Life Upstairs

Stories from Brubacher House's live-in hosts

Visitors of Interest

Brubacher House is visited by hundreds of tourists and travellers in any given year. Local residents who may not be familiar with the museum also stop by to inquire about it. Dozens of hooks line each room of the museum and if you are able to find a place to put your hat then you are welcome to stay. Brubacher House hosts reflected on their most memorable visitors, as well as some of the questions they were asked during some other visits.

Celebrities and Brubacher
family descendants

“Seniors who had the time (and generally the most interest) to engage questions and conversation deeply. Some came in tour groups. Some were Elderhostel groups (through Grebel).

"But we must also say that many persons dropped in hoping to see a 'Mennonite.' When we acknowledged ourselves as such, it either created great disappointment or further curiosity. On occasion, we unexpectedly received visitors who had a personal history with the House - e.g. grew up in it as a child (post-Brubachers), a descendant of the Brubachers, etc. These were rich conversations - enlightening and engaging.”

“One of our favourite visits was from the children of William and Caroline Schmidt. Their family was the last to own the house before the University of Waterloo purchased it in the 1950s. They never lived in it, as their parents had rented it out while continuing to farm the land, but they lived over by Herrle’s and would walk over regularly to do farm work. They regaled us with stories of their childhood, and their memories of the house before it became a museum. They seemed to remember that the location of the rooms had been reversed, with the kitchen and sitting room originally being on the south side of the house, and the pantry and master bedroom on the north side. They also remembered how inexpensive it had been for their parents to buy the house and rent it out. They said that the house was also very cold in winter, and a family that lived there had moved elsewhere temporarily when they had a baby, just to keep warm.”

“Ron Sexsmith was the headliner for the Canada Day 2007 University of Waterloo celebrations. He stopped by for a tour of the Brubacher House before joining the crowd in the field. It was a great performance!”

“We hosted a busload of German tourists, none of which spoke English! It depended on our non-verbal communication skills and limited German language skills but we got through the tour. It would be interesting to hear their side of things!

"It was also fun whenever friends would visit for the first time and we would give them the free tour, including our apartment. We always let them ring the bell!”

“On occasion, we unexpectedly received visitors who had a personal history with the House - e.g. grew up in it as a child (post-Brubachers), a descendant of the Brubachers, etc. These were rich conversations - enlightening and engaging.”

“Laura...really enjoyed giving tours to groups from Renison University College’s English Language Institute. Students came from all over the world, and engaged with the house from diverse perspectives. Some students, like those from Mexico or Chile, were familiar with Mennonite groups from their home contexts, but others from countries like Japan and China were not. They always asked great questions, and one of her favourite memories was surprising a group with a maple sugaring demonstration at the maple tree out back! Everyone enjoyed tasting maple sap straight from the tree. Another interesting tour was with a group of Old Order Mennonites. Laura learned so much from them, because they were familiar with so many of the artifacts from their own experience. They basically gave her the tour!”

“The swans strayed from the park – they stayed for the weekend.”

The Hunsbergers hosted a tea party in recognition of donors and Reg Good’s book on the Brubachers. The guest list included Dorothy Elliot and invitations to 12 other Brubacher descendants.

“Jennie remembers opening the door for a visitor once, and the first words out of their mouth were a very gruff, 'I want to see a Mennonite.' So Jennie gestured to herself, held out her hands, smiled and said, 'Taa Daa!' The visitor scoffed at her, turned on their heels and walked away without ever coming inside.”

“Every Wednesday Dennis came to golf even though the golf course was no longer there. There was also an open air art group who came to paint and draw the house and surrounding area. We were given one of the paintings. David Johnston toured through the house on Canada Day 2007 and my mom had a good chat with him. One of our last visitors before moving out of the museum was to a group of friends. The surprising and memorable part is that when we moved into our new home two of the visitors ended up being our next door neighbours!”

“Girl Guide groups earning their heritage / history badge - they asked the best questions.”

“A lot of the best tours were people who came from Europe and had long, mid week tours. Sometimes, in spite of our limited French skills we attempted to give tours, at least somewhat in French.

"Mark also really enjoyed giving tours to some Mennonite history night classes from UW.”

”Justin Trudeau came a few months before he was elected (the election hadn’t started yet, but he, Bardish Chagger and other KW candidates were visiting UW Canada Day events).” The only photo that they have from the visit is a completely blurry image of 3 people standing outside the house. Jacquie shared that Karl was going to take a photo of Jacquie and Trudeau, but at the last minute Trudeau told his team to take Jacquie’s camera so that the three of them could be in the photo. Jacquie tried to tell them that they wouldn’t know how to use it, but they did not listen and then they left. Karl and Jacquie always thought it was a hilarious story, but sad that they didn’t get a good shot.”

“Lots of interesting conversations that brought out people’s connections to the artifacts or the history of the house. One that comes to mind was with an elderly woman who, when [Josh] started talking about the grandfather clock, got really excited. When [he] asked her why she found it interesting, she said that her late husband had been a clockmaker. When [Josh] showed her the label of the last person to service it on the front panel - it turned out that it was her husband’s shop. What an unexpected and meaningful connection.”

“In May 2008, we were honoured by the visit of Dorothy Schweitzer Elliot, a descendant of the Brubacher House family. She was born and lived in the Brubacher House prior to it becoming a museum. Dorothy had also made and donated the Brubacher crest wall-hanging that still hangs at the Brubacher House."

Click here to read an article about this visit.


"'Can I see a Mennonite?' People narrowly understood Mennonites to all be 'Old Order.' They were usually surprised to learn that we were Mennonites as well. It was often important to contextualize the Brubachers of the 19th century - all other residents, at the time, also stooked their harvest, drove horse-and-buggy, etc. The Old Order split of the 1890s post-dated the early decades of BH."

"'What is the difference between Old Order Mennonite and Old Order Amish?'"

"Re the House: 'Is this the university president's residence? Is it open to visitors? How thick are the walls? How were the large stones lifted to the top of the house?'"

“The most common question we remember is more of a comment: very often, someone on the tour would exclaim 'wow, I can’t believe Mennonites live like this!' This comment would always come well after explaining the house is a representation of how the original family might have lived in 1850. Most of the time the guests would clue in to what they just said, but occasionally we had to remind them that this was a museum!”

“How did they manage with so many children?”

“Are you Mennonite?
Why aren't you dressed like a Mennonite?
Is Mennonite the same as Amish?
How old is the house?
Did the Brubachers really live here?
Was this house moved here?”

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.”

Paul and Edna Hunsberger

Paul and Edna Hunsberger had a keen interest in historical matters. Paul grew up on a farm where the University of Waterloo campus is now located. After a visit to Brubacher House in 1983, Paul and Edna felt that it would be a unique setting in which to work. The couple stayed at Brubacher House for five years, even though Edna only needed to live in Canada for one year to qualify for her pension.

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!

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.

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!”