Living in the computer age, we can scarcely envision today, one man embarking on a project of the scope and magnitude of The Biographical History of Waterloo Township without the aid of modern technology. For this monumental work records the stories of virtually all the families, most of Pennsylvania Dutch (German) origin, who made the long trek from Pennsylvania to Waterloo, seeking a new home in the early years of the nineteenth century. Doubtless, historian Ezra E. Eby (1850-1901) had some notion of the size of the undertaking, since he had already researched and published his own family history a few years before. But five years, and over 8500 entries later, when Eby finally laid down his pen and pencil, not only had he documented the stories of more than 135 families in Waterloo Township, he had also chronicled the history of their forefathers in Europe, recounted their voyages to the New World and detailed their lives on their Pennsylvania family farms. Remarkably, the information he had so diligently assembled was surprisingly accurate, collected first-hand from informants and descendants of the pioneers who were barely two, at most, three generations removed from their forebears who had made that legendary trip north.
So Eby could be justifiably proud of his ‘magnum opus’ in two volumes, which he published in 1895/6. Admittedly, he had “bestowed much time and labour” on it and he humbly submitted it to the public with the hope that it would prove “an interesting work for present and future generations”. Time has rendered this a gross understatement. But how could Eby have known that his Biographical History would become the definitive reference for genealogists, historians, curators, collectors, and scholars of the Pennsylvania-German folk culture in Waterloo Region – that it would prove to be a research tool unique in Ontario if not in all of Canada. He certainly could not have anticipated that a century of scholars would have consulted, quoted and referenced his work and still be astounded by the breadth, accuracy and comprehensiveness of the text, not to mention the vision and foresight of its author.
But Ezra Eby was perfectly positioned to accomplish the daunting task of recording the history of Waterloo’s founding families; Eby lived and worked among the very people whose stories he sought to capture and record. As grandson of the well-known and respected Mennonite leader, Bishop Benjamin Eby, Ezra Eby was himself, steeped in the Pennsylvania-German folk culture and its blood flowed in his veins. Moreover, his grandfather’s writing, preaching and scholarship had been an inspiration, influencing him to become a teacher and publisher and eventually, as his Biographical History indicates, a historian and genealogist.
When one examines the original manuscript which is preserved in the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum collections, one would have to add ‘penman’ to Eby’s obvious attributes, for true to professional form, he had developed an elegant teacher’s hand, as legible as it is beautiful. Entries were written long-hand in pencil or pen on lined foolscap, numbered, grouped by family and bundled together. Each family section has a brief historical prologue, some have pedagogical charts and some are still encircled by the piece of common kitchen string that separated family from family in the impressive, 10 inch high manuscript. It has an awe-inspiring presence today, inviting the curious to dip into its pages to experience first-hand its tangible, present past.
A Biographical History of Waterloo Township remains today the incredible accomplishment it was a century ago and the indispensable resource it has become over the years, for both amateur and professional historian. And yes, it is the envy of the descendants of the Continental Germans who by 1825, in great numbers, had joined the German-speaking Pennsylvania founders of Waterloo region, but whose stories have, regretfully, in large part gone unrecorded.
This digitized edition restores to the public, this indispensable research tool which has, for many years, been inaccessible to the community-at-large. The genealogical data has been programmed for detailed searches, as has the original introduction but in addition, selected family records have been enriched with supplementary information provided by partner organizations throughout the Region. To individuals in the Baumann, Clemens, Eby, Hallman, Schneider and Shantz families have been added digitized copies of documents, photographs, cemetery records, entries of related material culture, maps etc. as a pilot that could point the way for future activity to further develop the educational potential of the resource.