Jack Kouwenhoven: Grape expectations

A Chilliwack man's journey from war-torn Holland to lush landscape of the Fraser Valley

Jack Kouwenhoven was just 10 years old when the Second Wordl War broke out, but he remembers those days well. The incessant bombing, the fear, the devastation, the rationing of food and the grave atrocities are etched in his mind. Once the war ended, his native Holland and indeed the world began to heal and life slowly began to return to normal.

Shortly after the war, Jack’s uncle, who was an insurance agent in Chilliwack, convinced the Kouwenhoven’s that life in Canada would be more prosperous. Eventually, the family immigrated to a land of new opportunity. “We arrived the day after the Cherry Carnival and I thought that Chilliwack was such a dirty town. There was litter everywhere which was unheard of back home. I soon found out that this was not the case. They had just had a big event,” he smiled.

By the time that Jack arrived in Canada, he was 19 and had already taken four years of vocational training as a ship carpenter back in Holland. “I tried to get a job at Sterling Shipyards but while I had the training, I couldn’t speak a word of English and because the war had ended, the need for ship building just wasn’t there. Instead, I did some work for a Dutch contractor, doing store front renovations,” he said.

His father wanted a house built and commissioned his son to do the work. “We built it next to the old fairgrounds. The old chicken barn was located right next to our house. This is when I fell in love with the fair and in one way or another I have been involved with it for 50 years.”

Jack eventually got on with the City as a carpenter but after a year he decided to head east. “I got itchy feet and along with three other guys, I went to Edmonton to do carpentry work. My wage went up from 89 cents to $2 an hour. I was there for almost a year but then I had to leave because it got too cold for me. I came back to Chilliwack and started working at the old courthouse,” he reflected.

From there, construction work became sporadic at best so Jack decided to go to what was then referred to as Manpower and this landed him a job at a hardware store. “I ended up staying there for 12 years and not long after I started with them, I got the position of assistant store manager,” he said proudly.

From there, Jack joined the BC Forest Service and was there until his retirement 36 years later. “This was the best job that I ever had and I really enjoyed it,” he said gently.

Jack is a creative sort and enjoyed painting, using pen and ink as his medium. “I always had top marks in art and drafting in school.” He also enjoyed his 10 years as member of the Chilliwack Player’s Guild where he was heavily involved in set design. “My first show was Fiddler on the Roof and I quite enjoyed it. I worked with Bob Forsythe and he was just a great guy,” he enthused.

While he enjoyed his career, his passion is one that began when he was just a young boy back in Holland. “I started working with my dad in the garden when I was about 10 and I maintain that this is what helped us survive the war.”  He currently lives on a half-acre and the property is dotted with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s quite the undertaking but Jack wouldn’t want it any other way. “My wife and I were married for 56 years. She used to help me with the garden but she passed away a year ago so now I do it by myself, with some help from my family,” he said.

He started growing grapes in 1982 and is actively involved with the Fraser Valley Grape Growers. He’s also an active member of the Chilliwack Zymurgy Wine and Beer Making Club. “Bob Fraser introduced me to the club almost 40 years ago and I must admit that my passion is shifting from wine making to beer making,” he smiled. Jack has won the national beer making competition five times and looks forward to the possibility of future wins.

As if his schedule wasn’t hectic enough, Jack is also a dedicated member of the Chilliwack Garden Club, an organization that he’s been involved with since 1989. “I am currently a director of the club and I’ve held this position for awhile. I also show and have been doing the newsletter for the past eight years. It keeps me busy, that’s for sure,” he chuckled.

Jack is also one of the driving forces behind the School Garden Program, a program that continues to run successfully. “There are about 14 judges involved and I organize all of the judging.” He has also been a proud member of the Independent Order of Foresters, a fraternal benefit society, for the past 52 years.

While Jack is over 80 now, you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. Jack keeps himself young by continually working hard, in addition to eating healthy and living well. He is visibly proud of sons Ray, Gordon and Barry and his five grandchildren and looks forward to many more happy and healthy years with them.