Ryan Taylor A tribute to a remarkable man
Ezra Eby


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By Ryan Taylor

Ezra Eby was a remarkable man.

A teacher and printer, he decided to document the earliest Mennonite settlers in Waterloo township by recording their family histories. He visited his neighbours in the 1880s and 1890s, writing down what they told him about the generation who came from Pennsylvania to Ontario.

Some had documents, but much of the information was oral history which had been handed down, some legendary and some factual.

When he published the result in 1895, his own financial situation was precarious. His book, two volumes entitled A Biographical History of Waterloo Township, became the first port of call for genealogists researching the Mennonite families of Waterloo region.

Its importance was such that genealogists and librarians refer to it simply as The Eby Book.

Information from the Eby Book is now available online at a Region of Waterloo website.. Everyone listed in the book has an individual page with information about birth, marriage, death and children. The basis for the entry is the Eby Book itself, but there is a great deal of supplementary information. In some cases, Eby was told stories from the eighteenth century about the original emigration from Switzerland to Pennsylvania.

The page for Tobias Martin, father of the famous barn-framer Simeon Martin, gives his birth (1860), marriage to Amanda Eby and lists his children. Since he was still alive when the Eby Book was published, his death is not included. Links on Tobias' page lead to pages for his wife and parents.

There are only two degrees of separation between Tobias and William Eby, his father-in-law, who was a potter in Conestogo. His page is supplemented by pictures of his pottery from the Schneider Haus collection. If local museums contain artifacts or publications associated with an individual, they are pictured and described.

It was very exciting to see photos of so much of William Eby's pottery online. At one time, his work was becoming forgotten. The important role of the Schneider Haus in preserving these artifacts is amply demonstrated by the links on this website.

This exciting new database was created through the generosity of the governments of Ontario and Canada, and the combined efforts of 10 heritage organizations in the region. I expect Eby would never have guessed his name would have considerable political clout a century after his death.

The website also provides background information about the Eby Book. It states that it has "been inaccessible to the community-at-large" for many years. This has never been true. Local libraries have always had treasured copies, where many people consulted them. Joseph Snyder published a supplement in 1931. In 1971 Eldon Weber produced a volume which reprinted the original volumes, the supplement, an index and other material. This modern volume has been the one most used in libraries today.

What this edition does is make the Eby Book information accessible at home to anyone with an internet hookup. Since descendants of Waterloo's Mennonite settlers have spread across North America, genealogists working on these families will be able to compile their information with ease.

Ezra Eby was the grandson of Benjamin Eby, first Mennonite bishop in the new Waterloo settlement. What would they think about the online version of their family history?

Benjamin might have some reservations, but Ezra Eby was a visionary whose good idea required dogged work and hardship to fulfill. He did it, using the tools at his command in 1895. His descendants, in thought if not blood, have today created a new document which takes his legacy around the world.

Posted October 31, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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