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‘Three Dutch ladies’ journey from Nazi occupation to dairy farming Canada

Gertie van den Hof hid under her pew when the explosions started.

Only 14 years old, she already knew too much about war.

“But the minister kept preaching,” said van den Hof, 90.

“He was a good minister.”

The citizens of Driel, The Netherlands, felt protected inside the church’s walls.

Not until the morning’s service ended and along with it their plea for some normalcy from the terror of Nazi occupation, did they realize what was happening.

Outside the sky was alive with war.

Operation Market Garden had begun.

Thirty-five thousand American, British, Canadian and Polish paratroopers were part of the effort to capture a series of bridges, cross the Rhine river and end the war by Christmas 1944.

Driel was a drop zone for soldiers tasked with taking the bridge at Arnhem. It was a bloody effort that a few days later would end in retreat and was memorialized in the 1977 epic film, “A Bridge Too Far”.

Van den Hof saw a sky full of falling men, airplanes, gliders and anti-aircraft fire.

“I jumped in a ditch wearing my Sunday best,” she remembered recently in her home perched on Nelson Hill in Milford Station.

She is one Milford Station’s “three Dutch ladies on the hill.”

Her neighbours, Ann Vissers, 86, and Marie Huybers, 90, have been sharing memories lately of their childhoods that were marred by war, and of the unlikely wandering that brought them together to run dairy farms on a hill in East Hants.

Time does that.

Late on a journey, we’re all prone to look back over the rivers of our lives to ponder the geography of loves and sorrows that have been ours.

These three women’s journeys are much more than memories of war.

More too than children and grandchildren.

Their stories are also part of Nova Scotia’s story.

The Dutch influx

About 3,000 Dutch emigrated to this province after the Second World War to build new lives and make a significant contribution to modernizing the agricultural economy.

“At the end of World War II, agriculture in Nova Scotia was somewhat on its back,” said Gerry Gerrits, a retired Acadia University professor who penned They Farmed Well: The Dutch Canadian Agricultural Community in Nova Scotia 1945-1995.

Outside of the Annapolis Valley, farming had largely been a subsistence pursuit before the war years.

When young men came home from a blood-soaked Europe, they chose industrial jobs centred in urban cores over the small farms they grew up on.

Agriculture in the Valley meanwhile was hurting from a collapse of the market for its apples in England.

So land was cheap.

“There were many Canadians who were nice to us.” — Gertie van den Hof

“The Dutch were ahead of people here in terms of soil management and to a smaller degree animal husbandry,” said Gerrits.

“They had to be; farms were so small where they came from that they had to make money out of every square inch.”

That squares with the lives of van den Hof, Huybers and Vissers.

But first they had to get here.

Back to the fray

Ann Visser’s father was dying of cancer when she, then eight, looked outside and saw German troops driving along the road outside her home in Groesbeek.

That’s how the war started for her.

At its end, one of her brothers was running the family dairy farm and the other was farming a world away in Ontario.

Her mother made the call to move the remaining three girls and two boys to Ontario.

She must have been tough.

“She was,” said Vissers.

Pragmatism is a trait the Dutch have become synonymous with in Nova Scotia.

Van den Hof was dead set against her husband’s dream of moving to Canada and getting his own farm.

But being pregnant with her first child and living with her three sisters-in-law in The Netherlands without hope of their own house on the horizon changed her mind.

“I thought if I have this baby here, it will not be my family it will be the whole family’s baby,” said van den Hof.

So seven months pregnant, she and Ben arrived one April in Sheffield Mills.

Even without the war, large farming families would have needed new land for the children not in line to inherit the old.

While what would become the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board was eager to help, those young families first needed a down payment.

Van den Hoff’s husband Ben worked at farms throughout the Valley as they attempted to scratch together enough funds to merit a loan.

But it was ultimately Ben’s boss, Fred Pineau, who would come through with the down payment.

“He said, ‘You’re not going off and moving to Ontario when we need hardworking farmers here,’” remembered van den Hof.

“There were many Canadians who were nice to us.”

The farm she and Ben bought in 1958 on Nelson Hill was a rundown barn with “more cats than cows.”

They brought to it what they knew from home, what they’d learned in the Valley and a zeal for the first land they could finally call their own.

In 1962, Vissers arrived with Peter to buy the neighbouring farm on Nelson Hill.

He had been her neighbor in Groesbeek who she had met again while picking tomatoes in Ontario.

“It was romantic,” said Vissers.

Marie and her husband also took over a farm on Nelson Hill.

And together the three young Dutch transplants raised children and dairy cows outside Milford Station.

They’d clear a pond on the hill every winter for skating parties.

They shared the joys of grandchildren, held tight through the passings of their husbands and started bowling together each Wednesday.

With the farms passed on to younger generations, it’s bowling, conversation and care for one another that remain.

Asked what she thinks about on their Wednesday dates to the alley in Truro, van den Hof said, “Bowling, of course. I have to keep on top of my game.”


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