“I was in Winnipeg! The Immigration Department took group photographs, and I posed with about two dozen bachelors like myself. Then I was free. Free, at the end of my journey. Free in the very middle of the great, wide West. I couldn’t speak a word of English, and I was on my own. Now I had to be a man!”
These are Klaas de Jong’s memories of arriving in Winnipeg in 1893. Only 21 years old, he left the life of his little town Leeuwarden in the Netherlands to strike out in search of a new future in western Canada. After working for a few years on farms, lumber camps, tunnel projects and on railways as far west as Fort McLeod, he was able to bring his parents and siblings to Canada. His experience as a recent immigrant to Canada was similar to that of many thousands of others who flooded into the west from Europe and eastern Canada.
Klaas was married to Betje de Jong in 1904. Klaas and Betje started their famous market garden in the early 1900s on a river lot in East Kildonan. Here Klaas and Betje worked with a host of other recent immigrants (from photographs, it looks like many were Ukrainian women) to grow produce that fed a growing Winnipeg market.
Klaas used a wagon to transport and display his produce in Winnipeg. A wagon similar to this had been on display in the Grasslands Gallery from the early 1970s to 2010. Conservation staff realized that the wagon had been so loved by our visitors over the previous four decades that it needed some serious care. It was moved to a secure location and a custom mount was built for it by former museum employee Wayne Switek, now retired. Now stabilized, the wagon is once again on exhibit in the Immigration Hall of the Grasslands Gallery.
Klaas de Jong (1872-1959) wrote an autobiography that was arranged by Martha Knapp and published in 1973 with the title “Cauliflower King”. De Jong won numerous prizes for his giant vegetables, including the title “Cauliflower King of North America” in 1926, from a competition held in Cleveland, Ohio.
A large collection of photographs of the de Jong family is stored at the Archives of Manitoba (Martha Knapp collection). Thank you to Bill Zwiep for the translation of our gallery copy into Dutch!