Living in St. Jacobs
Welcome, welcome, one and all, to another edition of the WRX Property Group series on life in the Waterloo Region. Today, we’ll be looking at one of the most idyllic locales around: the one and only St. Jacobs, part of the Township of Woolwich!
First, we’ll take a look at St. Jacobs from high above, understanding where it stands in relation to other parts of the Waterloo Region. Then we will take a brief look back at the history of St. Jacobs. And finally, we’ll take a look at St. Jacobs as it is today: what it’s like to live there, and why you might want to take a closer look.
Where It’s At
The Regional Municipality of Waterloo is comprised of the centrally-located Tri-Cities (Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge), and four surrounding Townships (going clockwise from the bottom: North Dumfries, Wilmot, Wellesley, and Woolwich). Woolwich makes up the north and northeast segment of the Waterloo Region.
The Township of Woolwich is the largest constituent part of the Waterloo Region in terms of area, and with a population of over 25,000, it is the largest of the Townships in terms of residents. There are over a dozen residential communities spread throughout Woolwich (examples include Crowsfoot Corners and Zuber Corners), and the two largest are Elmira and St. Jacobs.
St. Jacobs: History and Geography
St. Jacobs is located toward the south of the Township, which places it just north of the City of Waterloo. Farm land and wooded areas surround the core residential area (essentially, the intersection of King Street North and Printery Road up to the intersection of King Street North and Sawmill Road). The mighty Conestogo River – one of the Grand River’s larger offshoots – flows alongside and through St. Jacobs.
This is already a distinct benefit to life in St. Jacobs: while the community itself is much smaller than the Tri-Cities to the south, and there are great green pastures, fields, farmland, and forests in every direction, it’s also not a long way to the bustling urban centres of Kitchener-Waterloo. But we’ll cover that more shortly – let’s see how St. Jacobs started out.
Starting in the early nineteenth-century, settlers began coming to what is now the Waterloo Region from Pennsylvania. The majority of these settlers were German-speaking Mennonites. Communities began popping up around the Conestogo River in the 1830s, and St. Jacobs was one such community.
The community’s population increased over subsequent decades, and it got its name – at first, Jakobstettel – as industries including a flour mill and a tannery opened their doors. By the time of Canadian Confederation, St. Jacobs had a schoolhouse, shops, a post office, and a population of over 400. From its earliest days, and to this day, St. Jacobs has a strong German influence, and the village and its surrounding area is home to many Old Order Mennonites.
Life in St. Jacobs
Let’s get into the heart of the matter: what’s it like to live in (and around) St. Jacobs? First of all, let’s consider what sets it apart from Kitchener-Waterloo. The most obvious is size: the core residential area consists of just a handful of major streets, and the total population (as of the 2016 Census) is around 2000.
The other major difference is the ‘city’ versus ‘rural’ dichotomy. Kitchener-Waterloo has numerous bustling commercial centres, large (and rapidly growing) populations, and an economy centred around (among many other things) tech, service, manufacturing, and knowledge-based industries. St. Jacobs, by contrast, is more rural; has an economy driven by unique shops, restaurants, and tourist opportunities; and offers the benefits that come from being closer to nature and having a village setting.
However, it’s not entirely correct to view this purely as a dichotomy: yes, St. Jacobs is a small place, with rustic country roads travelled by traditional Mennonite horse-drawn buggies. But the fact of the matter is that, although living here has unique benefits over life in Kitchener-Waterloo, it’s a very short distance to Kitchener-Waterloo from here. Indeed, whether 16 minutes by bus, or 8 minutes by car, residents can quickly and easily get from the top of St. Jacobs-proper to Conestoga Mall in Waterloo.
The second point is that St. Jacobs is not so small as to have little in the way of shopping or dining within its boundaries. King Street North (as we’ll explore shortly) is lined with shops and eateries; the very first Home Hardware, as well as the retailer’s headquarter, is here; and the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has plenty within its doors, and there is also a large commercial area next door to it that includes a Walmart Supercentre.
To get a sense of just how much there is to see and do in St. Jacobs, take a look at the Village Walking Map (here). Note that this is just a map of the shops, restaurants, and various attractions in St. Jacobs-proper; even with this ‘zoomed-in’ view, which excludes the St. Jacobs Market area, it’s an impressive array of opportunities within a small community: over 50 distinct points!
South of the Village of St. Jacobs is the Market District, which is dominated by the one-of-a-kind St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is the main attraction – and believe me when I say it lives up to the hype, whether you just go to browse or feast on apple fritters – but there’s even more to see here, too. From the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse Theatre to outlet stores, it’s a great part of St. Jacobs (again, you can read more on this in our ‘Things to See and Do in St. Jacobs’ article).
The heart of life in St. Jacobs is having access to the village itself, with all of its charms. The community is small yet scenic and diverse; residents have access to the sprawling farmland and beautiful natural attractions (the Health Valley Trail and the Millrace Trail, among others, are beautiful paths that run along the Conestogo River). But while living here enables a rural life and setting, the opportunities of the city are only ever a short drive away: close enough to visit, but far enough to feel distinct.
What Is There to See and Do in St. Jacobs?
There is the St. Jacobs ‘Market District’ right along the City of Waterloo’s northern border, which features the bustling market area, hotels, and more; and the primary residential area of St. Jacobs, which is a little further north (along King Street North or Highway 85).
As noted, there are two slightly separated parts of St. Jacobs. Let’s start with the part that’s closest to Waterloo first, as it’s the site of several of the most widely-known attractions in the Township (and, indeed, the region).
Moving up to the heart of the St. Jacobs community, there’s much more to discover and enjoy. We’ll start with the other most popular area: St. Jacobs’ downtown strip. To start us off, one of the best ways to get to downtown St. Jacobs is via the Waterloo Central Railway. With its main station in the Market (and one within the City of Waterloo), you can take a historic train along historic tracks to the cusp of St. Jacobs’ historic downtown. You can even enjoy the museum car on the way there! Details are available here.
Downtown St. Jacobs starts roughly at the Conestogo River in the north, and it runs down King Street North to its intersection with Hachborn Street West. Several intersecting streets, and nearby areas, feature places to visit, too – it’s not just King Street North (though King Street North is where the bulk of the shops, restaurants, cafés, etc. are). The Mennonite Story, in which visitors learn all about the history, traditions, and culture of the Old Order Mennonites, is a particular highlight, and many people love the Stone Crock Restaurant and Bakery.
Truly, the best way to enjoy downtown St. Jacobs is simply to visit. Whether you take the aforementioned railway, take the #21 bus route from Kitchener-Waterloo, or drive yourself (there’s plenty of parking, particularly off of the side streets), King Street North is a delight: not too big, and not too small, but just right. Get a sense of the layout here.
The Market District
First and foremost, no article about St. Jacobs would be complete without mention of (and praise for) the remarkable St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. Although we have an article dedicated specifically to the market, it bears repeating in here: this place is always well worth the trip. With over 400 vendors, it’s Canada’s largest farmers’ market; it runs year-round; and it has a bit of everything.
While it has a wide range of delicious, local produce and prepared food, it also has numerous stalls and vendors selling everything from vintage records to precious stones. You can feast on the famous fritters, or sit down for a meal. You can browse a collection of historical maps, check out used video games, or find a lovely handmade craft. Only one thing is certain: if you’re visiting the Waterloo Region, you really must visit St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market!
There are a few other attractions in the same general area as the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. First of all, there is St. Jacobs Horse Drawn Tours. This, too, has its own feature article, but in short, St. Jacobs Horse Drawn Tours offers several distinct tours, enabling visitors to get a deeper understanding of St. Jacobs and the people who live here – one tour, for example, heads to a sugar bush, one tours a functioning Mennonite farm, and one enables visitors to travel in a traditional Mennonite buggy. There are sleighs in the winter, wagons in the warmer months, and fun all year long!
If you’re in the mood for a show, you really must check out the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse. Like the sprawling St. Jacobs Market, the Playhouse is built in the traditional Mennonite style, and its distinctive wooden panels and red roof really make it stand out. As lovely as the building itself is, though, it’s really the live performances within that make it shine – check out the current shows here. Find more great theatres in the Region here.
For those with an eye for antiques, and a knack for antiquing (a knack for knick-knacks, one might say), there is Market Road Antiques, which has friendly staff and a plethora of treasures, large and small. Before we move on to our overview of things to do in St. Jacobs proper, you can check out the ‘Suggested Three Day St. Jacobs Country Itinerary’ put out by the community here.
The year was 1975, and several farmers – including several Shantz’s – got together with a lofty goal in mind: to open a farmers’ market in St. Jacobs. Stockyard owners in Waterloo and Kitchener joined forces and pooled resources to open a new market stockyard in the current location of the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. The Market would remain in the hands of the Shantz family
It opened in 1975, at first a humble collection of tents, but over time, something much larger and more ambitious. Within a few years, a 24,000 square foot building was constructed in a style reminiscent of local Mennonite farms, and making use of massive Douglas fir columns imported from B.C. From this point forward, the Market’s popularity continued to soar.
But tragedy struck on September 2nd, 2013. A raging fire broke out in the main building in the early Monday morning. It happened early enough that no people were harmed, thankfully, but despite the best efforts of dozens of Woolwich and Waterloo firefighters, the entire building was utterly destroyed. Fire codes were different in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when this building was erected, and as such, there was no sprinkler system in place to help contain the blaze.
However, all was not lost: of the 60 vendors whose lots were burned, some migrated to an adjacent building, and others were provided temporary accommodation. The Woolwich and broader Waterloo communities banded together in support of the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market and its displaced vendors, demonstrating just how important it was to the Region, and in 2015, a beautiful, brand new building was completed.
Today, the new building looks as if it’s always been there. It was built with the legacy of the previous structure in mind, but it’s substantially larger: 10,000 square feet larger, in fact. Whereas the old building was home to around 60 vendors, the new one has space for up to 400 vendors during peak season. So although the fire shook the St. Jacobs community to its core, the Market has proven to be resilient, and it’s now better than ever. Now, how and when can you go to see it for yourself?
To Market, to Market
The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is located in the Township of Woolwich, but it’s actually closer to the north end of the City of Waterloo than the Village of St. Jacobs to the north. Indeed, visitors can take King Street North or Weber Street North from northern Waterloo directly to the aptly-named Farmers Market Road.
Visitors from other parts of Waterloo, Kitchener, or Cambridge can simply hop on the Conestoga Parkway and follow Highway 85 North to the Regional Road 15 exit. Two public transit options exist, too: one standard, and one a bit of an attraction itself. Grand River Transit (GRT), the public transit provider for the Tri-Cities, offers the #21 bus route, which runs from Conestoga Mall to the St. Jacobs Market, St. Jacobs, and Elmira.
The other option actually has its own WRX article: the Waterloo Central Railway. This historic rail service runs between northern Waterloo and Elmira, with several stops in between – including the primary departure point at the St. Jacobs Farmers ’ Market.
Mark It: Market Times
When is the best time to visit the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market? Well, it’s best to visit when it’s open, preferably. And there’s good news in that regard: the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is open year-round! All year-long, the Market is open on Thursdays and Saturdays, from 7:00am to 3:00pm. It is also open seasonally on Tuesdays, typically between June and Labour Day.
Seizin’ the Season
As we’ll discuss, the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is so much more than ‘just’ a farmers’ market; it has an incredible variety of products to purchase, treats to taste, meals to munch on, and more. But it is, at its heart, a farmers’ market, and as such, it’s a great idea to visit it during the different seasons (and harvest times of your favourite produce).
Come to the market in the heat of the summer and bask in the beautiful berries; come to the market in the fall and bask in the reds, yellows, and oranges of the pumpkins, squash, and various gourds; come to the market in the winter and indulge in the finest maple syrup (you can sample the various grades, ranging from a light gold to dark amber, to find your favourite). And it’s not just fruits, veggies, and grains you can get: there is also organic, drug-free meat, from local farms.
In short, there’s never really a bad time to come to the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, and there will always be local produce to enjoy. Get the freshest food, and support local farmers – it’s truly a win-win.
Quite simply, there are too many vendors to possibly list. Not only is the number of vendors here incredible, but the sheer variety of vendors is, too. Whether you’re looking for classic records; vintage posters; used video games; precious stones; beautiful handmade crafts, clothing, quilts, and more; or just about anything else, you can probably find a friendly vendor here.
And when it comes to food, there’s not just farm-fresh produce at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market: there are also multiple food vendors. From gourmet chips to cabbage rolls, and from locally-roasted coffee to decadent baked goods, there’s a bit of everything. Also: the apple fritters here do live up to the hype.
You can check out the St. Jacobs Market Twitter (here) for regular updates on fresh produce, announcements of special events, and a small glimpse of the sorts of things you can find here.
As is often the case with popular attractions, the best way to experience somewhere new for the first time is simply to wander wherever your senses guide you. The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is absolutely perfect for this: its accessibility and diversity are among the reasons it’s remained one of the most visited destinations in the Waterloo Region for so many years.
Between the Farmers’ Market building, the massive Peddler’s Village building, the Market Tent, the Craft and Flea Market Vendors, and the seasonal produce vendors, you can weave your way through the vast St. Jacobs Market District for hours. If you’d like a map of the overall area, then be sure to check out this detailed (and cute) map of the Market here.
One of the ways in which the Waterloo Region shines is in the coexistence of bustling city centres and rural retreats. Traditional farms stand a short way from the numerous tech companies of Kitchener-Waterloo.
St. Jacobs is beautiful and unique, and worth repeat trips by visitors or residents of the Region alike. As we’ve hopefully shown, St. Jacobs has its own distinct country-feel, a strong Mennonite history and presence, and a wide range of things to see and do.
So whether you’d like to come for a live performance at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, a fresh meal in downtown St. Jacobs, or just a leisurely stroll along the Conestogo River (perhaps all three in the same day!): we hope you love St. Jacobs as much as we do! And if you find yourself wanting to make the visit here permanent, we’d be happy to help you find a home in St. Jacobs, too – feel free to contact us if you’d like to know more!
Written by Will Kummer