*Author’s Note: This guide to St. Jacobs was written in early 2021 during the pandemic. Some information, such as open and closing times, is liable to change as the province’s rules and regulations for safe openings shift. Please visit a business’ site for the most up-to-date information.
In 1830 Pennsylvanian Dutch Mennonites settled a charming farming community along Southern Ontario’s Conestogo River and named it Jakobstettel. More than 150 years later it remains as quaint as ever despite having grown into a popular tourist destination. Only 3 km north of Waterloo, Ontario, St. Jacobs delights every visitor, whether they go to the market or visit the main street shops and restaurants. Historically St. Jacobs has been a destination for quilt makers, bakers, historians, and retirees. However, thanks to social media and a shift in travel interests it has also become a popular gathering place for craft beer aficionados, boutique shoppers, and young millennials, while retaining its traditional atmosphere. For such a small village, St. Jacobs impressively has something for everyone whether you love street art, crave baked goods, seek out local history, or enjoy outdoor adventures.
Old Order Mennonite settlers, including the Simon Cress family, Abraham Erb, and John B. Baumann/Bauman, founded St. Jacobs in the 1830s. These Pennsylvania Dutch (a mistaken translation for German “Deutsch”) Mennonites steadily grew a strong farming community and became a full-fledged village (Jakobstettel) in 1852. To learn more about the history of Mennonite and Amish communities in St. Jacobs, visit this link.
History buffs will love walking around and checking out the many old (and repurposed!) buildings. Not to be missed are the old shoe factory, the Jacob C. Snider Mill (1852), the Evangelical Church, the blacksmith shop (1880), the former Dominion Hotel (1852) now known as Benjamin’s Inn, the antique market, and the original Home Hardware! That’s right, the well-known Canada-wide Home Hardware chain began in St. Jacobs in 1948 with Walter J. Hachborn and Henry Sittler at the helm. Hachborn lived in St. Jacobs until his death in 2016 at the age of 95. In recognition of his contributions, he received several honours and awards including the prestigious Member of the Order of Canada.
*Super neat Waterloo Region IG account – highly suggest checking out the rest of their art!
To witness a bit of history alive in present day, visit Hamel Brooms, one of the last corn broom makers in Canada. The current owner for the past 3 decades, John Davenport, makes roughly 24,000 of these handmade sweepers each year. In addition to brooms, they sell various household items including wood and blacksmith products, door mats, home decorations, and hats.
Close by to St. Jacobs is another historic cultural and architectural gem in Ontario: the West Montrose Covered Bridge. This picturesque romantic bridge also has a dark side, but you’ll have to read here to learn what’s so special about the red covered kissing bridge!
Urban Art in the Countryside
Thanks to talented local artists, St. Jacobs is attracting younger crowds through social media. Splashes of colours decorate the Village’s interior and exterior walls and it’s well worth a visit to see them in person. The original mural, a quintessential Mennonite horse and buggy depiction, was also the first piece of urban art in the countryside to enjoy some fame on social media. The St. Jacobs Business Improvement Area (BIA) realized they could incorporate art and social media in its rebranding strategy and commissioned muralist Stephanie Scott to feed the online fire. In 2019 as part of the “Rediscover St. Jacobs” campaign she painted a vibrantly coloured country-themed quote outside of the post office. It was a hit and shared over and over again. Her second piece, created in 2020, is a tribute to the famous Quilt and Fibre Festival and peeks out from behind the evergreen trees beside the unique Toy Soup. (PS If you really love street art, then don’t miss out on the subsequent guides on the Downtown Kitchener Outdoor Art Walk and Uptown Waterloo’s Hughes Lane!)
An Artisans’ Community
Scott’s mural is not the first to delight passersby and Instagram seekers. In 1996 Kae Drawehn and Henry Tewinket created the nostalgic Mennonite portrait outside of Gift to Remember which is now an iconic depiction of St. Jacobs. Eleven years later an interactive 15-foot art installation was revealed at the entrance to the Health Valley Trail. The detailed quilt pinwheel is made from stainless steel and a whopping 10,000 marbles! A local quilter, Ella Brubacher, created the piece and raised the funds to make it happen. She also collected the marbles, requested permissions, and assigned a construction company to complete the installation. Talk about making a vision come to life. Later on in this St. Jacobs Guide you’ll learn about another artistic endeavour that Ella helped to coordinate: an annual quilt festival!
When you visit the Village, there are a few more outdoor art pieces to keep an eye out for. The first can easily be missed depending on the season but make sure to peek through the trees of the Drayton Theatre Schoolhouse Theatre. The newest St. Jacobs Village BIA addition by Steph Boutari faces the parking lot between Xclusive Elements and Those Pizza Guys. The wow factor isn’t to be missed, nor is the pizza next door (but more on that below!). I got lucky with timing and watched Steph put the final touches on her newest vibrant work of art. She graciously let me take her portrait with it as well.
The art continues indoors at EcoCafe, Those Pizza Guys, and Xclusive Elements. In 2021 two more outdoor murals will also be completed – one by Kitchener-based artist, Luke Swinson and the other artist is yet to be selected.
There are so many things to do in St. Jacobs, including getting your daily dose of nature. Several walking trails connect near the village which make it easy to spend a day taking in the sights and building up an appetite for later on! To begin your outdoor adventures, take a right onto Albert Street East from King and you’ll quickly arrive at the Health Valley Trail. You’ll know you’re in the right spot because of the parking lot to the right and the Marble Art Quilt in front of you. Two more trails, the Great Trail and the Avon Trail, run alongside the Health Valley Trail. Another route to adventure along year-round is the 2.5 km Mill Race Trail, named for the millrace (1860s) that provided power to St. Jacobs’ gristmill. It leads to the St. Jacobs Railway Viaduct which was an important structure built in 1890 and originally used for the Grand Trunk Railway. All of these trails are great for families, cyclists, hikers, and day-trippers alike.
Where to Eat and Drink
There’s no shortage of foodie spots in St. Jacobs Village. And if you’re like me, you’ll find a way to try them all! There are options for sustainable coffee, craft beer, maple treats, Mennonite baking, and gourmet food. The Farm Pantry is one of my favourite spots for loose leaf tea and maple syrup. For a delicious cup of hot apple cider and globally sourced certified Organic, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and Rainforest Alliance coffee beans head to EcoCafe in the old Snider Mill building. If a pint is what you’re after, head to Block Three Brewing down by the river. For traditional German fare try Stone Crock and if Mexican floats your boat then you’ll want to check out The Village Biergarten. Picard’s Peanuts is a classic roadtrip or late night snack option and newcomers Those Pizza Guys have a rocking cinnamon Hawaiian that you have to try – trust me, it’s fantastic.
St. Jacobs Market
Of course, no visit to St. Jacobs is complete without stopping by the St. Jacobs Market. If you can, time your visit to coincide with the days it’s open. At the time of publishing (February 2021) that is Thursdays and Sundays from 8am – 2pm. Nearby there’s also a bargain hunter’s playground with the St. Jacobs Market Road Antiques and the St. Jacobs Outlet Mall.
The Food Network has dubbed the market a “Foodie Paradise” and I couldn’t agree more. The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has been filling Waterloo Region (& visitor!) bellies with fresh, nutritious, and tasty food and drink since 1975. It’s the largest year-round market in Canada so make sure to get there early to secure a parking spot (and maybe bring an umbrella to shade you on hot days). There’s no place better to visit the best butchers, fish vendors, cheese makers, and pastry afficionados. I’ve been going here since I was a child and it still makes me smile walking around the indoor and outdoor mazes of people, stalls, and smells. When we were younger my favourite stop was to get cinnamon and sugar donuts. Actually, who am I kidding? It’s still the case today! My mouth is legitimately watering as I sit here writing and thinking about them.
Festivals & Events
Throughout the year there are several community events which the local BIA and community groups hold. Many of them are seasonal celebrations, with one of my favourites at Christmas time. Come November, the Village transforms into a wintery wonderland and is a real treat to visit. It’s an excellent spot for unique gifts, afternoon walks along the trails followed by a hearty meal at Stone Crock or a warm beverage at EcoCafe, or romantic evenings with dinner and sparkle-filled stroll.
In 2020, thanks to the COVID pandemic, the Waterloo Region Tourism Board initiated a “Dining Art Fresco” community art project (#ArtFrescoDining). Members from the community of all ages and skill levels participated and decorated picnic tables for 50 patios around the region. Each table represents different parts of the cities and townships that make Waterloo Region unique. There are black plaques with QR codes on each of the tables which lead to information on the artist and the story behind their design. It was so much fun finding these creative art pieces around the cities and looking back I should have made a treasure hunt to find all of them…Perhaps that’s a 2021 adventure to be had though! In St. Jacobs the EcoCafe also has fun colourful picnic tables (left & right images) to sit at and enjoy your treats.
Any guide on St. Jacobs would be incomplete if it did not mention the St. Jacobs Quilt and Fibre Art Festival. Originally named the Waterloo County International Quilt Festival, this annual celebration has been around since 1995 and takes place during the last week of May. Events take place across Waterloo Region with most located in St. Jacobs Village. There are several different exhibits and shows that feature both historic and contemporary artists. Additionally there’s a “trunk show”, the chance to meet artists, and opportunities to participate in workshops. Want to know the best part? You don’t even need to be a quilter to enjoy the fun!
The Mennonite Story is a visitor’s centre attached to the post office and is a wealth of information on Mennonite culture. The building is wheelchair accessible, with interactive installations and multimedia to pique your interest.
Parking is available for free along the main street, King, throughout the week and on weekends in 2- and 3-hour blocks. There is also a decent-sized parking lot at the entrance to the Health Valley Trail off of Albert Street East. For more information on parking click here. I’ve linked to a map here which includes parking, restaurant, washroom, and transit information.
- Visitors from more than 65 countries have walked the streets of this tiny village!
- In 1852 when the Mennonite settlement became a village it was named Jakobstettel, Jacob’s Village, in honour of Jacob C. Snider. He was a Swiss German descendent who built a sawmill, flour mill, and a woollen mill, as well as a damn – all by 1852. Because of these tools and resources others were attracted to the area and helped to grow the community. “St.” was only added to the name for the pleasing sound. St. Jacobs is “Jacobs” and not “Jacob” in reference to the man mentioned above as well as his son, Jacob C. Snider, Jr who died tragically in his thirties.
- By 1869 the population was 500 residents. A rail line was built in 1891 but it didn’t grow the population. In fact, St. Jacobs didn’t see a boost in growth until the 1950s.
Guide to St. Jacobs, Ontario
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to St. Jacobs, Ontario. If there’s anything you’d like to see included, mention it in the comments below or send me an email and I’ll be happy to include it. Happy explorations, fellow adventurers!
St. Jacobs, Ontario – Sources
- The Observer
- Community Edition
- Waterloo Region Historic Countryside Tours
- A Sweeping Success – The Record
- Hamel Brooms
- A Brief Guide to Mennonites and Amish – especially Old Order – in Ontario
- The Village of St. Jacobs: Ontario’s Mennonite Heritage
- Home Hardware co-founder Walter Hachborn dead at 95
- Quilt and Fibre Art Festival not just for quilters