by Esther Darlington MacDonald
“We learn by doing”. Pretty well sums it up.
That’s how Wilma Beekheuzin views the long history of their lives in Canada after her family immigrated from Friesland in Holland in 1952. The family was large. Nine children, the eldest just 14. Wilma’s father had been an office worker before the war, but he found work as a carpenter soon after arriving in Canada. Eventually, he became a builder of houses and built many fine homes in Richmond, B.C. The family prospered and never regretted the dramatic move to Canada from a rural area in north Holland.
Gerry Beekhuizen was a lad of just 18 when he arrived in the country he declares today is a “Land of opportunity”. Unlike Wilma, who received her education in Canada and spoke two languages, Gerry could not speak a word of English. When he found work with a farming family in B.C. shortly after arriving in Canada, he says, “I never spoke a word for two months”. The family not only helped Gerry to learn the language which he now speaks fluently, they broadened his social life by introducing him to a church with a predominantly Dutch congregation that spoke English. And it was in that church that Gerry met the love of his life, Wilma. The couple have been married for over 50 years.
Dutch immigration to Canada peaked in the 1950’s. Prior to the Second World War, Holland discouraged immigration, but the aftermath of the war, when the country was occupied by the German armies, left many homeless, starving, and without unemployment. Holland’s economy was devastated. One third of the population was prepared to immigrate. And Canada was the chosen country. The bulk of those early immigrants became farmers.
Wilma was only 15 when her family took the vigorous young hopeful Dutch youth in as a boarder.
“He was handsome. He looked like a movie actor,” declares Wilma.
Courting was permitted, but it was not until Gerry moved out that the couple became engaged.
“It was a different time. Couples didn’t get together under the same roof,” Wilma explains, with a twinkle in her eyes. Wilma was 19 when they married. Gerry was 24. Wilma reflects how today’s young couples seem to expect so much more when they marry. A house, a vehicle or two, a boat, holidays in Hawaii and Mexico, are just a few of the expectations. But Gerry and Wilma looked to the future with all the hope and confidence of youth, though financially, they had very little except their skills. Still they were ready and willing to take on any adventure.
It was Wilma’s description of the young couple’s time in the remote hamlet of Kitwanga that aroused my interest. “We lived in a cabin. About 8’x10’. All we had to keep us warm and to cook on was a potbellied stove.” Gerry recalls with laughter, the “toilet”, – a huge pile of sawdust that was used near the cabins at the sawmill he worked at in the bush. “When the snow melted, you could see the toilet paper sticking out,” Wilma chuckles. She goes on to describe the 50 below temperatures that ruptured the trees and literally cleaved them in half with an explosion that would wake them at night. Wilma and Gerry saw the whole year long experience as an adventure. Something to look back on without a trace of pity or regret. Just something to live through. The couple greatly enjoyed the company of the native persons in the area whom they found friendly, articulate, a handsome people, as industrious as themselves. But there was little money for Gerry working in a bush mill. It was what resembled “piece work”. You were paid by the thousand board feet $3. and, as happened all too frequently, a machine broke down and a part was needed from Prince George, hundreds of miles distant, you didn’t get paid anything. Undaunted by this adventure, the couple returned to the coast.
Gerry became a plasterer and worked for several years for a small company. He had his eye however, on 10 acres of pasture land, and all his agricultural instincts came to a head. Back in Holland, he’d attended an agricultural college, and one of his friends during the war when people were eating tulip bulbs to survive, invited him to eat with his family who owned a farm. The food was plentiful at his friend’s home. So, it isn’t surprising that Gerry equated good living with farming. Eventually, he started a Holstein calf operation and the herd expanded to 35. But again, a problem surfaced in the Milk Board’s quota system. “It was a tough way to make ends meet,” reflects Gerry without bitterness, “But we stuck it out and my plastering job helped.” But after “years and years of struggling”, Gerry and Wilma sold their dairy farm at Grindrod for $240,000.
They raised two sons at the farm. It was a good, healthy life, but as is so often the case, their sons did not wish to make farming their career.
Gerry was only 40 when the dairy farm was sold. He could have retired early, but the work habit was still strong. When a friend offered him the job of hauling milk from other dairy farmers, Gerry took it and worked for 16 years. But when the job became “a seven days a week” operation, Gerry felt the time had come to find another type of work. He worked for Highways, and Wilma managed a store for the Workwear chain. Now well into mid life, the couple felt it was time to retire. They lived in Sicamous for a time, but when the town began to grow and the demographics changed, they decided to move again. They found Ashcroft, and they’ve been here for four years and love the life here.
“The people are so friendly here,” notes Gerry.
We talk about the Protestant Work Ethic. Wonder if it has died, or is just faltering altogether. People seem to want so much more. Times have changed dramatically since the Beekuizens immigrated to Canada and were happy to attempt any adventure, despite the challenges. The Second World War’s aftermath brought many more industrious peoples to Canada which most found a country of opportunity, “if you were willing to work hard enough.”