In 1800, a group of Mennonites from Pennsylvania arrived in ox-drawn Conestoga wagons, through the treacherous Beverly Swamp to the “wolf-howling wilderness” on their new settlement’s sand hills. This charter group, different from the United Empire Loyalists who set up other settlements in Upper Canada, did little to establish British culture, values or traditions in their new community. Instead, as King George III recognised their religious freedom, they were able to safely and peacefully form a community based on the tenets of their faith, and live knowing they would not be pressed into military service.

Their settlement had good land and was a distance from urban centres (the popular arrivals port at Dundas was 50 kilometres away). In the next 20 years or so, more Mennonite settlers followed. Land-clearing bees and building bees continued until each family had a log cabin. It wasn’t long before a smithy and a tavern joined the gristmill, meeting hall, and schoolhouse.

When the Mennonite migrations ended, flights of European German-speaking immigrants began. Similar to the Mennonites, these groups wanted to escape post-war upheavals and uncertainties, this time from the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. The new arrivals were skilled tradesmen, artisans, and craftsmen, drawn to the German-speaking community’s good land and markets ready for their skills. Thrifty with a strong work ethic, their industrialism complemented the founders’ skills. As the village grew, some Mennonites stayed, but those disinterested in living in an urbanized setting sold their holdings and moved to more rural areas in the township.

In 1833, the “town” of a few straggling houses, surrounded by a dense and impassable swamp, was christened “Berlin” by its Mennonite pioneers, Bishop Eby and Joseph Schneider.

In this land where “the fare is good; three times a day there is meat, butter and apple butter, ” the village market was established in the late 1830s where calves, sheep, butter, eggs, hams and fat cattle could be bought and sold. Not long afterwards, in 1840, Canada’s first lager brewery was founded.

By the 1850s, the growing town became the County Seat. Its political and economic influence grew, helped by the arrival of the Grand Trunk Railway. Steam-powered factories were commonplace by the 1860s, and in the next decade, more than 25 factories dotted the landscape. By the turn of the century, its industries included furniture, felt, machinery, trunks and bags, bicycles, rubber footwear, and pianos and organs, as well as pork products, biscuits, and confectionery.

Family members worked inside and outside the home. Fathers and teenaged sons were in the factories and offices, and women and girls were at shirt or button factories. As Uttley wrote, “Therein, they differed from the maids of Galt, Guelph and Stratford, who stayed home and were instructed in housekeeping…Berlin girls, while gainfully employed, became adept housekeepers by helping their mothers before and after working hours.” Earnings were pooled to make mortgage payments, which may account for why in the 1880s 80 per cent of families owned their homes and there were no slums.

Where other Canadian communities clung to Loyalist-based social hierarchies as large numbers of diverse immigrants arrived, Berlin retained its German identity while being a Canadian community. In 1871, 73 per cent of Berliners were German by ethnic origin (almost 30 per cent were born in Germany). German was the language of education, newspapers and worship, and German fashions and imported goods stocked shop shelves. Turnvereins and Sängerfests took place, and a Friedensfest celebrated the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Few seemed to see a conflict in values (after all, Queen Victoria was a Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld). In the 1890s, while the rest of Ontario revelled in British imperial spirit, many Berliners revelled in German imperial spirit. While an anti-German sentiment was noted, a local German-language newspaper vowed to counter “English nativism” with “all the vigour it could muster.”

Regardless of background, at the turn of the century, Berliners stood together in civic pride and shared common goals: leading a good and happy life, earning money and attending Sunday church services. The phrase “Busy Berlin” implied residents’ industriousness at home and work, and the feelings of prosperity and steady growth, while the “Made in Berlin” label represented pride, triumph over adversity, and hinted at the prestige of the German character.

In 1910, Berlin gained international attention as the first city to receive electric power transmitted at 110,000 volts. Two years later its population grew to 15,000—the minimum threshold needed to become a city. This achievement only helped Berliners continue to distinguish themselves from other centres, as incorporation was not attained through legislation (as had been the case with other cities). The city was known as “one of the busiest and most prosperous manufacturing cities of the east,” which paired well with its German character, thrift, and enterprise.


In January 1914, many Berliners celebrated Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 55th birthday, but by summer Europe’s descent into war made such German celebrations problematic. Soon after reporting the strenuous efforts to avoid a general war, on 5 August, The Berlin News-Record announced,

Germany declares war on England

England declares war on Germany

A few weeks later, three youths pried the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm II from its pedestal in Victoria Park and threw it in the lake. After retrieval, the bronze was given to the Concordia Club, one of Berlin’s German clubs, for safekeeping.

Many expected the boys to be home by Christmas, and like many Canadians, Berliners welcomed the chance to show their support. Waterloo North’s MP (Berlin’s riding) announced, “the people of German origin in this country are loyal to their king, loyal to the Empire… [and consider themselves] fortunate to live under the protection of the Union Jack,” a sentiment echoed days later by the Berliner Journal.

What happened next gives the impression of a community caught between supporting the King and the Kaiser. While locals contributed more than $90,000 to the Dominion’s Patriotic Fund (war fund), little changed in day-to-day life—German clubs continued to meet, and church services continued to be celebrated in German. A letter to the editor author declared, “Berlin should not be behind other cities in answering the call to arms,” hinting at a possible apathy towards enlistment.

Military leaders delivered “for us or against us”-type speeches at local gatherings. Columns appeared in other cities’ newspapers called Berliners to be kept “under close observation [as] their presence may be a source of great danger,” and argued for Berlin’s name change. While Berlin’s press didn’t focus on many of Germany’s atrocities, Toronto’s media left little unsaid. Some local manufacturers reported difficulty in selling their goods: some cited the “Made in Berlin” label, or, as was in the case of Schneider’s, the company name. Predictably, anti-German sentiment propagated in Canada, and just as predictably, Berliners tired of how they were treated and characterized.

In late October 2015, the Canadian government responded to King George V’s call for military recruits, and with it, a number of MPs, including Waterloo North’s, pledged to assist the cause. It soon became clear the area would have trouble raising one battalion, let alone the two promised. The 118th of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was numbered and named in a few weeks, knowing cynical, sceptical eyes across the country were watching.

Selected sources:

  • Campbell, William J. “‘We Germans…are British Subjects’ The First World War and the Curious Case of Berlin, Ontario, Canada.” Canadian Military History vol 21: iss 2, article 5 (2015). Accessed 20 December 2015. http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol21/iss2/5/
  • English, John and Kenneth McLaughlin. Kitchener: An Illustrated History. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press. 1983.
  • Staebler, Edna. The Story of Kitchener. Kitchener: Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 1962.
  • Uttley, W. V., A History of Kitchener. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 1975