Life Upstairs

Stories from Brubacher House's live-in hosts

This Old House

Brubacher House was built in 1850 and is therefore prone to the normal issues of an old farmhouse. While living there, the hosts have encountered many memorable mishaps and different kinds of rodents.

A water-filled basement
and other weather mishaps

“Lots of basement flooding! Luckily, we never had to cancel any events or rentals, but we came close a few times. We bought a snow shovel that we used to push the water into the room with the brick floor.”

“...lots of basement flooding.”

Dorothy Bean had several entries in her daily diary about the water and weather problems at Brubacher House:

  • December 6, 1982: Water in basement.
  • December 21, 1982: I fell on my butt while getting mail.
  • December 27, 1982: Vacuumed 15 pails of water from the basement floor.
  • December 28, 1982: Picked up 13 pails of water in basement.
  • March 7, 1983: Car snowed in so took the bus to church.
  • November 28, 1983: Windy. Hydro off for 45 minutes.
  • February 25, 1985: U.W. men came to clean up water in basement. Ida made a fire to dry out the brick floor.
  • April 8, 1985: Telephone got fixed. It had been hit by lightning. U.W. men came and to mop up water.
  • June 29, 1986: Fed geese and walked around golf course. Rain and hail storm came up and blew the door shut and all were locked out in the storm.
Carol Gimbel shovelling snow, winter 1994. A “big job.”

“There was a spring-time meeting of a historical group in the basement meeting room. As they left, one of the cars got stuck in the mud and most of the attendees ended up in my bedroom, which was where the phone was, to call a tow truck.”

Unexpected Guests

In 1984, Dorothy Bean wrote in her daily diary about Brubacher House garden mischief:

  • June 15: Rabbit ate off my beans in garden.
  • June 22: Rabbit ate off peas and beets.

“We had a groundhog die under the porch which smelled awful and needed to be removed. Other than that, LOTS of voles...”

“Squirrels took up residence in the attic. They chewed a huge hole in the northwest corner of the eaves and we often saw several coming in and out at the same time. They might even have had a litter up there before pest control showed up.”

“LOTS! Animal control was called frequently - though often we had to manage the nuisance ourselves (as U of W had the House low on their priority) - squirrels in the attic, raccoon under the front steps, bat in the house, several birds in the house, and MANY mice in the walls and basement. Mice was the constant issue - we always heard them in the walls and 4-5 basement traps were often full in the morning.”

“Over the years, various birds have also found their way into the house, and we’ve had to guide them back outside again. But last year, we were very startled when Josh discovered a bat flying around our apartment! It must have come down the chimney, as we discovered that we had left the floo open. Oran and I shut ourselves into the bedroom and luckily Joshua was able to quickly coax the bat downstairs and out the door (while wearing protective headgear).”

Bird on cedar shakes, 2007.

“The biggest pest mishap we had is quite dramatic. One cold February night, while we had a few friends over, we noticed a strong skunk smell filling the house. It got so strong so rapidly that we all agreed that it might be a gas leak - the air was thick and it became hard to breathe. After evacuating and waiting an hour for a UW caretaker to come by (it was about 1am on a Saturday), they let us know it wasn’t a gas leak so we could go back inside. With no where else to go, we slept in the house (a very strange sleeping experience), and in the morning, after some of the smell had dissipated out the windows, it was clear that somehow a skunk had sprayed close enough to the house that the smell started getting circulated by the forced air from the furnace. The skunk smell was strong enough to be slightly uncomfortable for about 5 weeks; but even until the day we left, you could still smell a hint of skunk in the basement if it was raining outside.”

“We were infested by ladybugs each spring that came in through the gaps in the windows! We had a chipmunk come in through the floor in the summer kitchen. It made its way all the way up to the apartment.”

“One day we were sitting in the living room watching tv and it came around the corner and we both stared at one another for what seemed like 30 seconds before it scurried off into the spare room. We had to close all the doors, and cover the bottoms with towels then "scare" it down the stairs where Chris was waiting with a broom at the front door to whisk him out onto the front lawn.”

“One time, we found a garter snake curled up along the edge of the basement! It must have come in looking for warmth. Good thing we had decided to do a double-check of the event space before opening it up for the rental group that had booked that night. It was wintertime, and the snake was in partial hibernation, so it didn’t move too much when we scooped it into a box. We named it “John E” and gave it to a friend who was an outdoor educator with the school board.”

“We relocated 25+ chipmunks from under back steps, helped starlings caught in the furnace, and used moth balls to help get rid of skunks from under the front porch. The house always had plenty of mice and the Abell Pest Control worker was a frequent visitor.”

Furnaces and Fires

“The furnace quit a few times on some very cold winter days.”

“There was a crack in the firebox of the furnace and we found out when the furnace turned on in September, ejecting soot throughout the entire house. EVERYTHING, including artifacts and our possessions, needed to be professionally cleaned.”

“Near the beginning of our time as hosts, there was an electrical issue, and we were unable to use the stove. Joshua cooked in a cast iron pot over the fire in the basement summer kitchen for two weeks while we waited for a replacement! It was a good introduction to the Brubacher lifestyle, although he was grateful to see the new stove when it came.”

“There was a fire in the museum’s dumpster in May 2009. We never found out the cause of the fire.”

“In Winter 2018, some electrical wires caught on fire underground and we experienced a power outage for 5.5 days. The university provided us with a generator while they completed repairs.”

Other interesting stories

“Our biggest "mishap" might have been the brief period of time when a group wanted to film a movie in the Brubacher House. This is quite a long story, but in summary the group ended up not being the right fit for Brubacher House (ie: it turned out to be a horror film and they wanted to use all the artifacts as props..... hmm) and we decided to let them know it wasn't going to work out on our end. That led to some very interesting interactions, though we are grateful that Paul Penner at Grebel helped us navigate that situation!”

Dorothy Bean wrote about breaking into the museum after getting locked out:

  • July 23, 1983: Locked myself out of house. Came in the window.

“Once we looked up and there was a small child just standing in our apartment; apparently the door had not been locked on the main floor after our tour hours ended. It was a bit startling, and ended up being a very interesting tour with her family. They were from Sarasota, Florida, and had Brubacher Family connections (or… so they claimed!).”

“In one of our first weeks as hosts, we managed to lock the door to the upstairs while we were cleaning the basement. We didn't realize that the door would lock behind us! Outside, the snow had just barely melted, and we didn't have phones with us, or even shoes or coats. We must have seemed very strange when we walked into the nearby CIF building barefoot, asking to use the phone.”

“This did not work out, but we almost had an episode of 'Murdoch Mysteries' filmed at the house while we lived there.”

“For several years before they connected the house to the main sanitation line on North Campus (which didn’t exist when the house was re-built), we had continual issues with the septic system. It always seemed to fail when we had large events, like the Sledding Extravaganza with 200 attendees, or a kids’ March Break Camp. Inevitably, we ended up opening up our apartment washroom to guests when the basement one would fail. It was interesting to see their expressions when they saw the Host Apartment.”

“One time we went down to the basement, and the floor was missing bricks and there was a groundhog sized hole. We never caught the culprit.”

“One night some teenagers rang the doorbell repeatedly at about 1 a.m., not realizing anyone lived there. They got quite a fright when I appeared at the door!”

“Here is a view from our living room on a busy sports evening. Someone took up a whole parking spot with that little yellow truck. This was our first month living at BHouse in 2013.”

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.

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.

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.

Nancy and Ted Maitland

Nancy Saunders lived at Brubacher House as the first staff person on site. Her initial role was as live-in custodian and consultant/curator of the Mennonite Farmhouse. Nancy lived there before the museum was established in 1979. With a low-operating budget for this museum project, Conrad Grebel College altered her role to custodian responsibilities, in exchange for free rent at Brubacher House. The tours were conducted primarily by Lorna Bergey as well as other volunteers from the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario. In 1980, Nancy married and lived with her husband Ted Maitland in the apartment until 1982.

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!

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.

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.

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!”
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!