Photographer, innkeeper, cigar shop owner
Jacob Doersam’s name stood over a shop in downtown Waterloo for decades
Next Friday, Aug. 17, would have been Jacob G. Doersam’s 165th birthday ... alas, he died in 1912, just past his 59th. And yet, his name stood over a shop in downtown Waterloo for another halfcentury.
Last week, Flash from the Past displayed three postcards photographed, published and sold by J.G. Doersam between 1905 and 1910.
Jacob G. (1853-1912) was born in St. Agatha to Adam and Catherine Grittmann Doersam, who had both arrived in Wilmot Township in the 1840s from the southern German states.The Doersams’ life centred on a family of 10 children and Adam’s blacksmith shop.
Eventually tiring of pounding an anvil, Adam took over the Royal Exchange Hotel between St. Agatha and Phillipsburg then shuffled off to Waterloo, buying the Golden Swan Hotel in 1876. Renaming it the North American, Adam became so popular as
mein host that people nicknamed it Doersam’s Place. Later owners rechristened it the City Hotel.
Meanwhile, 20-something Jacob G. had caught the camera bug. In 1881, he and fellow enthusiast Paul Guenther set up as “Doersam and Guenther: Artistic Photographers.” That lasted just a couple of years.
Guenther (1848-1925) organized his own photography business but later became a well-known painter and decorator in Waterloo. Jacob also continued solo in photography. A number of their partnership and solo 1880s cartes de visite and cabinet photos survive.
Somehow, things unravelled for Jacob; the Waterloo Chronicle of March 12, 1885, was sarcastic:
“Mr. Jacob Doersam, photographer, left suddenly for parts unknown last Thursday night, but it is supposed he has gone to join the “great unwashed” in Detroit, leaving many creditors here to mourn his hasty exit. Vive vale
The Latin phrase translates as “hail and farewell” but the connotation here is “Get lost!” Was this the end of Jacob G. Doersam in Waterloo?
Within a year, he had stepped into his father’s shoes to run the North American. Selling it four years later, Jacob began the business for which he is remembered. On King Street, south of and next to the Grand Trunk Railway tracks, Jacob opened a cigar and tobacco shop. He and his second wife, Catherine Merklinger Doersam, lived above “Jake’s Cigar Store” at what today is 42 King St. S.
A 1906 description of Jacob G. in a Chronicle-Telegraph publication paints a much different picture of him than the paper had printed two decades earlier.
“By studying carefully the wants and requirements of the people, and selling only what he could recommend, he succeeded in so increasing trade that larger premises were necessary ... business is still increasing and a necessary enlargement of his store has recently been made to accommodate a larger and more varied stock and class of goods. Mr. Doersam now has, in connection with his fancy and sporting goods trade, one of the most up-to-date book stores and news agencies in the county. He is a prominent member of the Knights of the Maccabees.”
Jacob G. was the financial chair of that fraternal organization’s Waterloo “hive.”
Between 1905 and 1912, postcards showing “Published by J.G. Doersam, Waterloo, Ontario” began appearing. Jacob, with his photographic background, was early into the postcard game in Waterloo. His photo scenes of Waterloo were also used by other publishers, such as Toronto’s Warwick Brothers.
Beginning about 1905, Jacob’s store concentrated more and more on books and stationery (and postcards), lessening reliance on tobacco supplies, dry goods and sporting equipment. In 1912, he died, but the Doersam shop continued under widow Catherine until 1938 when her sister Lydia stepped in and kept the store running until 1954. A nephew of Lydia and Catherine, Peter J. Merklinger, took over for a further eight years, closing in 1962 when Ed Bergman Jewellers moved into the premises. The Doersam sign was finally coming down after 75-plus years. There are people alive today who recall the Merklinger-run Doersam store, and there are those of us who recall Jacob G. Doersam through his postcards of early 20th century Waterloo.
In the 1870s and 1880s, photography was the high-tech magnet of its time. Young people flocked to the camera. Jacob Doersam was 28 and Paul Guenther 34 when they set up together, offering photography and many other services. This advertising sketch appeared on the reverse of some of their photos.
A carte de visite from the Doersam & Guenther firm, taken around 1881 in Waterloo. The name Theo Koch is pencilled on the back. He was born in 1879 at Conestogo and spent his short life working for the railway, dying tragically in 1926 in British Columbia.
A 1906 portrait shows the handsome, prosperous, middle-aged Waterloo businessperson, Jacob G. Doersam, whose King Street business outlived him by 50 years.