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Celebrate New Hamburg's Heritage

On this lightly over-cast Sunday afternoon, driving west along Hwy 8 towards Stratford, we decide to stop in the little town of New Hamburg for a short while. Well, a short while turned into an afternoon. Though today the weather is brisk, the New Hamburg atmosphere is warm and inviting. The Nith River twists through the center of town, linking three parklands where residents and visitors stroll, picnic and watch the white and black swans along the river banks.

We park the Jeep in the parking lot next to the town's fire hall. An oversized mural adorns the wall facing the parking lot and blends perfectly with the season's warm colors. From here, we make our way down to the river and watch the numerous Canada geese that inhabit the area.

The Heritage Water Wheel slowly turns on the far bank of the river. Acting as a center-piece for the park, this is the largest operating water wheel in North America, a tribute to the importance of the Nith River and the many water-powered mills which borne the town's first industries. Even today, one mill continues to thrive in this Heritage Conservation District.

The Founding of New Hamburg
A plaque outside the town's library tells the story behind the town's beginnings. A grist-mill built by Josiah Cushman about 1834 formed the nucleus around which a small community of Amish Mennonites and recent German immigrants developed. A village plot was surveyed in 1845 and six years later a post-office, New Hamburg, was established with William Scott, an early mill-owner as postmaster. By then the village, with a population of 500, contained several prosperous industries, including a pottery, and the carriage-works and foundry of Samuel Merner, a prominent Swiss born entrepreneur. The construction of the Grand Trunk Railway, completed in 1856, and agricultural prosperity stimulated the communities development as an important centre for milling and farm machinery production. New Hamburg was incorporated as a Village, with about 1100 inhabitants, in 1857 and as a town in 1966.

Every year, the riverfront is home to a grand Canada Day celebration. Visitors travel from all around to join in the day long festivities which include various games and sporting events, entertainment, concerts and the ever popular Rubber Duck Race. In the evening, visitors can reminiscence among the classic cars presented as part of Cruise Night activities while they wait for the evenings finale, a giant fireworks display. And admission to the afternoon activities is free.

New Hamburg Loves Community Festivals
The last Saturday of May, the town hosts about 40,000 visitors to its annual Mennonite Relief Sale. This day-long celebration is centered around the giant Quilt Auction. Throughout the day, visitors can enjoy the many traditional foods and browse the numerous craft sales going on. The Relief Sales generates thousands of dollars for the relief and development work of the Mennonite Central Committee.

In mid-August, the town's core comes alive again with the carnival atmosphere of Sidewalk Sale Days. This is when the retailers "take it to the streets". And thousands of visitors come here the first Sunday of December to join in the festivities of the annual Santa Claus Parade. This is a truly home-grown parade with dozens of floats and other features. Many people come from surrounding larger cities to relive a genuine small-town feeling that comes from the New Hamburg Santa Claus Parade.

A National Treasure
With only a short drive east of New Hamburg, one finds themselves traveling through Baden in the Township of Wilmot. We have on a number of occasions passed through Baden, noticing the lovely store fronts along the main thoroughfare, but not bothering to stop and interrupt our travels. Today, we decide to visit Baden's Castle Kilbride. My wife had wanted to visit Castle Kilbride for a couple of years, so she was happy we included this stop in our itinerary. And, I have to say I was pleasantly surprise by what I was about to see.

From outside, the residence does not seem to be much of a castle, although this is likely the largest residence in the area. Admission is very reasonable; $6.00 for adults and $3.50 for children. Senior, student and family rates are available as well. My first nice surprise was to learn that this is a self guided tour. We could take as much time as we wanted in each room. But before we started on our Victorian journey, we watched a short video on the history of the residence.

Flax and Oil King of Canada
Enter James Livingston. Born in East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1838, James came to Canada in 1854 and arrived in Baden in 1858 at the age of twenty. Within three years he married Louise Liersch, the daughter of a local brewer. In 1864, James and his brother John formed J. & J. Livingston, a flax mill in nearby Wellesley. Soon after, they built another flax mill and a linseed oil mill in Baden. By 1877, their business grew to include flax mills in six district villages. The linseed oil mill became the largest in Canada and James Livingston was known as the "Flax and Oil King of Canada".

Around the same time in 1877, James Livingston built Castle Kilbride which remained a Livingston legacy until 1988 when it was sold to a private developer, sat empty for five years and allowed to deteriorate. Finally, local heritage groups persuaded the Township to purchase and restore the property.

The Illusion of Depth
And here the journey into the lavish Victorian Era begins. Castle Kilbride amazes the visitor with its elegant Italianate design, towering Belvedere, extravagant Victorian furnishings and elaborate artistry unlike that of any other private residence in Canada. Immediately upon entering the main hallway, one is astonished by the rich interior. Surrounded by classic Corinthian columns, a statue and beautiful bouquets of flowers. On closer look, on realizes that these are really trompe l'oeil paintings. Trompe L'oeil is a painting technique that creates the illusion of depth. If you look real close, you can see gargoyles hidden in the bouquet of flowers to the left of the statue. In fact, the three dimensional paintings throughout the residence are the primary reason for the Government of Canada to declare Castle Kilbride a National Historic Site.

Every room displays its own unique artistry, whether it be the intricate ceiling designs, painted tassel mouldings, patterns and murals. Restoration work has uncovered painting schemes dating back to 1877. The ceiling in the master bedroom displays a painted design on a single piece of stretched linen.

On finishing the tour of the second floor, be sure to follow the signs to the Belvedere room in the attic before you make your way through the museum in the basement on the way out. Originally never finished, the attic was used to store the residences furnishings when they went out of style. Apparently, the Livingston family never throw anything away. When the house was eventually sold in 1988, eleven truckloads of furniture were removed from the attic. Now the attic acts as a small art gallery. But what you really want to do here is make your way up to the top of the Belvedere lookout and witness the grand landscape that surrounds the property. From here, you can spot one of the remaining Livingston mills. Apparently, James Livingston would often use the Belvedere to survey all his land. Also from this spot, you can easily see the heart shaped driveway leading up to the front steps of Castle Kilbride. It is said that James Livingston designed and constructed the driveway as a symbol of his love for this wife Louise.

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