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If these walls could talk: Waterloo Pioneer Memorial Tower

'For those who lay any roots down in this community, past or present, their activity and story gets woven into this vast historical tapestry.'
Pioneer Tower
File photo. Blair Adams/KitchenerToday

Waterloo Pioneer Memorial Tower, the visual reward along the Walter Bean Grand River Trail, remains an ageless beauty at 93 years of age. She was erected as a tribute to local Mennonite pioneers who settled here at the turn of the 19th century.

At one time, the 18.9-metre tower was open to the public, vandals and the graffiti they left behind resulted in the padlocks you’ll find there today.

Over the years, creative narratives as to why the tower exists included that it functioned as a lookout spot for soldiers. 

“It was built facing southward toward Pennsylvania to memorialize the journey that the Pennsylvania-German pioneers took out of their homeland (Pennsylvania) to get here. Many, if not most, walked here in the early days, averaging about 20 miles a day,” recounts local historian and author, Joanna Rickert-Hall.

Her own family history in the region dates back to 1802 when her ancestors left Lancaster County, Pa., settling across the river from where the Pioneer Tower stands today, “so this holds a special place in my heart and why I love talking about our local history.”

Her book, Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins, was written because she saw a gap in ‘common folk’ stories in history. “For me, this was even more poignant when it dawned on me how little people even knew about our own Waterloo Region history.”

According to the Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations, the Tower is also associated with W.H. Breithaupt, a prominent engineering consultant in Kitchener, who has been recognized as the initiator of the project. The stones used for the Tower were pulled from the 200 acres surrounding it, the copper roof and Conestoga wagon weather vane were chosen to reflect the lifestyle of early settlers.

“The tower was dedicated by both local dignitaries and others from the Lancaster Historical Society in solidarity on August 28, 1926,” says Rickert-Hill.

Parks Canada would eventually take over administration and care. Today, a bronze plaque to commemorate the tower exists thanks to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

From inside, the view encompasses the route taken by the first settlers – also offering a breathtaking view of the Grand River. A small graveyard on the property includes headstones that read, Betzners, Shoergs, Bechtels and Biehns – a final resting place for those settlers.

Rickert-Hall says, “popular culture privileges big history stories - those relating to the Egyptian pyramids, the Vikings, the Civil War, as well as key figures from history, Julius Caesar, Hitler, Henry the VIII – but, generally ignores stories of common folk.”

These settlers “walked through some rough terrain, forested areas, up and down hills, through swamps - especially the dreaded Beverly Swamp, where African Lion Safari is today. They did this while carrying their goods in Conestoga wagons, often sharing a wagon between several families.”

“For those who lay any roots down in this community, past or present, their activity and story gets woven into this vast historical tapestry.”

Until 2008, a local contractor would unlock the tower every morning. Budget issues and concerns with vandalism put an end to this. A request to open the tower, for visitation, can be made by calling the number posted at the site.

In 2009, the copper roof and Conestoga wagon weather vane were restored.

‘Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins’ can be purchased at WordsWorth Books in Uptown Waterloo, Indigo, Amazon, and both local Costco locations.


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