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Chilliwack, BC Dutch Count replaced by numerous immigrating countrymen

Gentleman farmer Van Rechteren returned 'home' in 1947

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill Immigration Features World War II History

The fertile Upper Fraser Valley with Chilliwack as its hub, for many decades has been a destination for Dutch immigrants. It only was in the late 1940s that their numbers had grown into a small nucleus ready to receive and help settle a steady stream of newcomers. Its most prominent member, ‘the Count,' however just had retired to the Netherlands. The area attracted the biggest group during the first half of the 1950s when emigration from the Netherlands was at its strongest. Unlike most other areas in Canada, locally new Dutch arrivals kept coming in noticeable numbers into the 1990s (and beyond). By the late 1950s, the migration of Dutch immigrants from other areas in B.C., Alberta and beyond also helped swell the community's numbers.

All around the Upper Fraser Valley there is plenty of evidence of a significant Dutch Canadian presence but not necessarily one that is very obvious to the unawares. Neighbours on the street may know that a family, let's say two doors down, originally is from 'Holland' because its ornamental windmill in the yard and a wooden shoe hanging on a wall someplace alludes to those roots. Other than that, Dutch identity usually is not worn on one's sleeves but expresses itself in more subtle ways.

Chilliwack's introduction to Dutch Count A.F. van Rechteren and his wife Ruby (Mitchell) was not so subtle however. Van Rechteren had purchased a farm on Bamford Road after living in the Pemberton Meadows, north of Squamish and Vancouver, where he had been joined by twin brothers Arthur and Dick Van Baaren, who also settled in Chilliwack. A character who stood out from the rest of his contemporaries, Van Rechteren soon was widely-known in the community for having a mind of his own and for doing things different from others around him.

Earning praise in farming circles

In the community, Van Rechteren simply was called 'the Count.' The nobleman-turned- farmer regularly visited the Netherlands where he was introduced, according to a Farm Service News story of 1937, to the benefits of electricity on the farm. The attention this innovation received in the article, "Van Rechteren Farm, Model of Planning and Management," would suggest that many other farmers had not yet bought into it. "As would be expected, electricity is playing an important part in making farming more profitable and farm life happier at 'Zoeterwoude' (the former Walker farm was named after Van Rechteren's hometown in the Netherlands)," and then goes on to describe that the Countess is proud of her refrigerator and her electric storage water heater, "which supplies hot water at any time." She also owned a washing machine, iron, mixer, and an electric clock.

The reporter noted that a yard light was conveniently located on a pole, and controlled from the house or barn. The cream separator worked while the boys milked the registered Jersey herd (the high producer made 575 pounds of fat the previous year). "Conspicuous ... is the electric water heater which supplies scalding water... for sterilizing utensils, warm water for the calves and pigs, or for the cow that is off her feet. Even the silage cutter is electricity driven and saved the Count 50 minutes of hard work each time over handcutting.” Dutch farmers had electricity although the rates were much higher.

The article which had been reprinted in the Chilliwack Progress, was preceded by “Count A.F. Van Rechteren Tells of Life in Holland,” in June 1935 in which Van Rechteren, after an overseas visit, extensively shared his impressions of life in rural the Netherlands. The country of eight million (yes, the population since then has more doubled) had agriculture as its main industry. The Count acknowledged that life on the farm had been far from ideal as "the government has been forced to subsidize milk production, and curtail breeding..., and restrict imports." The exports of the country, largely agricultural, had been badly hit, reported Van Rechteren of the post-economic crisis years. "Germany, formerly one of Holland’s best customers, now is poverty stricken, and unable to pay...." The Count compared taxation which he said was high in the Netherlands but “on a level with those in this country.” Diking levees in some parts could push the burden still higher. Comparisons of farming methods were made, with Dutch farmers earning praise for being good co-operators, a reference to the extensive network of coops in product processing and marketing as well as banking. “Dutch farmers would be astounded to see Fraser Valley farmers plowing fine fields of grass under,” Van Rechteren stated, but noted too that practically all of the below-sea-level farming regions are extensively in “grassland” farming where no plowing takes place.

Local farm hosted Princess Juliana

Other subjects shared with Chilliwack Progress readers were the use of fertilizer and liquid manure in the Netherlands (particularly hot issues since the 1980s), the place of experimental farms and agricultural exhibitions in Canada, as well as the various brands of sports. An enthusiastic fan of local evening baseball, the Count gave an overview of Dutch sports and athletic interests and traditions. Although the Count had lost a leg and used a peg-leg, he apparently did not let his handicap interfere with his life. One news item reported that he regularly went to town on his specially outfitted bike while his wife used the car. Decades after the Count had retired to the Netherlands, Chris De Groot who then owned the farm, found wooden-legs in an abandoned silo and used them to pull pranks on unsuspecting visitors.

During their 17 years in Chilliwack, the Van Rechterens involved themselves extensively in community affairs. In addition to a busy social life with Chilliwack's leading families, the Canada-born Countess (Ruby E. Mitchell) served on the Chilliwack General Hospital board “during the time of the transfer of the old Military hospital immediately following World War II.” She served two terms as President and also was active in the Netherlands Relief Society, a group which, among other things, gave support to soldiers serving in a Dutch army unit in England (the Prinses Irene Brigade, editor) that was attached to the Allied forces and helped liberate its home country. The Countess also hosted a reception for Princess Juliana during her visit to British Columbia in 1944. If a recent local museum exhibit on Royal visits is correct, it seems that Princess Juliana may well be the only non-British royalty to have been welcomed officially in the Upper Fraser Valley community.

Newspaper notes on Van Rechteren's activities for local animal breeder groups now are on archive microfilm, as are entries about his travel across Canada to national gatherings. Then, those visits were regularly in the news, seemingly a frequent refrain. The Count also organized Chilliwack's first international plowing competition, which was held in 1942 with notably Lynden, Washington, Dutch community entries.

The Count, who was a very active member in the Chilliwack Agricultural Association - the group operated the annual fair - received a warm testimonial and many thanks at the January 1947 annual meeting, shortly before his return to the Netherlands. A travel trunk presented to the Count was wrapped in Dutch tricolour ribbons with an orange bow on top. It is not known if the travel trunk ever made it back to Chilliwack but the Count certainly visited Chilliwack in his subsequent retirement years.

Adolph F. (Mac) Van Rechteren died at Laren, Gelderland, in February 1952, at the age of 59. The Countess later married her husband's brother. She died on January 30, 1973.