John Van Gelderen – Much More Than Carpentry

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  Sadly, my travelling friend, Helen, and her family suffered a profound loss in May of 2010. Helen's father suddenly passed away at the age of 80. Before his death, he had started writing his biography, but had only several pages of assorted information roughly jotted down. Helen gave me these notes to fashion into a finished product for her father's descendents to enjoy. Helen, her sister, Marian, and their mother were able to fill in a few gaps for me. This is a condensed version of his biography:



I pull out a binder of pictures and catch sight of an old business card I had placed in the slot on the cover. The title below my name - Carpentry - brings back memories. It is a vocation that has brought me much pleasure. My earlier years, however, were spent farming. Farming is what brought me to this country. I sit down, ignoring the binder, and think about my life and how full and rich it has been. Beginnings My full name is Johannes Odulphus van Gelderen. I was born in Assendelft, North Holland on January 13, 1930. My mother said I blew in through the window as if it had opened on my arrival. I was the first baptized at the newly built St. Udulphis Catholic Church, which we lived across from for six years. I was the youngest in my family of four brothers and two sisters. The two oldest siblings, Johanna and Kase, came from my father's first wife, who had passed away in 1920. My other siblings are Maarten, Arnold Cor, and Leni.  One child, born after me, died shortly after birth. The family thought the marriage between my father and my mother was a disgrace because she was a much younger woman. Ten years stood between them. My half brother and half sister never grew up in our home; their grandmother raised them. During my younger years, Leni, who was two years older, and I spent a great deal of time together. We often played outside in the dem sloten - a two-foot deep ditch, which was filled with water. We repeatedly enjoyed teasing whoever was in the outhouse at the top of the hill by throwing a stone at the door or in the ditchwater near it. The occupant would be startled and run out of the outhouse, quite upset with us once they realized our mischief. They did not think it was so funny. Those pastimes were left behind when our family moved to Beverwijk in 1936, to a place beside a bakery. I remember this very nice house fondly; however, it proved too expensive. Hard times had invaded our family, as father was unemployed. After a year, we moved to a house owned by my grandmother, Helena Kuil, at #112 Heemskerkerweg. She charged us one dollar a week to live there. My mother worked with her, which took care of the rent. The family stayed there for 12 years. My father lacked talent as a handyman and contributed little help, though he happened to be a good salesman. So, I picked up a hammer and some nails and started fixing things, such as loose parts on the fence. When I realized the outhouse could be made more useful by raising the toilet, I found a way to raise it. For my next project, I extended the shed for grandmother. I helped my parents with painting and carpentry. In 1943, at age 13, I started a job at a farm across the street. I helped clean the cattle stable by replacing old straw with new. Later, the farmer offered to teach me milking. I loved it. He provided me with my own cattle to milk. I also helped the milkman bring milk to customers. One day while on the road, I encountered a man, who asked me for a little milk for his baby. I told him I only carried enough for my customers. I gave him a little anyway; because of the war everything was on the bon or tickets. I came across the milkman in 1998 on one of my visits to Holland. I did not know he still lived. We enjoyed a nice visit. Sadly, his wife suffered from old timers' disease, either Dementia or Alzheimer's. In 1944, I went to work at Helle in Zaan for a year, in the biscuit department.  Since the train was on strike, I rode my bike 14 km to the factory, even on Saturdays when I only worked the half day opening. During the war, my boss allowed me to take home biscuits and cookies as a gesture of gratitude for working difficult shifts. After they closed, I printed boxes and cake boxes at a carton business. I considered the job unchallenging and one day told the boss I planned to quit. He asked me to stay. Having made up my mind, the next week I started at a glass company called Kroder, in Beverwijk. Kroder eventually closed, so I farmed again until the war ended. I then worked at a carton factory for a year. Next, I was hired at the glass factory in Arnhem. We installed plate glass in North Holland, where many windows were boarded up because they had broken during the war; whole villages needed new windows. We put in a lot of overtime - the job involved leaving early in the morning and returning home very late, just to arise early again the next morning for another long day. The people were quite happy to see us repair their windows, but eventually we ran out of glass. Many stores had run out of the product themselves. Most of it came from Germany and Belgium. We waited half a year before we received the first boat with plate glass. To transport the fragile loads, we used an old Ford car, by cutting off the back and placing a proper rack on it. We rode the vehicle hard. One day, we drove downhill too fast and came upon a big bend in the highway. Missing it, we ended up on a farmer's property. Luck was with us, though, as we found ourselves on his laneway. In time, we were provided with a trailer to transport glass on. During our workdays, we often dropped into the local restaurant for a cup of coffee. One day, we met the owner and ended up talking about the military. He told us the best one was the German army. We had to agree, theirs was the best controlled; others were less disciplined and less organized. We couldn't believe it, but we had to accept it as the truth, though none of us liked having the Germans in our country. While they occupied our country, the German army stayed in two schools in our town. We never experienced problems with them. One time, when my sister and I travelled to Velsen to pick up my grandmother's money, a man with his private part showing followed us. We ran away. At the end of the road, we saw a German soldier, who took his gun out to show the man what he would do. The man took off, leaving my sister and me unharmed. My days at the glass company continued without much change until my boss, who was aware of my ambitious nature, made me a salesman in glass and paint products. My territory covered Amsterdam to Weesp. It took a long time before I made a sale. Eventually the company was satisfied with my performance, though I was not happy making this kind of a living. Decisions After a year on the road, I felt I was going nowhere, so I decided to immigrate to Canada. I wanted to pursue farming as a career. Holland did not offer land as it was all owned and not much ever came up for sale. At one point, I found a farm that I wanted to purchase, but it was sold before I could make an offer. New Zealand and Australia were also possibilities for immigration-I had a nephew in Australia, but future visits to Holland would have been too far. I told my boss I was quitting to move to Canada. I would need, however, the proper immigration papers first. On the Monday after I quit my job, my mother made sandwiches for me and I set off on my bike to Hoorn, where I stayed overnight in a hotel. The next day, I headed out early in the morning in the direction of Wognum. I asked farmers if they needed help. One told me of another in Hoogwoud. His helper had joined the army. I found the farmer, who then hired me. He also set me up with a person, who took in boarders and only lived half a mile from the farm. I worked there for half a year when I discovered that the Dutch government offered a special one year program. I would learn farming by working with a farmer as a student. Once I completed the program, I could get my papers and be eligible to immigrate to Canada. I'd be lined up for a job on a farm upon my arrival. The program would benefit me, as I would learn all kinds of trade, such as mechanics. The government rented an old building a block away from the farm in Alphen. The building consisted of one room set up with beds and another room with tables and chairs. We were expected to look after our own first and second meal; however, a café-restaurant prepared and brought in the evening meal. I started in spring at the mixed farm, which involved various jobs such as raising milk cattle and growing sugar beets and grain. The farmer really liked me because I knew all the jobs, always kept myself busy with small jobs around the house, and loved to work with horses. He owned a small tractor and a car. If we milked cows outside of town, his son and I took the car. I had farmed there for eight months, when I asked the government employee for my papers. Once I received them, I could go home. The course file #48836 was finished. I told the farmer I was going home the next Saturday. When I walked into the stable, I found him milking. I gave him a hand and noticed he was crying. He told me he had a house and a farm for me if I stayed, but my mind was made up. I could not just change. By the way, his son could take over the other farm. My girlfriend, Maria Anna Cornelia (Rita or Rie) Maalman and I went home. For a couple of months, I attended school in Haarlem, where I learned carpentry and stonemasonry. I had known Rita, who was born July 26, 1929, since I was 14. She first noticed me when I was swinging my bangs to the side as I came out of the pool at school. They would call me Paleface because of my pale skin. Since boys and girls were thoroughly separated during school hours-the girls' school on one side and the boys' school on the other; we were even let out at different times - we never got to know each other very well until we joined a youth group in our late teens. As a group we would travel all over. One gathering took place at a political party meeting in Amsterdam. I took Rita to a movie for our first date. After, I realized she didn't like movies so I never took her to one again. Over the years, she would get annoyed at my watching TV every night. Once we decided to immigrate to Canada, it took about two years to prepare ourselves for the move. I married my sweetheart at our church, Onse lieve Vrouw on Van Goeder Road on February 11, 1956. Canada We flew on March 15, 1956 to Newfoundland, where the pilot told us we arrived too early for our Montreal flight. While my wife and I waited, we enjoyed a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Once in Montreal, we cleared customs and took a bus to the train station. Fifty Dutch people stood before the station manager waiting for instructions to their next destination, yet he didn't speak Dutch. He asked if anyone spoke English. I was flabbergasted when no one answered and very surprised no one had learned the language before coming to Canada. Of all the waiting people, I turned out to be the only one who knew English. "Well," I told him, "I know your language." This really surprised him. Ten passengers, who had taken the wrong direction, would have to get back on the bus and go to another destination, he explained to me. He told me to make sure the remaining people stay together. Before leaving us for an hour, he directed us to the washrooms. Upon his return, we were sent to Toronto and from there to London. Our new employer, a farmer, was waiting to take us to Grand Bend. We were to live in an apartment fashioned out of a small barn-like structure. It gave us a bedroom, living room, and small kitchen, though the rooms would stay empty until our furniture arrived from overseas. Black tarpaper covered the outside of the barn. Since I had accumulated handyman experience in Holland, I was prepared to fix the outside to make the place feel like home. After six months, we were transferred to another farm in Waterford. I mainly drove tractor, but helped in the garden when there wasn't enough tractor work. I also took on a variety of other jobs, making myself useful around the farm. I kept busy enough with the tractor in the fall. In winter, we stripped tobacco. Not contented to stay there, we moved to London in February, where I undertook some repair work for a carpenter. He eventually moved to Toronto, leaving me to find another job. I applied at a glass company named Pittsburgh Paint and was employed the same day. I worked for four years as a plate cutter. The company was hired to put windows in Westminster Hospital. I was to look after the aluminum windows and cover the steal tower. I supervised 16 men; many were graduates from Western University, who had diplomas, but didn't necessarily know all the aspects of putting in windows. The job took a year to finish. I noticed here gloves were used to handle the glass - much smarter than the pieces of rubber we used in Europe. When I had been in Canada for a couple of years, I received word that a car, driven by a doctor, had hit my mother. My parents were out for a walk and were on the main street when it happened. While she was in hospital, we found out she had stomach cancer. She died not long after the accident. During mother's hospital stay, my boss told me I should wait to visit until her condition improved. Rita thought this was a good idea as I had her and our two children to include on a trip to Holland and I only made $40 a week. I was eventually able to earn enough money to purchase a piece of property outside of London, in a small town called Bryanston. This town boasted a variety store, two churches, and a station for road maintenance. I used the pallets from the hospital job to make a lot of the structure of our new house and its double garage, such as the frame, roof, and window casings. I continued renovating during the 10 years we lived there. Meanwhile, I quit the glass factory to work with a friend in housing. This friend, Peter, offered me a job framing and trimming the inside of homes with a new company called Morit Homes. I worked with him while I waited for a job in carpentry, which was my goal. After a year it wasn't working out with Peter, so I decided to go on my own. At this time, we already had four children. Mary Ann - later to become Marian - was born in May 1957; Helen was born in August 1958; Dolph in June 1960; and Ingrid in November 1962. After four years of working for Morit, I started renovating other homes, which lasted another four years. With money we saved, we bought land near Lucan on Highway #7 highway. Swampy bush filled the lot off a farmer's field. We needed to clear away trees and dig into the rotted soil for my next house. My wife and six children (John Peter, who was born in February 1966 and Michelle, who was born in March 1967, completed our family) helped with whatever needed doing. They experienced work for the first time and I paid them for their efforts. I built a second home a year later on the lot next to ours, and a home in Lucan for someone else. I sold the remaining two lots on Highway #7 and moved my business to Glencoe, where I purchased more property. My wife and I bought a house near the downtown there. We built several plazas, row housing, and single-family homes in Glencoe and then in Port Franks Estate. I went into a partnership with several people and bought more property in a cottage area in Port Franks. We built more cottages. On one street, for effect, we left trees running down the centre of the road. Not all went well with this investment, as a slump had developed in the Ontario housing market. The homes I built did not sell, leaving me to pay the mortgages on them. I only had a certain amount of money before it was all gone. I was forced to go bankrupt to satisfy the creditors. This affected me greatly. My oldest daughter offered me a place at her home in Calgary, Alberta. I found it very hard to start again. I was away from the support of family and friends. My wife headed to Calgary after I became a subcontractor with Lynwood Homes. They sold log homes and hired the subcontractors to put them together for the customers. My son, Dolph, and I built nice log homes in Canmore, Sylvan Lake, and Brag Creek. I worked for the company for a couple of years. Unfortunately, what happened in Ontario ended up also happening in Calgary. The construction boom in Alberta came to a halt. My friend in London called me home and I started all over again there. My wife did not give up on me. She followed me back and forth while raising our children and being an outstanding partner and friend. Until I retired, I renovated and built small additions. I continued to create small items, such as kitchen cupboards and hope chests, eventually selling the pieces in malls. I always loved making things - to such an extent Rita told me to stop; we were running out of room. I had never been trained officially. I just did it, by reading and using books. We still have many of the patterns in the office. A couple of years ago, Rita and I drove to all the places where we had once lived in Ontario. We toured Grand Bend, Port Franks, and Waterford among other towns. Rita was surprised that I easily found the old places. Our old world was lost amongst the growth of society built over the past decades; yet, my heart knew where they were. Along with the discovery of my old business card, that drive reminded me of how blessed my life has been.

(c) Cheryl Smyth, 2011


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