Holland Marsh Dutch Settlers

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: About 1930
Location: Holland Marsh, ON, Canadamap
Surnames/tags: [[Vandevis-11 | Dr. Ted Vandevis]] Canada Dutch_Roots
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Holland Marsh

by Harry Vander Kooij

A listing of Marsh settlers and residents of Dutch ancestry follows this brief history of the Holland Marsh.

In 1791 Samuel Holland, a major in the British Army and Surveyor General of Upper and Lower Canada, came to survey the area northward from Toronto. The region contained a water route from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay via Lake Simcoe, with a portage west of present-day Aurora. Holland’s name came to be associated with the river that originally drained about 20,000 acres, including the area of the marsh, flowing into Lake Simcoe. The river had a landing at the southeastern boundary of the marsh. Although a corduroy road (logs laid crosswise) and a floating bridge were built between Holland Landing and Bradford in 1824 by Robert Armstrong, the area did not attract early settlement. In places the river’s course was barely discernable from the marsh reeds, which were flanked by swamps and hardwood brush on the higher elevations. John Galt of the Canada Company, a venture attempting to open former crown land to settlement, observed that the area was “a mere ditch swarming with mosquitoes, flies, bullfrogs and water snakes.”

A number of early settlers ventured onto the marshland and attempted to partially drain sections. Peat from such drained areas was used for fuel, or as rich soil for agriculture, but the area remained too wet, so these efforts were abandoned. Still, the idea of using the bog persisted. The plan that came to be favored called for lowering the Washago outlet of Lake Couchiching, north of Lake Simcoe, thereby lowering the water levels of Lake Simcoe and the Holland River, which would allow the Holland Marsh to drain. But shoreline property owners on Lake Simcoe, who anticipated great damage from such a scheme, prevented this idea from progressing beyond the talking stage. The first significant industry on the marsh developed after 1880 with the harvesting of grass and reeds. The hay was much in demand in Toronto and other urban centers as mattress stuffing. Initially strong hands and scythes were used. Later horse-drawn mowers did most of the work. Horses were ferried across flooded areas in flat-bottomed scows. To prevent the horses from becoming mired in the soggy ground, flat boards were strapped across the bottoms of their hoofs. With these the horses could step along, much like someone on snowshoes. This haying business reached its peak about 1915.

A few years previous to this, David Watson, a young farmer from the Scotch settlement, a hamlet just west of Bradford, of which only a Presbyterian church remains, sparked renewed interest in draining the marsh. He was convinced that large parts of the Holland River Valley could be developed into agricultural land once it was drained. He invited William Henry Day, a professor of physics at the Ontario Agricultural College (now the University of Guelph) to do some testing in the marsh to ascertain the feasibility of draining. About 1910, after carefully examining the marshland and surrounding watershed, Day concluded that draining some of the marsh was possible without lowering the water level in Lake Simcoe.

Watson’s enthusiasm for the project had a contagious affect on Day. The next year Day built up a small plot of land from one to two feet and planted it with produce. He reported, “All the vegetables matured, the quality being excellent, the celery carrying off the prize at the local fall fair.”

He found that the black muck and organic material was almost identical in composition to the well-known onion lands of Point Pelee, south and east of Windsor, Ontario; the celery land at Thedford, Ontario (west and north of London); and the well-known celery fields of Kalamazoo, Michigan. As a result of these satisfactory results, he was able to form a development syndicate that purchased about 4,000 acres of marshland. In spite of his enthusiasm, Day was not able to convince the nearby municipalities to become involved. When World War I began, the effort was shelved. In 1923 Day resigned from his position at Guelph and moved to Bradford.

He began an energetic campaign to interest the townships of King and West Gwillimbury (the Holland River is their common boundary), the Village of Bradford, and the owners of over 7,000 acres of land in the vicinity in draining the marsh. Following the circulation of a petition, the proposal to drain the marsh was approved under the province’s Municipal Drainage Act. On 16 April 1925 a contract amounting to $137,000 was awarded to the Toronto firm of Cummins and Robinson to drain the marsh. Initial calculation indicated that the cost of the work would be $21 per drained acre. Key to the effort was the digging of a drainage canal around the project area. Plans prepared by Alexander Baird, an engineer from Sarnia, called for a canal 17.5 miles long, with an average depth of 7.5 feet and a width from 38 feet to 70 feet. Excavated material was to be dumped on the marsh side of the canal, wide enough to carry a road. As with many major projects, there were unforeseen complications, and delays were time consuming and costly to overcome. Furthermore, the early economic ill effects of the Great Depression took a toll. But in 1930 the canal project was complete.

During this same time an area of about 200 acres, known as the Bradford Marsh, was diked and drained. Also in 1930, Day had thirty-seven acres under cultivation, on which he had grown lettuce, celery, onions, carrots, and parsnips. These sold for a total of $26,000, or an average gross yield of $702 per acre. These were striking numbers and boosted the professor’s optimism. He had two acres of lettuce maturing each week for eleven weeks and looked forward to the time when Holland Marsh would supply head lettuce for all Canada during the summer season, rather than having to be imported from California and other places in the United States. But, due mainly to complex land entanglements with the ownership syndicate, depressed agricultural conditions due to the economy during the Great Depression, and the general lack of experience of the landowners in muck farming, little progress was made in dividing the land and developing farms. Within a few years many of the plots had been abandoned or taken for tax arrears (non-payment of taxes).

Even before the drainage work promoted by Professor Day began in 1925, the marsh was widely known throughout Ontario for its production of “swamp whiskey.” Police raids rarely ended in arrests, as the moonshiners knew the ways of the swamp and were able to escape the pursuing police officers. Marsh stills reached their peak production period between 1923 and 1928 when all legal sale of liquor was banned in Ontario. In spite of the numerous police raids and eighteen liquor-related deaths, people still came from miles around to buy a jug.

In 1930 John Snor became sufficiently interested in the marsh, so much so that he came to visit Bradford and some people who had started farming. At that time Snor was the representative of the Netherlands Emigration Foundation. Among the Foundation’s mandate was investigating potential settlement locations for Dutch emigrants. During the 1920s several Dutch families had come to Canada. Some had settled in the Hamilton and Chatham areas, where they had found seasonal farm work. As the Great Depression took root, however, such work became scarcer and those who were not naturalized citizens were in danger of being deported if they continued to be a financial burden. Snor sought ways to avert such deportations. Under the federal settlement program and in association with some major landowners he developed a plan to relocate immigrant families to the marsh.

In 1933 he arranged to have 125 acres of undeveloped land subdivided into five-acre parcels and further divided the strip in Concession and King Townships into lots with 50-foot frontage and set aside for houses the settlers would build themselves. He further arranged financing—with each family getting $200 from the federal government, $200 from the provincial government, and $200 from the Dutch government. With this $600 the settlers could make new beginnings. Each would spend $200 on material for a house, a two-story frame structure measuring 16x20 feet; the material was just enough to complete the shell without insulation. Another $200 was used as a down payment to acquire the five acres which was considered a normal-sized market garden in those days. The remaining $200 was set aside for living expenses for the first twenty months. The remainder of the $500 land cost—$95 per acre plus $25 for the house lot—would be paid in the years following.

Snor enrolled fifteen Dutch families, an Englishman, and a German. In June 1934 the men arrived to start developing the land and building their houses. One of the men moved a 20x20-foot hen house section to the marsh from Hamilton, and it became the communal living quarters for about a dozen men, most of who slept on the floor. There were no conveniences; the men used the canal to bathe and wash their clothes. The building materials provided included eleven 8-foot cedar poles for each house which enabled the men to build their dwellings three feet above ground level, a precaution against possible flooding. In the fall the houses were completed to the point where the families could move in. None had running water, which was carried by pail from a community artesian well; an outhouse was built in each backyard.

That first winter was cold and harsh, so cardboard and other materials were used to cover the cracks in the walls to reduce drafts from the cold winds that swept across the open terrain. Stoves were kept red hot by burning tree roots that had been plowed up from what must have been a forest on the site many years earlier. The residents in nearby Bradford were relieved on cold winter mornings when they saw smoke rising from the chimneys of the settlers’ houses.

With spring came the field work. The settlers also decided that their colony needed a name. It was agreed to name it Ansnorveldt—a combination of the Dutch words “aan,” “Snor,” and “veld;” meaning “on Snor’s field.” In a ceremony to mark the official naming, they raised Canadian and Dutch flags and spoke a few words.

An important question that faced the settlers was education for their children. The Glenwith Public School was two and a half miles away, over a road with steep hills, and there were also concerns about their children getting lost in snowstorms, so a school was built on a one-acre lot at the north end of the settlement (today a youth center is on the site). The land was donated and most of the work was done by volunteers. It was completed in time for the start of the school year in September 1935. William Mulock, Postmaster General, was one of the guests present at the official opening of Public School S. S. 26.

For the men in the henhouse in the summer of 1934, Sunday had been a welcome day of rest. In keeping with their Calvinistic background, they adhered to the biblical instruction “six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God, on it you shall not do any work.” And so, for as many as had transportation, they would return to their respective communities. Those who stayed behind conducted their own church services by reading a prepared sermon and singing hymns.

After the houses were completed and the families had moved in, the residents gathered in their homes each Sunday to worship; each home hosting the worship service, in turn. This arrangement came to be known as the “traveling church,” with each person old and young alike required to bring his own chair. That first winter some fifty people crowded into the small houses twice each Sunday, attending services where the men took turns reading Dutch sermons, since they had not yet sufficiently mastered English.

When the floors in their houses began to sag from the weight during the meetings, they knew something had to be done. They did not have much money but, after many collections, a cash balance of $75 was on hand and a loan of $175 was secured with the signatures of a dozen or so men who had little other security to offer. They constructed a 20x20-foot church building on a vacant lot at the south end of the settlement and, on 21 June 1935, dedicated it to the Lord’s service, with Rev. John Balt from Hamilton officiating. The first wedding, on 17 October 1937, was that of Tony Sneep and Nelly Rupke. Sneep was the carpenter of the community; he had taught the men the basics of construction for their houses and was the only worker paid in the building of the school and the church.

In 1938 the Holland Marsh Christian Reformed Church was organized with a membership of eighty-eight people. In 1940 the congregation received its first pastor, Rev. Martin Schans, who had previously served the Christian Reformed Church in Redlands, California. The Holland Marsh church played a cardinal role in the development of the marsh as a community. While difficulties abounded, its members found comfort and courage in the Bible and in the congregation’s fellowship, especially on Sundays; all wrestled with similar problems. Once a year they forgot about work and loaded into trucks and whatever vehicles they had and traveled to Innisfil Beach, on Lake Simcoe, for a picnic, games, and fellowship.

As the community grew, so did the number of children attending the local public school. The public school board included members who did not have the same Christian perspectives on education as the founding members. When enlarging the school building to accommodate growth was to cost the local taxpayers $5,000, some of those in the Reformed faith decided to establish their own school. It would offer the same basic education but with a fundamental difference: it would be Christian rather than public. Most of the adults in the settlement had attended Christian schools in the Netherlands and they desired to have the same spiritual care for their children. A school society was established and in 1942, for $150, a three-acre lot was purchased. Due to the wartime shortage of building materials, however, they could not obtain a building permit. They then obtained permission from the church to rent the consistory room and on 15 February 1943 the school opened with nineteen children. Since that time and several buildings later, the school has grown to about 275 students.

Some have called 1947 the year of the great invasion of the marsh, as in June of that year the first wave of post- World War II immigrants arrived. Ten or more families settled in the marsh as farm help. I was among them—with my parents, one brother, and five sisters. We came over on the Waterman, a troop carrier with no conveniences for family travel. But it was an exciting experience for an eleven-year-old boy wearing coveralls and wooden shoes. Dad, who had been a self-employed market gardener in the Netherlands, went to work in the fields of his sponsors. I also went to work in these fields together with a group of kids ranging in age from ten to fifteen years. We crawled up and down the 2000-foot-long rows of onions and carrots, pulling weeds. When the foreman gave us a break at the end of the row we often engaged in wrestling matches or would see who could jump across the ditch if we were near a wide one.

In 1949 my dad bought one of the original settlement houses which had been enlarged but still stood on its raised foundation of cedar posts. A modest down payment made him the owner of a $2,600 house to accommodate the family which had grown to nine children. During the following years, while he worked for other growers, Dad rented some land which we worked in the evenings. In 1953 Dad thought the time was right to start his own business; he rented fifteen acres. Much of the work was done by hand, his and those of the many other capable members of the family. That year I had a full-time job in the local grocery store (Holland Marsh Groceterias), which provided just enough cash to pay for the family’s groceries. A bumper harvest in the marsh that first year led to very low prices and made for a poor start. The farm income was just enough to pay for the rent, seed, custom work, containers, and other items. Dad returned to his former employer for work during the winter.

Early in 1954 my father bought thirty acres of excellent land without a down payment. This was a very large parcel for that time and it kept us all very busy during daylight hours. In early fall there was a lot of rain which made harvesting very difficult. Then, on Friday, 15 October 1954, everything came to a sudden stop when remnants of Hurricane Hazel roared in and flooded the marsh. The rainfall of more than seven inches was too much for the surrounding canals, which also collected the runoff from the surrounding highlands. The rain, together with the strong northerly winds, prevented the water from its normal flow into Lake Simcoe, causing sections of the dike walls to washout. By late evening, attempts to sandbag and close several gaps were abandoned; all night long the water kept pouring in. People were evacuated and others moved to the second floors of their homes to be rescued by boat the next day. The depth of the water ranged from about two feet at the east end of the marsh, where we lived, to about the ceilings of the houses at the west end. Fuel tanks, crates, outhouses, wagon platforms, houses—anything that could float did. The De Peuter family and our family, then with twelve children, were startled when our houses began to float. To keep the houses somewhat level, we kept running from the low areas to those rising in the bobbing houses. After a few miles’ journey the house lodged against Highway 400. That same night, after bringing my parents and siblings to Bradford, I returned to our house with my buddy who worked for us. We went to bed upstairs, since all work was abandoned. The next morning I looked out and saw a tranquil lake under a bright sunlit sky. The only thing wrong with the view was that houses, barns, trucks, and farm equipment were sticking out of the water.

The big cleanup began shortly after the closing of the breaches in the dike. Pumps were brought in and with twenty-five of them in place, running constantly, they moved 200,000 gallons per day. On 17 November, after nearly four weeks, the marsh was cleared of water. Everyone got involved with cleaning and repairs. Busloads of Mennonites from the Kitchener area tackled some of the toughest jobs. The beautiful late fall weather was ideal for the cleanup and repairs. By spring everyone was ready to get on with the task of working the fields and the relatively normal process of seeding and harvest resumed.

Life goes on in the Holland Marsh, which is the richest vegetable-growing land in Ontario (referred to as the salad bowl of Ontario). Just one acre of this good organic soil will produce nine hundred 50-pound bags of onions, or 1,200 bushels of carrots, or 25,000 heads of lettuce. It has come a long way from the time that Professor Day harvested his first crop and won a prize for his celery at the local fall fair.

With his family, Harry vander Kooij immigrated to Canada in 1947 and the Holland Marsh region became his home. Now retired and living in Barrie, Ontario, his career was with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. This work was first published in the 2006 Volume XXIV - Number 2, "Origins"

The original 17 settlers consisted of the following people:

The Store

Henry Nienhuis was the first store owner in the Marsh. He and his wife first sold groceries out of their house in The Settlement and then later built an addition on their house for the store likely around 1940. The store had been called Holland Marsh Groceterias when owned by Cor and Marie Radder in the 1950s to 1961. Radders moved to the end of The Settlement when on February 27, 1961 they sold the store to Gerritje and Marinus van de Vis who renamed it Marsh Food Store and grew the business till 1967. Initially Oshawa Wholesale and then later National Grocers supplied the wholesale groceries to the store. Bob Lollinga was the long-time butcher at the store and lived to be over 99 years old. Lucia and John Warnaar bought the store from the Vandevis' in 1967 and held it till the 1970s. Warnaars later opened a variety store in Queensville. The building still stands in its original location but is in very poor condition. Radders moved to Calgary in the 1970s. Vandevis' moved to the Prins house on Bernhart Road in 1967 and then the Jackson farm in Tecumseth Township in 1968.

Holland Marsh Christian Reformed Church

The following ministers served the Holland Marsh CRC. They include:

  1. Rev. Martin Schans 1940-1945
  2. Rev. John Van der Meer 1946-1951
  3. Rev. Peter Lagerway 1954-1959
  4. Rev. John Hanenburg 1959-1966
  5. Rev. John de Pater 1966-1970
  6. Rev. Peter Breedveld 1970-1973
  7. Rev. Max Lise 1975-1981
  8. Rev. Hendrik Bruinsma 1982-1988
  9. Rev. Brenny van Daalen 1989-2008
  10. Rev. Richard Bodini 2010-2019

Settlers and Residents of "The Marsh"

432 Settlers/Residents as of March 3, 2020

Holland Marsh CRC

This study has been registered with the global One Place Studies site and can be found at One Place Studies

My Canada... Growing up in the Holland Marsh

Another biographical story is now told by another resident of the Marsh:

LIFE My Canada... Growing up in the Holland Marsh By Walter Prokopchuk, Special to the Bradford Times Monday, April 17, 2017 2:12:13 EDT PM

You could say that my parents were pioneers, for like many of the other original settlers in the Marsh, like the Kanyos and the Verkaiks, they acquired their farmland and developed the virgin soil into a thriving family business.

This was manual, back-breaking work, for most of the immigrants could neither afford the cost of the the then “modern machinery”, nor was that equipment nearly as efficient as today's technology.

The farmhouse that our Dad built fronted on a back road – which meant that my brother and I had to walk across the 1,500' long field (half a kilometre) to catch the school bus on Canal Road. In winter, we walked on metre-high snow drifts. During spring and summer we trudged through mud. We waiting on the road's shoulder with our Gorecki and Jagodics neighbours, and our bus driver was Webb Orr.

During those 13 years that I rode that same bus piloted by that same driver, we slid off the road once on an icy hill on the 5th Line, with no injuries to anyone. Back then, there were no modern phenomenon like “snow days.”

Our elementary school was Scotch Settlement No. 4, located in the country at the corner of Line 5 and 10 Sideroad. The one-room, 8-grade school house was organized and disciplined by our teacher, Dorothy Turner, and kept heated and clean by neighbouring farmer John Lloyd.

On warmer days we walked home before the bus was scheduled to pick us up. Our course took us eastward along Line 5, stopping along the way to gorge ourselves on the apples in Clarence Baynes' orchard – cutting south through the abandoned gravel pit, crossing the canal over the rickety Sutherland bridge, finally walking westward for the remaining 4K along Canal Road to home.

Indoor plumbing was not yet affordable in our neighbourhood; our outhouse accommodated our toileting needs. Every Saturday afternoon witnessed my brother and I quickly have our weekly bath, in a 1 metre diameter round steel tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. Mother drew the water from the outside well and warmed it on the wood stove. Being I was the younger brother, I was always second to share the same bathwater. Thankfully, we had upgraded to electricity, from kerosene lamp light.

We were in the Township of West Gwillimbury. In the Village of Bradford, Holland St. was gravel, and the occasional pothole revealed the underlying corduroy (log ) road. Holland was the main street,where most of the commercial shopping was located in “downtown” Bradford, when Joe Magani was its first elected Mayor.

Mother drove us to Town to shop for the next week's groceries at Compton's IGA, medicine at Ritchie's Drug Store, tools and nails at Barron's Hardware, other items at Bannerman's 5¢ to $1 Department store.

Law and order was maintained by Police Chief Jim Hastings and Constables John Dudgeon and Jim Thompson. The Fire department was made up entirely of resident volunteers like Ed Gapp and Roy Saint.

Doctors Gilbert Blackwell and Stephen Hecking looked after our medical needs. Charlie and Brock Evans ran the local lawyers' office, and Ken Tupling looked after our insurance. Ruth Yarmoluk and Rita Alebeek were two of the tellers who served the customers at the Bank of Commerce.

Next to the current Village Inn was Rees' Theatre. We could purchase our 10 cent movie ticket from Linda Spence. Once inside, another dime could get us a box of popcorn, or an ice cream bar or pop from the refreshment concession – our parents' occasional reward to us for working in the fields during our summer school break.

1954 brought us Hurricane Hazel. Like most families, we were forced to abandon our house in the Marsh to reside on higher ground in Bradford. The Willis family generously took us in and made us feel right at home. Eventually, we were transferred to our own accommodations in the trailer camp, on the current site of the Bradford Community Centre on Simcoe Rd.

For me, those were the “good old days.” We were trained to work hard and respect our elders; we learned the value of a dollar and knew how to behave in public. We survived without fancy toys and gadgets – and one pair of pants either sufficed for the entire school year, or was outgrown – and yes, I wore hand-me-down shirts and shoes, and learned to ride on my brother's old bicycle.

We are now known as the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury and, sadly, most of the above mentioned folks are deceased – but not forgotten, because it was the unrelenting determination of the people of that day that built the foundation of this area. Their children and grandchildren have honourably accepted the torch of responsibility, to keep our town both a safe and economically-thriving community. We pay tribute to those residents in the name of our parks, arenas, streets and other landmarks. Fuller Heights. Bob Fallis Sports Centre. Langford Blvd., and more. We thank them all, past and present.


  • Vander Kooij, Harry, (2006). Holland Marsh, Origins, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.
  • VanderMey, A. (1994). And the Swamp Flourished. Vanderheide Publishing Co. Ltd. Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.
  • Vandevis, Dr. Ted, (2014). Trent Lakes, Canada.
  • Bradford Times. My Canada: Growing up in the Holland Marsh
  • www.calvin.edu/

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As of Dec 7, 2019 431 Holland Marsh founders and residents of Dutch heritage have been identified and listed in this "One Place Study."
posted by Dr. Ted Vandevis
Hi Ted,

Sorry it took a while but I started a G2G for the Sticker for you now ;) wishing you a very happy and healthy 2019 and see you this weekend eeh :)

Bea x

posted by Bea (Timmerman) Wijma
Hi Ted,

Not sure if there are many profiles who where Marsh Settlers, but perhaps you would like a Sticker you can add to those profiles linking to your free space page and perhaps a category for Marsh Dutch Settlers ?


Bea :)

posted by Bea (Timmerman) Wijma
Aw you wouldn't have messed it up by adding it to the portal yourself. * Holland Marsh Dutch Settlers A free space managed by Dr. Theodore Vandevis is all you needed to add
posted by Melissa McKay