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Bustling town to bedroom community

Like so many small towns and villages, Heidelberg was once a more bustling place than it is today. Early on, it was home to a flour mill, sawmill, a band, a musical society, a debating society, shoemakers, tailors, wagon-makers and blacksmiths, along with football and hockey teams.

The Steiss Cheese Factory was renowned for its limburger, which won its category at the World’s Fair in Buffalo in 1901.

None of that is noticeable today, though there are vestiges of that past available to those who know where to look for them. Rosanne Atwater-Hallatt is one of those people, and someone who’s become so well versed in the village’s past that she’s already written one volume for the Waterloo Historical Society, and is working on two more.

Along with a multitude of businesses and services, Heidelberg had a blossoming cultural life, she explained.

“They had oyster dinners. They brought in the Berlin Philharmonic. Oyster dinners were really the rage around 1900 the turn of the century, and they would have community dinners.

“In particular, John Wesley Huehnergard (1861-1945) was a real go getter. He was the president of the Heidelberg musical society, and they would plan events and lecture tours,” she explained. “So he was trying to broaden the perspective of the residents here. And their lives were much richer because of all of this activity, and the leading citizens that really worked for the betterment of Heidelberg.”

While most of the history isn’t visible, there is the Olde Heidelberg Restaurant, Tavern and Motel, built in 1860, that serves as a reminder of the past.

“That hotel was built with guest rooms on top. When you look at the hotel, on the extreme right-hand side, there’s a door and two windows beside the door, and that part was the general store – that was the first store that Heidelberg had,  and it was designed that way and built that way to have a store and a tavern and hotel,” Atwater-Hallatt said of the structure.

“It had a raised walkway that went from the hotel over to the barn. And the upstairs level of the barn was the public room where they held meetings and that type of thing, lectures. And so if you if you stand and look at the Heidelberg hotel, it looks like there’s a door up in the middle of the gable and you to go ‘where the heck did that lead to?’ but I have pictures of a raised elevated walkway going over the barn. And both the barn and the raised walkway were demolished in the 1930s.

“So those two features – the elevated walkway and the guest rooms above on the second floor – were really ahead of their time. They were forward thinking.”

Things have certainly changed, with today’s Heidelberg, which was named by John Meyer after the university town in the Grand Duchy of Baden, seeing much less in the way of activity.

“It was such a happening place. Now it’s just a bedroom community,” she said, noting the transition that started with the train sped up with the arrival of cars.

“Once the road came from Wagner’s Corners people got cars, then that was the beginning of the decline because they could travel into Waterloo much, much quicker and find a larger variety of all kinds of things. And it was sort of the beginning of the demise.”

Atwater-Hallatt, who moved to the Wellesley Township side of the village in 1983, has spent about 10 years researching local history. Having the first of her three-part history published in the Waterloo Historical Society’s annual volume in 2019, she’s working on a second to be released next spring, with the final piece slated for 2022.

Some of the village’s historical documents had been archived, but she soon discovered that many of the old records and photographs were in private hands, principally the descendants of those early Germanic immigrants that settled on the Woolwich side before crossing the line – Kressler Road, named after the village’s first commissioned postmaster and innkeeper, John Jacob Krisslir – into what would become Wellesley Township.

“I’m trying to convince these folks that they need to deposit even just a digital copy, some in the appropriate library or art museum. I’m working on that – a lot of stuff is held privately. I’ve got a picture of the Heidelberg school being built. Nobody’s ever seen it – there is a woman here in town who owns it – and they’ve got the framework up, and it’s partially bricked and the masons are working on it, so that’s like 1911. I tell people about it: nobody’s ever seen a picture of the Heidelberg school being under construction. These things exist, but they’re all in families, within families,” she explained.

“I thought that it was worthwhile looking into the history of Heidelberg, and making it more widely available.”

To that end, she’s encouraging people to share the records and photographs they may have. Her work for the historical society is ongoing.

“I’ve been writing lots of articles for the site over the years, but this is the largest one – I had to divide it into three parts because it was such a massive, sprawling project. It could have been published, I think, as a standalone book, but we decided to do it over three editions of the volumes. It was a nice way to do it,” she said of the publication tracing Heidelberg’s history.

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