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Five children perished in 1942 Markham, Ontario tragedy

Fire decimated family of ‘Flying Dutchman’ Nick Schouten

Tags: Dutch Exploration

MARKHAM, Ontario - The date of the tragic fire of Saturday, February 7, 1942, in which five of his six children perished, was literally seared in the mind of Markham's Dutch-born flower grower Nick Schouten. Separated from the emotional support of his family in the Netherlands because of World War Two, the event continued to affect the life of the Warmond-born man until the very end.

The day of the fire was, as usual, a busy one for the Schouten household which lived in a white two-story clapboard house with basement on Rouge Street in the then small Toronto-area village. Wife Rosa, a former nurse from Parry Sound, was almost due from her seventh child in the nine years since her marriage to the equally strong-willed Dutch-Canadian. Schouten had gone to ship flowers to Ottawa that day and then to play cards with friends during, what turned out to be a bitterly-cold night.

Rosa Schouten had put her children to bed upstairs and just had finished changing the diaper of the baby in the kitchen when she heard an explosion below. She quickly slammed the basement door shut when she saw a wall of fire there, grabbed the baby and ran outside to the family's greenhouse where she called the night watchman, presumably a neighbour. The man rolled out a hose.

Blocked road

The fire department had trouble reaching the burning house because of the icy uphill road. Blocking the road was the abandoned car of a frantic Nick Schouten who had set out on foot when his vehicle could not reach the crest in the road. Schouten got badly burned trying to keep the fire from devouring the greenhouse and other buildings on the property. He collapsed when he was told five of his children were still in the house which according to the local newspaper "burned like a match box and so intense no one could get near it."

The following day, four of the bodies were recovered, the fifth two days later. The coroner decided no further investigation into the tragedy was necessary. The funeral service which was held at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, attracted a broad representation of the community while expressions of sympathy, and offers of help and other relief came from across the country. A week after the funeral of Mary (8), John (6), Frank (5), Eileen (4) and Herman (2), the Schouten's daughter Rosemarie was born. Three more daughters followed but no sons. The Schoutens rebuilt the house but in spite of "a second honeymoon" to B.C. in 1945 where they looked up Schouten's compatriot and fellow flower bulb grower Wim Vander Zalm Sr. from Noordwijkerhout - who was in North America when Hitler invaded the Netherlands - they just could not overcome the deep-felt grief from the family tragedy. In 1947 the couple separated and Schouten's sister Mary came from Warmond - near Leiden in the Netherlands - to look after the children.


By then, journalist Gordon Sinclair - later a cabinet minister - had introduced Nick Schouten to the public as Canada's "Flying Florist" a play of words on his already previously established reputation as "the Flying Dutchman," a label earned with fairly frequent travel by air in an age when competitors in the bulb business still relied on cars to cross the continent. After WWII, a steady trickle of Dutch immigrants worked for the pioneer whose name now appears on a number of road signs in a modern subdivision.

In the 1950s, Schouten served his community in various capacities, and as an aldermanic candidate was never defeated. Among his trade marks on Markham's council was his insistence that new subdivisions would have water mains with sufficient capacity and enough fire hydrants.


The Schouten tragedy was matched nearly three years later in a Illinois community where the John Hoogewoning family, formerly of Rijnsburg, co-incidentally about four kilometres from Schouten's hometown of Warmond, the Netherlands, lost six children in a very devastating fire. This story was published nearly four years ago in the Windmill Herald.