Now and Then – Berend Hietkamp


Berend Hietkamp and his family moved to Manitoulin in 1961, eight years after immigrating to southern Ontario from their home country of Holland. Be was born four years before the onset of the Second World War. “We lived on a farm and we were lucky. The food we could produce was always welcome, so we were pretty much left on our own. We were also somewhat isolated from the turmoil and the death that was a part of the occupation of Holland by Germany,” Berend shares. “We did get a taste of reality from time to time. Once a person was looking for a hiding spot and our community tried to help. The German troops would randomly arrive in the middle of the night, usually at three in the morning, to check if all was in compliance and we were not harbouring any fugitives.”

“Radios were removed so we would not hear ‘real’ news. Luckily my stepfather, Burt Woestenenk, had secretly hidden a radio in the barn and we could listen to the British news at lunch each day to find out what was happening in the war. It was worse after the Germans finally left in defeat. They blew up all our bridges as they retreated. That made it hard for us to get around and many were stranded for some time. Getting the food production up to capacity again meant a lot of work. However, farming was even more important now and the post-war years were good years. It was a happy, busy time because we were all moving forward again.”

Paternal grandfather Gerrit and Johanna Hietkamp had a farm in Altman. “He was not a well person,” Berend recalls. “But I remember making cookies with him. He always made traditional New Year’s cookies from a simple recipe using flour, sugar, butter and spices. The dough would be poured into a waffle maker and placed directly into a fire. Then we would roll the soft waffle on a stick to eat it.” Gerrit and Johanna had 10 children and 54 grandchildren, 26 of whom were from two families. “My brother Jerry and I would get on our bikes and accompany grandfather as he made the tour to all the other grandchildren.”

Berend and Gerritje Ebbnink, Be’s maternal grandparents, were farmers too. They lived by a canal with locks that led into the river. During the war, Allied planes flew in one day to bomb and sink German boats. That created a lot of havoc close to their farm. “My older brother Jerry, who was 12 at the time, was sent the next morning to check on them. The Allied planes attacked again and my stepfather had to follow Jerry to rescue him. Both he and the Ebbninks were fine. Aside from this act of war, they generally had a quiet life as farmers.

Leaving Holland for Canada at 18—on December 6, 1953—was challenging for the teen. “I had to leave my girlfriend and other friends behind. I was in my fourth year of high school, an all boys’ class, with only one year to go. It was an excellent school and I was involved in volleyball, soccer and other sports. I really hated to leave. Life was going well in Holland and I had no idea what my life’s work would be, especially in a new country.”

The family left on a Dutch cruise ship, the Holland America, SS Ryndam, for a seven-day trip. “We stopped at Portsmouth, England before heading out. The initial part of the voyage was on calm water, but my brother and I were sick for four days out in the open sea. The cold and stormy Atlantic churned up big waves that winter.” The family landed at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia’s main harbour, as did all newcomers. Their papers were quickly processed before they joined other immigrants on the train heading east.

“We landed in Mount Forest two days later. I remember the train was very dirty with soot that got all over our clothes. There was no dining car. We had to get off at every stop and scrounge for food with the few Canadian dollars we had,” Be explains. “After we settled, my brother and I got jobs right away, working on farms for $60 a month. Within a year, my stepfather had bought a farm and 50 milk cows in Harriston, Ontario. It was right on Highway 9, northwest of Guelph. It was a good feeling to be working on our own farm again. I had been milking cows since I was nine, so I was ready.” Cleaning stables, seeding and haying were also part of the teen’s repertoire. Soon Be had an extra job working for the Royal Bank, earning about $1,600 a year.

Be met Debbie Koeslag in Harriston in the 1950s at a young people’s group. She had befriended his sister and her husband. “I thought she was such a pretty little lady,” he acknowledges. “She actually had lived only 10 miles from us in Holland. Both her parents had been in the war. Her father had become a political prisoner and he died in 1944 near the end of the war.”

“We seemed to hit it off and both decided to get married.” The wedding took place on January 21, 1960 in the Dutch Reform Church in the presence of 150 family members, friends and neighbours. Dinner was in the church hall, which was filled to capacity. Sister Betty had just married four weeks earlier, on Boxing Day 1959. Jerry, my brother, also married in April 1960.

Debbie and Be bought a farm that came with milk cattle and 150 acres of land in Moorfield. They were both experienced farmers. Son Jeffrey was born a year later. “We were both in the hospital at the same time. I had stepped on a rusty old nail that was sticking straight up out of a board and she was giving birth. I think Debbie was much more concerned with Jeffrey’s birth than my injury,” Be chuckles.

In 1961 the family pulled up their roots in southern Ontario and moved to Gore Bay. “My stepfather was able to buy a farm with a milk-processing plant on Manitoulin. Debbie and I sold our farm so we could move too.” Siblings, Jerry and Geraldine stayed in the Harriston area. Geraldine was already married and Jerry wanted to stay in the south. The rest of the family, Betty and her husband Harry Van Der Weerden, who had been their neighbour in Holland, brother John, mother Johanna and stepfather Burt, all came to Gore Bay.

“We were a little anxious moving north to Manitoulin, but we soon fit in and were quite happy with our decision.” The family worked on the farm for 12 years until 1973 when the dairy processing plant was sold to Waggs and in turn, Waggs sold part of their milk quota to the family. The farmhouse had been separated into three apartments for the three families but now Be and Debbie would only be sharing the farm house with the Van Der Weeden family. Stepfather Burt and mother Johanna retired and moved back to the Harriston area where they still had friends.

Debbie and Be began to put deeper roots into Manitoulin soil. “We worked hard to make the farm productive. “I was pretty proud to have the dairy quota, which was not so easy to get. We milked the cows twice a day by hand until we got some mechanical assistance. There are always funny stories on a farm too. I can still see my neighbour Gary Armstrong’s cow running into our field one day. She ran an amazingly straight line for our liquid manure pit, which hadn’t been fenced yet. Of course she fell in and immediately began to voice her complaints. I climbed into the pit and with great difficulty, put a halter on her. Then we hooked her up to a chain and pulled her out with the tractor. While she was being pulled out, her body seemed to stretch tremendously! Nevertheless, we got her out and Gary got his cow back in good health. I immediately put a fence around the pit.”

I can’t forget the duck story. “I accidentally ran over a duck nest in the hay field. Unfortunately, the mother duck died and we were left with her eggs, softly cradled in the nest. We incubated the eggs and got one duck to hatch. We called him George. He and our dog became good friends. They would lie together and watch television. It was really fun to watch them. One day our dog decided to make a meal out of George. We never really understood why he ate his buddy, but I was pretty upset with him for a few days.”

Michael, twins Caroline and Douglas and Nancy were all born on Manitoulin. They joined big brother Jeffery. “Debbie only had help for two weeks after the twins were born, then she managed the kids and the home without outside help. I am pretty proud of her. She has been a friend and co-worker all along,” Be explains. “Jeffery took over the farm 10 years ago when we retired and the Van Der Weedens retired too. Selling the milk quota was a big event, a milestone in my life,” Be continues. “Giving the quota, which had been so hard to get, to someone outside of the family was real hard to do. This was my life’s work. Jeffery only runs meat cattle on the farm now; there is no dairy herd left.”

“We moved into town. Debbie was absolutely in love with our new home, overlooking the harbour in Gore Bay,” Be explains.

“This is my dream home,” Debbie adds. “I love living here in town. Our children are doing well and apart from Jeffery, live in southern Ontario. Jeffery has two girls. Michael has two children and works for Canada Post in Guelph. Caroline makes a home in Port Perry with her eight children, all of whom she home-schooled. Douglas is not married. He lives in Bolton and works for Technion. This good job has him travelling to many parts of the world, dealing with sustainable resources. Nancy is married and lives in Georgetown, north of Guelph, with her husband and three boys.”

“I really enjoyed the teen years when our kids were a little older. We could do more together and they introduced me to their friends. Those were very good years too. We still have our cottage at Tobacco Lake and the kids often come home to visit. They stay there most of the time, reliving some of their childhood fun with their own children and their parents.”

“I never really had time for hobbies, but I like to collect Canadian coins to a limited extent. I just have a few. Last fall, when Debbie’s brother was celebrating his 50th anniversary, I paid for Debbie and all our kids and me to go back to Holland. I was really looking forward to returning to my old home; but it was not to be. My leg got infected again. I had contracted an infection during an earlier trip to Holland and it had never completely healed. After two days in the Mindemoya Hospital, the doctors advised me not to go. I was disappointed having to stay home with an infection while the rest of the family travelled to Holland, but they did share their excursions with me. They saw the opening of Parliament, which happens the third Tuesday of every September. The Queen leaves the palace in a golden carriage accompanied by 500 police officers mounted on horses and dressed in their royal best.”

“This last summer has been especially challenging. I had an incident with the tractor while haying July 4th weekend. I had just jumped down to make an adjustment to the tractor, which was pulling the haybine. I thought I had parked it well, but it began to move. I tried to leap out of the way, but the wheel caught my toes and as I was twisting around, my hip broke and I was stuck under the tractor. Luckily I had my cell phone with me so I phoned Debbie in the farmhouse. She came running with one of our young granddaughters, and carefully backed the tractor off me. The ambulance arrived and took me to the hospital. They transferred me to Sudbury where I had surgery three days later. I really can’t blame anyone but myself for this accident.”

Be is a patient man who can roll with the punches. However, he admits that being confined to a bed after hip surgery, and spending one month in the Lodge was difficult. “Staying in the lodge was the only way I could get daily physiotherapy,” he acknowledges. “I just had to make sure my slippers were hidden from the lady who wandered into rooms. I really admire the PSWs in the home. They work hard.” Luckily Be was able to go back home after 30 days but he had to remain immobile for the most part. “I never thought immobility would affect me so deeply. It has been emotionally and physically draining. The small bout of prostate cancer was nothing compared to this.”

“I have been a member of the Gore Bay Rotary Club since 1962, over 51 years. I am the treasurer at present and I am expecting two members to arrive shortly for a meeting,” Be says. “I have really enjoyed my stint with the Rotary. We have helped a lot of people over the years and that is what the Rotary is all about. Rotary International helped eradicate polio in the world and I was around when we saw the end of polio for our youth. That was a real blessing.”

Be was also on the committee that welcomed Lester Pearson for Canada’s 100th anniversary. “I met him twice. He was a good man. I could easily vote for a man like him. I liked Paul Martin too, as Finance Minister. He seemed more like a real ‘Conservative’ to me. He managed to balance the books and that must have been hard at that level.” Another man Be admires is Conrad Black. He feels that Mr. Black was ‘shafted’ in his court case.

“I was on the (Manitoulin) School Board for 20 years, chairman for three. I liked that work too even though the ministry always had lots of rules for us. Despite this, we did get a lot done. The most challenging time in that era was being a part of the group that had to close the school at Silverwater and at Tehkummah. People get so upset when these decisions are made, but you can’t keep a school open for a dozen students, even though you know it takes some of the life out of that community.”

“Spring is still my favourite season. That was when the cattle went out and the ground warms to the sun so that the growing starts,” Berend offers. “Farming for so many years has built up my ‘fixing’ skills so that I can repair most things. I still visit the farm now and then to get a feel of the old days, but farming is different now. It does not have to be your life’s work if you are raising cattle for meat, you can do other jobs as well. The old farm is more quiet and peaceful today.”

“I would like to go back to Holland one more time. In the early years, we returned almost every year to see family and friends. I remember Christmas with the real candles on the tree and the New Year’s cookies. I still make those every year. I wouldn’t dare show up at any of our children’s homes without them.” Another place he would love to visit is South Africa. “I have always had an interest in this part of the world. Ken Follet and Wilburt Smith are two of my favourite authors. Smith described the Boer War in South Africa and what it was like to be a farmer there, at that time.”

“If I had a chance to go back in time, I would have finished high school in Holland, but then I might never have come to Canada and met Debbie. My stepfather had been raring to move to this continent, even though he was a much-respected farmer at home. I guess he was an adventurer too, and it rubbed off on all of us,” he muses. “My recipe for happiness is having a good relationship with your partner. Communication is very important in all aspects of life. The church is a significant part of our life too, we go most Sundays. We have good friends we see regularly. As for my taste in music, I like classical the best. I used to listen to Andre Rieu, a Dutch musician, quite often. He was a favourite.”

“When I think back, all stages of my life have been good,” Berend sums up. “Manitoulin is a great place to live. Our children think so too and they are talking about moving back here one day. They are all happily married; only our youngest is a bachelor. They have enjoyed economic success and now they long for a more quiet life here. I have a friend in Holland that I talk to regularly on Skype. He is saying that his area is getting bad for theft, and he longs for a place like our Island. Here we can still keep our keys in the car and the front door open. There aren’t too many places like this left in the world. Let’s enjoy it while we can.”