterloo where she could organize community programming around the arts, faith, ecology, and history. She was familiar with Brubacher House because of her experiences volunteering there as a youth on Canada Day, while Brandon and Bethany Leis were hosts. Brubacher House seemed like a hidden gem with lots of potential. Amazingly, around the same time that they started talking about this vision, the host position became available, and they applied! They interviewed from a youth hostel in Athens, and ended their trip early in order to start their term as hosts.

Karl and Jacquie Reimer
The Brubacher House host position became available about eight months after Jacquie and Karl finished their undergrads. Jacquie was still job searching, and after completing (most of) a history undergrad it seemed like an exciting opportunity. They knew very little about Brubacher House before their interview. During their undergraduate degrees, while living on campus at UW, they had no idea the house was even owned or operated by UW. In the end, the opportunity to be storytellers and welcome so many different people to the house, plus the amazing living space and location were the things that made them say “yes!”