Waterloo Ontario – Highlights of RVing in the St. Jacob’s Area
For the past three years I have going on an annual RV trip and writing about it for RV Gazette, a publication that unfortunately no longer exists. The first year was totally insane as my son Dale Jr. and I drove 4000 kms. in a week over ridiculously bad roads in a crossing of the Trans-Labrador Highway. It was a hell of an introduction to RVing. Next we spent a week exploring Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore and last year after Dale returned out west, Alison and I toured New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy area.These stories have turned out to be very popular and I looked forward to choosing a spot in Atlantic Canada for this year’s tour – that is until Minto Schneider, a transplanted Nova Scotian now working with Waterloo Regional Tourism challenged me to think outside the box and come to Waterloo Ontario. This was something that frankly had not occurred to me as my goal had been to attract RVers from Ontario and elsewhere to experience the wonders of Canada’s east coast provinces. Then I thought, “Why not?” It’s only fair to try to give Ontario some pay back by telling Maritimers and others about why they should take their RVs to Canada’s heartland. Maybe it will also convince some Ontario roamers to stay closer to home. So, to cut to the chase, I accepted Minto’s challenge and am now writing this first post from Bingemans RV park in Waterloo Ontario.
Alison had conflicts with her N.E.B. schedule so Dale Jr. is back as wingman. We both flew into Toronto a day early, met up with daughter Lenore and watched the Blue Jays get hammered by the hated New York Yankees. We were put up at the Eaton Chelsea where Tracy Ford kindly got us two rooms at a great media rate along with complimentary parking. The previous year Alison and I had taken along the Acura SUV to accompany the RV. I drove the RV and Alison the Acura. There were short distances between campsites so we would drive the RV to the site, hook up and then do our touring by car. This year I decided to do the same thing and had reserved a mid-size car from Alamo for Dale to drive. The trip got off to a great start when we were upgraded to a Hyundai Tucson SUV at no charge and were ready to head for Waterloo Ontario, but first we needed to pick up the RV.
Most of the people who know me are kind of surprised that I like RVing – so was I when I started, but now I’m not ashamed to say that it is a fun alternative to camping. I’m talking about RVing where you actually drive the unit from place to place and use it as a base camp for exploring new places – not the type where you park your RV in a park, have it take roots, put a little plastic picket fence around it and hang up Christmas lights. That’s called living in a trailer park. So here it is Saturday morning in downtown Toronto and Dale Jr. are on our way to Bolton, of all places, to pick up our RV at Motor Home Travel which has been reserved by Waterloo Regional Tourism for our exclusive use for a week of exploration in the Waterloo Ontario and Lake Huron areas. We arrive just after nine, get the royal welcome from owner Dave Sammut and are on our way by ten which is very good by rental RV standards. There are a lot of things to go over in the operation of an RV, but by now most of them are familiar to Dale and I. Our vehicle is a C class 24 foot Leprechaun by Coachmen – that’s a hell of a big leprechaun.
As noted in the previous post Minto Schneider had persuaded me to take a chance on finding enough to see and do in the Waterloo Ontario area for a whole week to commit to a two-part story in RV Gazette. There’s a lot of words at stake here. Together we have worked on an itinerary that includes a lot of interesting activities that I will write about as we experience them. The first is a visit to the St. Jacob’s Farmer’s Market, but that’s a projected two hours from Bolton so it’s a good thing we are ahead of schedule.
I have a GPS as does Dale and a printed Google map of the route from Bolton to St. Jacob’s, but does that guarantee smooth RVing? Of course not. At Orangeville they have constructed new interchanges and the proper signage isn’t in place yet so our GPS’ are useless, as is the Google map. Luckily they have also built a new tourism office in Orangeville at which I secure an actual paper map of Southern Ontario and aside from the fact I have to stop and put my glasses on to read it, we are good to go. Maps I can handle – GPS units not so much.
I’d been to Orangeville just a few years before and remembered it as a very pleasant town which would be great fun to stop at and walk the main street. There is a farmer’s market on that makes it doubly alluring. The same holds true for two towns I have not previously visited, Fergus and Elora which we pass through on the way to St. Jacob’s. These are well know rural tourist destinations not far from Toronto and they both look great and have farmer’s markets on the go as well. If we get a chance we will come back at least to Elora before week’s end.
From Orangeville to St. Jacob’s via Highways 3 and 18 is a wonderful drive with increasingly rolling hills, fields abounding with corn and exquisite stone or field rock houses dating back to the first Scottish settlers. Approaching the small town of Conestogo I notice for the first time the signs with a horse and buggy that clearly indicate we are now in Mennonite country. I haven’t seen these since Amish country in Pennsylvania.
I’d long heard of St. Jacob’s as a small village that had preserved its architectural history and also had a strong ‘Old Mennonite’ presence. The adherents of this sect of Protestantism date back to the very beginnings of the Reformation and are known for their tenacity in avoiding modern technology and manners. They have also endured centuries of persecution at the hands of other Protestant sects as well as the Roman Catholics. I hope to learn more when I visit the Mennonite Story later today, but the first item on the agenda is the St. Jacob’s Farmers Market on the outskirts of Waterloo Ontario.
It was a beautiful Saturday on Labour Day weekend s0 I was not surprised to find St. Jacob’s overflowing with people. What did surprise me was the intense volume of traffic as we approached the famed St. Jacob’s Farm Market which is not in the town but three kilometres outside on the way to Waterloo Ontario. So much for my preconceptions of getting out and wandering among market stalls in the middle of a quaint village. We had passed such markets along the way, so they do exist – just not in St. Jacob’s, it is a much bigger affair.
I can honestly say I have never seen a market as large or as well patronized as St. Jacob’s. It seemed like everyone in Southern Ontario wanted to buy fresh produce this day.
Still we had no problem finding a place to park the RV and it was only a short walk to the first market stalls. The place was a veritable cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables all arranged in colourful displays that begged to be photographed. Here is a small gallery of just a fraction of the fruits and vegetables available for sale.
One vendor tossed me a nectarine and it was so juicy I almost couldn’t believe this is the same fruit they sell back at home.
Many of the stalls were manned by Mennonites in traditional plain garb. After a half hour of enjoying the sights, sounds and aromas of the market I parted company with Dale who wanted to explore the many other vendors selling everything from antiques and handicrafts to honey and preserves. We agreed to me up in two hours time.
I returned to St. Jacob’s and found a spot in one of the RV friendly free parking lots and strolled around the town looking at the many interesting businesses which were taking full advantage of the well preserved buildings on the main street and as a result were well patronized today.
It was not just the businesses that caught my eye, but the many fine homes, most with traditional English gardens. The St. Jacob’s Conservatory combined the best of both.
There was even one mansion surrounded by a chain link fence, but it was a tasteful chain link.
St. Jacob’s is the type of place that I could easily spend a day just walking the backstreets photographing the architecture and gardens. It has been my experience that small towns like St. Jacob’s that have preserved their heritage and become tourist draws, often have near deserted backstreets that are even more interesting to discover than the usually packed main drag.
I spent half an hour touring The Mennonite Story interpretive centre which gave me the historical perspective of the Mennonites I was looking for; how they came to Canada after suffering immense persecution in Europe – all because they believe in peace. These quilts were on display and demonstrate the geometric patterns that are typical of the Mennonites. Unfortunately the businesses on main street that had many more patterns on display won’t let you take photographs of them, which I think is a mistake because, to mangle an old adage, I could write a thousand words about them and it wouldn’t equal one photograph for effect.
There is also a reconstruction of a typical Mennonite place of worship which is simple and to the point.
The thing I found most interesting about the Mennonite Story is that it is not frozen in time. The religion is one of the fastest growing in the world, especially in Latin America and Africa. While everyone is fascinated by the Old Mennonites and the Amish, the real story is the spread of the less conservative arm of the religion around the world; still over the next few days in the Waterloo Ontario area I hope to encounter some of the Old Mennonites going about their old ways.
What I most wanted to see in town was the St. Jacob’s and Aberfoyle Model Railway which is housed just off the main street. As both a railway nut to the point I once worked as both an operator and brakeman for the CNR in defiance of everyone else’s admonition that I “Make something of myself” and as a lover of model trains, I was tremendously impressed by what the volunteers have achieved with this railway.
Virtually everything on display is made from scratch including the locomotives, rail cars, rails and ties. The display is set in the 1950’s era when steam and diesel were both in use. There were four trains running at the time of my visit and their realism was such that looking at the photographs it is hard to tell they are not real trains.
Also have a look at this video snippet posted on the website.
Usually little kids have the attention span of a gnat and are screaming or bawling and generally ruining the (insert whatever experience you are trying to enjoy) for everyone who is not their parents and them too, based on my experience, but I couldn’t help but notice that the railway was fascinating to little children as there were a number whose parents could not drag them away. One little girl kept saying, “Just one more time, Daddy” as she waited for the next train to pull into the station she was watching. Now that’s impressive.
The two hours flew by and I returned to the market area where Dale had purchased bags of peaches, apples and beans – we will eat well on this trip. He also bought a Tilleylike hat and said that basically you could buy anything you wanted at the market – hopefully not slaves. After a quick tour of the antiques market we had lunch at the Crazy Canuck, a small restaurant next door whose walls were covered by just about every album cover ever put out by a Canadian group. I studied it closely and found many albums I had purchased decades ago, before ordering dry ribs and a cold Mill Street lager. Time to move on – I gave those records away years ago.
Mount Hope Cemetery, Waterloo Ontario
Our next stop was the Mount Hope Cemetery where we met up with teacher and cemetery historian Wayne Miedema who literally lives across the street. Anyone who follows this website will know that I love cemeteries, at least until I end up in one. We spent a fascinating hour and a half with Wayne as he took us on a tour of the final resting places of many of the figures who were prominent in Waterloo Ontario area’s early history and industry. The graves are overwhelmingly German by nationality and some famous names were Anglicized for the sake of business. Can you guess who this is?
The guy who founded Darefoods, known for their excellent cookies.
There were a number of beautifully sculpted graves like this one with exquisite calla lilies.
This may look like an ordinary soldier’s grave, if you can call anyone’s grave who died fighting for their country ordinary, but it is the only known grave of any of the Sikhs who fought for Canada in WWI. Sikhs practice cremation and it was only because when Bukkar Singh died belatedly from wounds received in the war, nobody knew of the practice that he was interred. According to Wayne it is now a place of remembrance for the local Sikh community.
Two unexpected graves were those of distillery magnate Joseph Seagram, seen here with a grateful follower.
And the famous hockey playing priest, Father Bauer.
Mount Hope was also clearly being used as a place of rest and reflection by many young people, some of whom were lying at the base of large oak trees reading books of poetry – I kid you not. Romanticism is alive and well in the 21st century. Three cheers!
By now we were ready to set up camp and checked into Bingemans Camping Resort which is on the outskirts of Kitchener. It is a huge complex with much more to do than most RV parks including a water park, bowling arcade, mini golf and a ton of things aimed at families with small children. Obviously it was working because Bingemans was overflowing with children and pets. The two things I was surprised that they did not have were a well stocked store or wifi.
On previous trips we have been able to stock up the RV directly from home before leaving (Labrador and Eastern Shore) or take supplies in the SUV to the RV (Bay of Fundy). Since we both flew in this year we are basically bereft of all but the most basic cooking utensils and basics. That’s why I don’t feel guilty that we bought a frozen lasagna tonight. It was damned good washed down with one of those Australian combo reds they are so good at.
We concluded the day in the Waterloo Ontario region with a walk around the camp where many groups were gathered around fires. There seemed to be a number of extended family groups. It was not a raucous camp ground and we had a quiet first night. I fell asleep listening to my first Inspector Gamache novel Still Life by Louise Penny which takes place in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. So far it’s quite entertaining. Auf Wiedersehen.
Tomorrow we will visit Waterloo’s sister city Kitchener by starting with a canoe trip on the Grand River. Please join us.