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ERB, ABRAHAM, miller; b. 12 July 1772 in Warwick Township, Pa, fourth son of Christian Erb and Maria Scherch; m. May 1804 Magdalena Erb in Lancaster County, Pa; d. 6 Sept. 1830 in Waterloo, Upper Canada.

The history of Waterloo County, Ontario, is much indebted to two Mennonite brothers, Abraham and John Erb, who in the early 19th century decided to leave Pennsylvania in search of new opportunity in the wilderness of Upper Canada. Both Abraham and John, as well as two other Erbs (a brother Jacob and a cousin Daniel), were founding members of the German Company, established in Lancaster County in 1803 to purchase a 60,000-acre tract of land in that part of Upper Canada later known as Waterloo County [see Samuel D. Betzner*]. In 1806 Abraham and a group of 48 other Mennonites left Pennsylvania for the German Company tract. Stopping briefly at the home of his elder brother John, who had immigrated a year earlier and founded the settlement of Preston (Cambridge), Abraham journeyed a dozen miles farther north.

The later emergence of the village of Waterloo was to occur within the confines of land held by Abraham Erb. He had acquired his land prior to his departure, having purchased a large tract from Jacob and Daniel Erb on 20 July 1805. His holdings of 900 acres included several watercourses, which provided waterpower for mills. As early as 1808 he is recorded as having constructed a saw-mill. In 1816 he expanded his operation to include a grist-mill. It is reported that this mill and his brother John’s in Preston were the only two in the region north of Dundas.

Abraham’s role in the founding of Waterloo appears to have been important in two areas – early industry and pioneer education. With respect to industry, he was personally responsible for giving accommodation, training, or employment to a considerable number of Pennsylvania immigrants who found their way to his doorstep in the early part of the century. Among the prominent people who engaged themselves to work in some capacity in his enterprises were cooper Joseph Bauman and millers Jacob S. Shoemaker and Andrew Groff. That the grist-mill was a busy social gathering-place is shown by one account, according to which Erb had erected a large fireplace and installed a wooden floor and some rough furniture in the basement of the mill to accommodate farmers who would stay overnight (there were as yet no hotels in the area) while awaiting the conversion of their grain to grist.

The earliest program of education in this pioneer region received an impetus from Abraham Erb, who played a prominent role in the building of the first school in 1820. In his will, dated 3 Sept. 1829, he left a fund for the use of certain schools, to be administered by trustees appointed by the Mennonite Society of Waterloo Township, the interest to be used “for the benefit and education of the poor and needy children, and such as the trustees shall think proper.”

The early growth of the village of Waterloo was slow, undoubtedly impeded by the fact that Abraham Erb did not wish to sell his property, preferring to keep it for his heirs. A major portion of the land and of his business enterprise went out of the family when, on 1 Sept. 1829, Erb sold his sawmill and flour-mill to Jacob C. Snider. A comparatively short but energetic career ended with Erb’s death on 6 Sept. 1830. He and his wife Magdalena had had one child, who died at the age of seven; they also adopted two others, one of whom, Barnabas Devitt, became a successful miller in nearby Bridgeport (Kitchener). After Abraham’s death Magdalena married Mennonite bishop Benjamin Eby*.

Michael S. Bird

AO, Hist. plaque descriptions, “John Erb, 1764–1832, founder of Preston,” 20 June 1960. Waterloo Hist. Soc. (Kitchener, Ont.), Abraham Erb, day-book, 1822–26. Valley of Six Nations (Johnston). E. E. Eby, A biographical history of Waterloo Township . . . (2v., Berlin [Kitchener], Ont., 1895–96); repub. as E. E. Eby and J. B. Snyder, A biographical history of early settlers and their descendants in Waterloo Township, with Supplement, ed. E. D. Weber (Kitchener, 1971). L. J. Burkholder, A brief history of the Mennonites in Ontario (n.p., 1935). F. H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 17861920: the history of a separate people (Toronto, 1974). G. E. Reaman, The trail of the black walnut (Toronto, 1957). W. V. Uttley, A history of Kitchener, Ontario (Kitchener, 1937; repr. [Waterloo, Ont., 1975]). W. H. Breithaupt, “Waterloo County history,” “The settlement of Waterloo County,” and “First settlements of Pennsylvania Mennonites in Upper Canada,” OH, 17 (1919): 4347; 22 (1925): 1417; and 23 (1926): 814; “Museum report,” “Waterloo County millers,” and “Historical notes on the Grand River,” Waterloo Hist. Soc., Annual report (Waterloo), 1927: 38184; 1928: 7880; 1930: 21929. I. C. Bricker, “The first settlement in central western Ontario,” OH, 30 (1934): 5865. Mabel Dunham, “A short history of the new city of Waterloo,” Waterloo Hist. Soc., Annual report (Kitchener), 1947: 3438. M. A. Johnston, “A brief history of elementary education in the city of Waterloo,” Waterloo Hist. Soc., Annual report, 1965: 5668. A. B. Sherk, “The Pennsylvania Germans in Waterloo County,” OH, 7 (1906): 98109. E. W. B. Snider, “Waterloo County forests and primitive economics,” Waterloo Hist. Soc., Annual report, 1918: 1436. C. W. Wells, “A historical sketch of the town of Waterloo, Ontario,” Waterloo Hist. Soc., Annual report, 1928: 2267.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Michael S. Bird, “ERB, ABRAHAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/erb_abraham_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/erb_abraham_6E.html
Author of Article: Michael S. Bird
Title of Article: ERB, ABRAHAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: July 23, 2014