The Erb-Kumpf House
Greetings, and welcome to another edition of the latest WRX Property series – the Heritage Properties of Kitchener-Waterloo! Today, we’ll be covering a rather distinctive residential property in the City of Waterloo. What’s distinctive about it?
Well, a few things, each of which will be elaborated upon over the course of this article. But here’s one: it’s probably the oldest house still standing in all of Waterloo.
The name of today’s property is the Erb-Kumpf House. It’s located at 172 King Street South, right near the heart of Uptown Waterloo, and not far from Waterloo’s border with Kitchener.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting the interesting detail that this area was where settlement in Waterloo really got started, and today it’s one of the best areas to call home. Some things change, while some remain the same!
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Of Erbs and Kumpfs
As the Erb-Kumpf’s name suggests, there are actually two owners (or series of owners, in truth) that we’ll need to explore to fully understand the history and historical significance of this home: the Erbs and the Kumpfs. Let’s start with the ‘Erb’ part of the equation!
Erb’s the Word
If there’s one local historical figure that Waterluvians should be aware of, it’s Abraham Erb. He’s come up numerous times in this blog (from our article on Abraham Erb Public School to our article on the City of Waterloo itself), and for good reason: he’s considered the founder of Waterloo.
Abraham Erb was born on July 22nd, 1772 in Pennsylvania (almost a full four years before the United States Declaration of Independence, also in Pennsylvania, incidentally).
The Erbs were part of a German-speaking, Mennonite community known as the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch,’ a slight mispronunciation of ‘Deutcsch,’ meaning ‘German’ in German.
In the early nineteenth century, Abraham Erb and his brother John decided to leave Pennsylvania to find a new home in Upper Canada (Ontario). John left first, and settled in what would go on to become Preston (now the northwest part of Cambridge).
Abraham, along with a group of several dozen fellow Mennonites, journeyed a little further, eventually settling in what would go on to become Waterloo.
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Abraham Erb didn’t waste any time, and he built a saw-mill in 1808. Eight years later, he built a grist-mill, a replica of which can be seen to this day in lovely Waterloo Park. Before building his grist-mill, though, Abraham Erb built a home: Erb-Kumpf House.
Erb owned a tract of land that constituted all of Uptown Waterloo, and a little more. One wonders what Abraham Erb would think if he saw just how valuable that land has become, but that’s a query for another day.
Erb’s mills were built on Laurel Creek (then called Beaver Creek), and he decided his home should be built on the main street in the small community: today’s King Street.
It’s interesting to note that not all of the land in Uptown Waterloo is ideal for building, and indeed once constituted a large swamp.
The early Mennonite settlers actually laid down dozens and dozens of logs side by side in what’s known as a ‘corduroy road’ to facilitate travel and transportation (portions of this 200 year old road were actually unearthed during construction of the new LRT line).
Abraham Erb built his home in 1812, south of Laurel Creek, right off of King Street, and facing toward his mills. He chose this location not only for access to the road, but also because it sat on a hill, slightly elevated from the surrounding land.
This initial home was smaller, and much more plain, than the Erb-Kumpf House standing today; there were several additions in store.
Erb and his wife Magdalena lived in the home for years, watching as the village of Waterloo slowly grew. Incidentally, part of what made Waterloo’s initial growth slower than in subsequent years was Abraham Erb’s unwillingness to sell any of his valuable land.
Erb died in 1830, and Magdalena passed the home onto their adopted son, Barnabass Devitt, in 1835. Barnabass oversaw renovations in 1849, greatly extending the western side of the house.
The house changed hands twice more (to Elias Snider, then to John Hoffman, who made a few renovations of his own, including the addition of an ornate, second-floor balcony) before ending up in the hands of Christian Kumpf in 1869.
Christian Kumpf is a rather interesting figure in his own right. To provide a brief highlights reel: Kumpf was born in Beerfelden, Germany in 1838, and he moved to Waterloo while still young. He worked in the village post office, and in 1862 became Waterloo’s Postmaster.
In addition to several other high-ranking positions (including co-founder and vice-president of Dominion Life Assurance Co., which would go on to be absorbed by Manulife), Kumpf served as Waterloo’s mayor from 1879-80 and 1888-89.
He also had a beard worth writing home about (thankfully, he was Postmaster, so that would have been no issue for him).
He Puts the Oomph in Kumpf
An impressive man, to be sure. But would you believe it if we told you there was actually a second Kumpf, equally deserving of being the Kumpf in the Erb-Kumpf House? Abraham Erb may have built the house, but Ford Kumpf was actually born there.
Christian Kumpf’s son Ford Kumpf was born in 1877. And Ford was a Waterloo enthusiast basically from day one: indeed, when Mayor Christian Kumpf hammered the final spike of the Berlin-Waterloo trolly line, a 12-year old Ford Kumpf was right there beside him, holding his horse.
Ford worked numerous Waterloo-specific jobs (including reporter for the Waterloo Citizen, and assistant manager, and eventually president, at Dominion Life Assurance Co.) and involved himself extensively in the community, from raising funds to volunteering in community projects.
We also may have Ford to thank for the Kitchener/Waterloo sibling rivalry, as he would boast that Waterloo was the best thing that ever happened to Kitchener. Christian Kumpf sold the Erb-Kumpf House to Ford in 1899.
The Erb-Kumpf House
The Erb-Kumpf House stayed in the Kumpf family until 1973, after which it briefly became a furniture showroom, then a law office, and ultimately a beneficiary of the Ontario Heritage Act.
The house itself is quite impressive, visually and architecturally: the vibrant green accents (particularly the balcony) stand out against the white façade, and the unique mixture of styles (owing to its very early date of construction and the renovations and additions that took place decades later) really make it stand out.
It’s not surprising that the oldest (well, probably the oldest) house in Waterloo would have quite a history. And it just so happens that this house was home to some of Waterloo’s leading figures, over the years.
Next time you’re in Uptown Waterloo, you might want to take a look, and see if you can imagine good ol’ Abe Erb standing by his front door, keeping his eye on his grist mill.
Written by Will Kummer