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Former Dutch barge captain chalks up longer life experience in Canada

Now 105, Sissing immigrated at age 51

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

INGERSOLL, Ontario – Bargemen for centuries fulfilled a key role in the economy of a canal and river checkered Lowlands. They mass-delivered everything from gravel to potatoes, and from peat bricks and coal to loads of shells for lime ovens. The WWII hit Dutch bargemen particularly hard. A situation, former barge captain Roelof Sissing of Ingersoll and his family still distinctly remember.

The occupation of bargeman always has been a way of life. The bargeman usually owned his boat, and eked out a hard-earned living taking freight wherever he could. Living on the barge, allowed the bargeman, in most cases accompanied by his family, a measure of flexibility. They could moor the ship at favourite spots or carry on late in the day if they felt the need.

The early 1930s had been tough on bargemen following a period of aggressive industry modernization in the 1920s, which resulted in a fast growing capacity but also dropping rates. Just as the situation for bargemen was improving, they were caught up in WWII. Many barges were requisitioned by the German army for an ill-conceived invasion plan of the United Kingdom. Those bargemen who avoided that problem frequently were pressed into service as freighters for the German army. Even those who remained independent, were sitting ducks for Allied aerial attacks, making the bargeman’s occupation extremely hazardous.

Off the boat

After surviving crossfire in the harbour of Rotterdam at the time of the invasion in May 1940, Roelof Sissing’s hour of decision came in October 1944 when German soldiers came aboard in Delfzijl and ordered everyone off the barge. Sissing who was employed by Geerlof, a Rotterdam company, boldly refused their orders, telling them he would not be separated from his family. Surprisingly, they let him join his family. These turn of events, however not only meant loss of livelihood but also that of their home. It signaled an abrupt departure from their way of life; one they shared with many other bargemen then living off the water. The Sissings relied on free shelter till they resettled near family in Heerenveen where he was hired to make ropes for ships.

It took a number of years before the barge freight industry recovered from its losses. Many of bargemen saw their return aboard cut off for a variety of reasons (age, insufficient compensation for losses, inability to obtain a new mortgage, health concerns and family circumstances, to name a few). Sissing’s ship was traced to Germany where it was sunk by Allied bombing.

By the early 1950s the immigration bug also had infected members of the Sissing family. Two daughters of their family of six left for Canada with their husbands, both veterans of military campaigns in the Dutch East Indies. Wanting to stay together and hoping for better employment prospects, the Sissings followed with the rest of the family in 1952. To some it may have looked foolhardy, for a family man nearly aged 52 to pull up stakes and head off to a country without a live-in freight barge tradition, and to a place nowhere near major river or canal traffic.


The Ingersoll Times on July 12, 1952 featured a news item on the arrival of the Sissing family. The former bargeman, it wrote, had found his first employment on a local farm. It lasted till the farm was sold, a year later. Soon after, Sissing found work at the Borden dairy plant, where he worked for fourteen years till his retirement in 1969.

Never idle, Sissing instead volunteered the medic skills from his army conscription days in the mobilized Dutch army of 1918. These were duly noted through the Governor General's Award for his work with the St. John Ambulance. He also received the Heart of Gold for visiting and feeding patients at a local hospital and a nursing home, and was named an honourary deacon by his church where he had served as custodian.

By now, Sissing who was born near Hasselt, the Netherlands, on the barge owned by his parents, has more Canadian than Dutch years. In 1952, when he turned 52 days after his arrival, he had joked about another 52 in his new country. Just recently, Roelof Sissing celebrated his 105th among a throng of family and well wishers. Still in relatively good health but easily tiring, Sissing’s Canadian experience has stretched well beyond anyone’s expectations. He very likely is the oldest of a growing group of postwar immigrant centenarians.