Log Cabin Chronicles

dutch girls

Digital Images © 1998 John Mahoney

Jannetje, Ken, and Geertje

The Night the Dutch Girls
Came to Town


AYER'S CLIFF, QUEBEC | It was nearing midnight when the two young Dutch girls stepped off the train from Quebec City back fifty years ago on August 25. They were with their parents in a strange land and no one was there to meet them. No one except their mother spoke English.

They had been at sea for nine days and when they walked down the gangplank that morning from the Tabinta the band had played the Dutch national anthem. Geertje, 21, and Jannetje, 13, Binnekamp had no idea they would never hear it again.

Their sister, Jenny, was a war bride. She had met Irving Vachon, a dashing young Canadian trooper from the Eastern Townships, in Holland and eventually landed on a small hilltop farm located on a twisting dirt road some miles out of Ayer's Cliff.

The family had emigrated from war-torn Europe to be together in North America. Sister Ali, also a war bride, was already in Vancouver. Brother Dirk would sail from Rotterdam the following February.

Jenny had planned on meeting them at the station, but the ship's telegram they had sent announcing their imminent arrival was still swirling around someplace in outer space.

And now it was dark and dog-days-hot and they huddled together in their heavy European winter clothes, sweating, confused, and apprehensive. Strangers in a strange land, indeed...

Young Ken Blake looked them over. He met almost all of the Quebec Central trains that pulled into the 'Cliff --- three round-trips daily from Sherbrooke to Newport, Vermont, down at the head-end of Lake Memphremagog. Ken had been driving taxi for about a year and they looked like paying customers to him.

"I've heard of her," he told the mother when asked if he knew Jenny. "Get in. I'll drive you to the house."

The winding road that climbed to Jenny and Irving's place wasn't exactly a cow path, but it was rough dirt and it was narrow, especially in August when the roadside brush grew rank in the steamy heat. It certainly was nothing like their flat, manicured Netherlands.

"It was dark and the branches kept brushing the car," says Jan, who has been known by the anglo version of her name for longer than she can remember. "We didn't know what we were getting into."

The morning dawned clear and crisp on that high hill outside the "Cliff and the sun outlined the heavy mist rising from Lake Massawippi and the Tomifobia River winding north through the valley from Vermont. The land to the east opened to a series of rolling hills and in the distance Jan and her father could see Pinnacle Mountain brooding over Lake Lyster.

"I'll never forget that beautiful view," said Jan. "My father and I stood there on top of Brown's Hill and the fog was lifting in the valley...I'll always remember that first time..."

Geertje, who long ago became known as Blondie, just smiled. "We were the first Dutch family here," she said. "Not in the whole of the Eastern Townships, you know, but here..."

Blondie married Buster Williamson the year after landing in Canada. He was Jenny's brother-in-law, so it was sort of a family thing. They had become pen pals while she was still in Holland -- her mother did the rough translations for the young lovers using her schoolgirl English.

Jan had completed sixth grade back in the Netherlands but never went to school in her new home country.

"It was the equivalent of about Grade 9 here," she says. "The schoolboard wanted me to start in Grade 1 but I refused. I cried and I cried. Irving fought for me.

" 'You're not going to make a laughingstock out her,' he told them. And they didn't."

And now, it's half a century later. The girls haven't lived on Brown's Hill for some years. They're villagers these days - Blondie lives in the 'Cliff and Jan lives with her husband Maurice Dezan in nearby Massawippi. But the girls wanted to do something special on August 25 to mark the occasion of their coming to Canada.

Ken Blake was just as ready to help out as he was that dark, sultry night 50 years ago.

Although he retired from full-time taxi driving in 1991, Ken once again chauffeured the Binnekamp girls to their desired destination. Except this time it was to the huge Carrefour de l'Estrie shopping center up in Sherbrooke for a day of happy spending of the incredible shrinking loony.

"We had a wonderful day," said Blondie. Ken, he just sat across the living room with Buster and smiled at his passengers.

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Copyright © 1998 John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/8.98