The Incredible Journey
My Family’s Immigration Story
Story: Andrew Herygers
Publisher: Dutch, The Magazine
On a frigid February night in 1952, a KLM airplane en route from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport touched down at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. On board was a Dutch couple, Maria and Josephus Herijgers, along with their eleven children whose ages ranged from one to sixteen. One can only imagine the anticipation and excitement of the children (my aunts and uncles) and my brave grandparents. Immigration was a difficult decision for them to make at this stage in their lives. However, it was a gamble they were willing to take for the prospect of a brighter future for their young family. With the future so wide open, their lives would be forever changed going forward. The Herijgers family was about to begin an incredible journey in Canada, a country they would now call home.
The Herijgers family roots originate in the small farming town of Zundert (Pop. 21,600) located in the southern Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. Zundert is recognized as the birthplace of world-renowned Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh and is also known for its famous flower parade the Bloemencorso (see September/October 2018 issue). Our family name traces back to an original ancestor, Jan Van Der Herstraten, who was born there in 1420. The Herijgers family name is still prevalent in this region, and over time, several variations of the spelling have cropped up (Herijgers, Hereijgers, Herygers, Hereijgens, Hereijghens, etc.).
My grandmother Maria Hereijgers grew up on Hulsdonkstraat and my grandfather Josephus Herijgers on the nearby Vagevuurstraat in the pastoral countryside of Klein-Zundert. Maria and Josephus knew each other for several years before marrying on May 7th, 1935. Later that year when Josephus’s mother died, they took ownership of the family home and farmlands on the corner of Vagevuurstraat and De Bossenstraat. The original Herijgens/Herijgers homestead dated back at least two generations and is believed to have been built around 1860. The traditional Noord-Brabant-style long facade farmhouse, known locally as a Langgevelboerderij, was a combination of house and barn. The property included several acres of farmland, fruit orchards, a storage shed, and a large brick barn. On February 16th, 1936, their first child, Adriana, was born and the family would grow to include eleven more children: Petrus, Josephus, Maria, Catharina, Johanna, Anna, Ludovicus, Wilhelmus, Jacobus, Theodorus, and Cornelia. Over the next seventeen years, Josephus and his young family operated a small farm with livestock, cultivated their fruit orchards and sold apples, pears, cherries, and plums at auction.
On May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany attacked and invaded their neutral neighbours Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands as part of an offensive to take Northern France. During this dismal period, life became very difficult for many families. An early memory of my uncle Pete, who was a toddler at the time, is of airplanes flying overhead while hiding inside a makeshift bomb shelter my grandfather dug on their property. Later in the war, the entire region would find itself in the flightpath of self-propelled German V-1 bombs destined to cause destruction in the nearby Port of Antwerp. Pete recalls spotting the winged V-1 bombs and that, “The engines would sometimes stop or run out of fuel before reaching their target and would then come down,” plus “the allied forces were also shooting them down, so when they connected... shrapnel and metal would come raining down, that was a pretty scary thing“. It is reported that 2,448 V-1 bombs were launched towards the city of Antwerp between October 1944 and March 1945. Pete also remembers a walk to school one morning “I must have been around nine years old or so. I could see the Germans chasing this soldier in and out of the fields; not that far from us. They took a shot at him and I think they got him in the leg. It didn’t kill him but you could hear him hollering.” During the final months of the war, the Herijgers home was subject to visits by Nazi forces in the region. Pete remembers that on one occasion when the German soldiers stopped at the family farm an older soldier confided to them “I don’t want to fight but I have to. I have a family and I would rather be at home with them, but I have to fight”. On October 27th, 1944, after a grueling battle in the cold, damp, and muddy Dutch countryside, the town of Zundert was liberated by The Timberwolves, 104th Infantry Division of the American allied forces.
A public poll taken in 1948 indicated that one-third of the Dutch population was considering leaving their native land, due to the increasing constraints of the country’s population growth and more significantly, the destruction and devastating economic effects of the war. Many farmers from Noord-Brabant left for opportunities in Canada because of initiatives such as the “Netherlands Farm-Families Movement”. This agreement between Canada and the Netherlands encouraged Dutch farmers to relocate to Canada where there was an abundance of farmland and a need for outside agricultural expertise. While Maria and Josephus loved their country and life in the Netherlands, they considered immigration as an option for a better and more stable future for their children. They made the decision to sell the family home and farmland and Joseph’s older brother, Jan, purchased the home while the remaining land was sold off. It was a risky but courageous decision to pick-up and move their family of eleven children to a relatively unknown country. On January 31 of 1952 (the peak year of Dutch immigrants to Canada), Maria, Josephus, and their young family left Zundert, Netherlands in search of new opportunities.
The Herijgers family flew from Schipol International Airport with a stop in Gander, Newfoundland and then onto their final destination of Montréal, Québec. As newly landed immigrants to Canada, Joseph changed the spelling of the family name from Herijgers to Herygers in order to make it more North American. The family experienced their first Canadian winter in a rural town called L’Acadie, located south-east of Montreal, where they were sponsored to work for a couple of months on a private farm. A few weeks later, a large wooden crate of their belongings arrived by ship. My aunts Ann and Johanna recall that when they left the Québec farm everything they owned was loaded onto a flat-bed truck. They headed to Southern Ontario where my grandfather had made some Dutch connections.
In April of 1952, the family arrived in Parkhill, Ontario where they started out by working with other Dutch farm families who had already settled in the area. Shortly after, Joseph bought their first house and barn in Canada where they began to lay new roots with some cattle and livestock. Little did they know that the following year they would suffer a major setback. On May 21, 1953, there were several thunderstorms in the area, and so the family went indoors. Pete recalls “I went back outside, and I happened to look out toward the back of the house. All I could see was a big black cloud turning around out there with tree branches going up. I ran back inside and yelled, ‘I think there’s a tornado out there!’” Family members had to lean up against the front door to prevent the fierce winds from blowing it open. Ann, who was nine years old at the time, remembers a close call for her younger sister Corrie who was in a playpen by a window when my grandmother scooped her up just before some wood and debris smashed through the window. The powerful tornado ripped apart the roof of their home and completely demolished the barn. The Sarnia Tornado claimed the lives of five people, injured fourty-eight, left hundreds homeless and resulted in widespread F3 and F4 damages in the region. Luckily, no one in our family was hurt during the frightening incident. However, the family had a difficult time recuperating from this devastating blow and would never quite rebuild their Parkhill farm. Over the next four years the family grew to include four more daughters: Elsa, Rosa, Diana, and Selma. Meanwhile, the elder siblings Adriana, Pete, Joe, and Mary met their spouses and began to start their own families. Aunt Mary married a Dutchman named Gerard Geerts and Aunt Adriana married a Belgian man named Cornell Van Massenhoven. The Van Massenhoven and Geerts families were also immigrants to Southern Ontario from Reet (Belgium) and Chaam (Netherlands). It is interesting to note that both towns are located in close proximity to Zundert. The Herygers, Van Massenhoven and Geerts families still reside in this region of Southern Ontario.
Another move was in the future for the Herygers family as my grandfather would learn that the Nova Scotia government was offering incentives for Dutch farmers to settle in Eastern Canada. In the autumn of 1958, the family, minus the four elder siblings who remained in Ontario, made the move eastward to Nova Scotia by train. After short stays with other Dutch families in Amherst and Grand-Pré, they eventually ended up in the town of Canning where they rented a house and briefly worked on a tobacco farm. There was an opportunity for Joseph to start a tobacco farm, but he decided in favor of starting his own dairy and vegetable farm in the Annapolis Valley, as did many Dutch immigrants to the region.
In February/March 1959, the family purchased a new farm with 350 acres of land in the “Heart of the Valley”, Middleton, Nova Scotia. At the time, the historic farm was known locally as the “Ross Farm” as it was first established in 1909 by Conservative Senator William B. Ross. The house, large barn, and farmlands were located at the end of a very long dirt road now called Senator Street. At the end of this road, a large circular driveway was formed and lined with flowers and rose bushes. Joseph and his sons built a large extension to the original square format house including a double garage, workshop and chicken coop. This became the Herygers homestead and farm for the next twenty-two years. An idyllic and remote country setting located well off the main road, the large white farmhouse with its distinct diamond-shaped stained-glass window and three-story barn could be seen perched in the distant sunlit fields.
Joseph’s main business operation was dairy farming, with as many as thirty cows, but he also grew and commercially sold mixed vegetables such as cucumbers and yellow beans. There was much work to be done on the farm including gardening, haying and plowing the fields; herding and milking cows and cleaning the barn stables. In addition, the family had their personal garden and livestock including pigs and chickens. Maria’s green thumb kept the yard and large circular driveway adorned with beautiful dahlias, roses, tulips, petunias, and rose bushes. The children learned how to swim in a nearby pond where community swimming lessons would take place. Maria and her daughters also prepared large and impressive meals, spent countless hours baking bread, blanching vegetables, and “preserving the harvest” as she referred to the process. At mealtime, the family gathered together at an extra-long table where Joseph would say a prayer of thanks.
Throughout the years, the remaining children eventually started their own families and moved away but always returned to visit their parents and gather at the farmhouse during the summer months. Joseph, with his tractor and wagon, would take the family and grand-children on hay rides in the fields. Many of us remember summer evenings when we would gather outside to watch slide-shows projected on the exterior wall of the white farmhouse. In 1980, a family reunion was held at the farmhouse to celebrate Maria and Joseph’s 45th Anniversary. This was the last time the entire family would gather together at the Middleton farmhouse as it was sold shortly after in 1981. Maria and Joseph then moved to nearby “Hidden Valley” in Wilmot, Nova Scotia, where the family celebrated their 50th Anniversary in 1985. Joseph passed away five years later in 1990 and Maria continued to live there for several years. Today, Maria and Joseph rest in peace side by side at St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kingston, Nova Scotia.
The Herygers family has grown considerably over the years and have largely reconnected through social media. In recent years we have organized and held two family reunions in Port George, Nova Scotia (2015) and Strathroy, Ontario (2018). Family members now reside in six Canadian provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Québec, Alberta, and Newfoundland. Maria and Joseph’s family of sixteen continues to grow and at this time includes fourty-one grandchildren, seventy-three great-grandchildren, twenty-one great-great-grandchildren, and two great-great-great-grandchildren.
A condensed version of this story “One family’s story of perseverance and making a home in Nova Scotia” was published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald (Saltwire Network: June 17, 2019).