If at first you do succeed . . .
You’ve heard the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But what if you do succeed? Do you quit trying?
Not if you’re John Vanderstappen, the woodcarver who displays and sells his art in the Jamestown (PA) Woodcarver’s Gallery. John succeeded many times in his life, but through circumstances or personal choices, he and his wife Johanna found themselves just as many times with the need to move on and try again.
John wasn’t always a woodcarver. He was born on a farm in Holland in 1927 and spent most of his life farming, very successfully. He could do that because he learned while he was still young that success offers no guarantees, and sometimes leads to the need to try – and succeed – again.
In 1935, his father’s barn burned down. But his dad turned that disaster into an opportunity.
“The Germans at that time were way ahead of us in farming,” John said. “So my father and a good friend went to Germany for a week to look at farms. When they came back, they built a brand new barn that had electricity, water cups for the cows, and a manure system. That was way ahead of everybody else.”
John’s dad also prepared for another impending disaster. In 1935 they were already talking about Hitler, and they were worried about him. So they built a fireproof basement under the barn.”
The Vanderstappen farm was only about eight miles from Germany.
“On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. The next day the Dutch government came to our farm. They said, ‘You have enough room for 22 horses and 22 soldiers.’ And they moved in two days later.”
There were ten kids in John’s family.
“We lost our privacy in the house completely, but the soldiers treated us nice. In the morning the army kitchen came. A lot of times they came to my mom and said, ‘We got too much food.’ They brought it to my mother.”
One soldier was a woodcarver.
“He started carving every night. He showed me how he did it. When I got out of school, I said to my dad, ‘I think I want to be a wood carver.’ My dad said, ‘No, you can’t make a living doing that. That’s a hobby.’ It’s a good thing I listened. But I never forgot.”
On Friday, May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Holland. The Dutch soldiers who were living with them headed toward Germany. None were killed, but they were all captured.
The next day the Germans came down the highway past the farm.
“There were no tanks, but they had big guns pulled by six or eight horses. That night they came to our farm and slept in our barn. They stayed only one or two nights. Then for a week it was kind of busy, then it died out.”
Life on the farm changed drastically. They were no longer allowed to sell milk door to door, and most of their produce had to be sent to Germany. The farmers were allowed to keep food according to how many people lived on the farm.
Then in 1942 they started drafting young boys from Holland to work in German factories and on the farms. Two of John’s brothers were drafted.
The Germans started building a big airport about ten miles from the farm.
“On August 15, 1943, the Americans bombed the heck out of it. My neighbor worked on that airport, and he was killed.”
Things really got rough after D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“The whole world changed. German planes were flying more and more. and the highways were packed with Germans on their way to France.”
In September, because of the action depicted in the film “A Bridge Too Far,” the Vanderstappen farm was in the middle of the battle zone. The bridge at Nijmegen, one of the targets, was less than 30 miles away.
“Artillery shells started falling. The first one hit the barn. ‘I think we can fix that hole,’ my dad said. Then boom, another one hit. Six in a row hit the barn. I think we prayed more that night then we ever did before. Mom cried, and the kids cried, and were shivering. That morning me and my brothers wanted to milk the cows. There wasn’t one of them left alive.”
As soon as they had the opportunity, John’s mother and most of his siblings evacuated to a more secure area protected by American forces. His father and two brothers stayed behind. The barn burned down, but they were safe in the fireproof basement.
“One day me and my brother went back to the farm on bicycles to get some cabbage out of the barn,” John said. “A dead German soldier was lying by the barn. Pictures from his wife were stuck in the ground beside him. Right across from the barn there was a kid, German soldier, shot right through the head.”
In another part of Heesch, the family of Johanna Vandeven was surviving in their own way.
“We made sort of a shelter in the ground,” she said. “We dug a big hole and put a roof over it. We were just a little ways away from John’s but there wasn’t a lot of fighting there. We heard the airplanes coming over. One airplane fell down so close to us our neighbor got killed.”
After the war, everyone worked together to rebuild the damaged homes and barns.
“It was about three years before we got rebuilt. Then after that, the population was so heavy there that the future didn’t look too bright for me.”
One of John’s brothers lived in Chicago. Between 1950 and 1956, six of the Vanderstappen brothers, including John, came to the states.
“He had everything ready for us, even jobs lined up.”
John worked at a nursery grafting trees. He was very successful.
“The following year the owner said to me, ‘No more labor work for you. I want you to help me with the business.’ So we worked together. But I still wanted to farm. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.”
John also wanted to get married, but couldn’t find anyone here. So he went back to Europe to find a wife. But he found that Dutch girls didn’t want to leave Holland. Eventually John’s uncle introduced him to Johanna Vandeven.
“I wouldn’t have meant to go out of the country with anybody else,” Johanna said, “because you miss your family and friends and everything. I thought we were going to Illinois, where four of his brothers were, and I knew all of the wives.”
John and Johanna were married on August 25, 1954 and moved back to Illinois.
“It was comfortable with his brothers and their wives living nearby,” she said. “But that lasted less than a year, and we moved clear to Pennsylvania.”
John had found a 1000 acre farm to rent near Franklin, complete with all the equipment needed to run it. It was owned by the White Fathers, a Catholic order from Holland. He signed a five year lease with them.
There were some big challenges to overcome. The farm was in a difficult location, with house and barn three hilly miles of unplowed driveway away from Route 322. And they didn’t have a lot of money to play with.
“I’ve got to make a buck the next day. So I bought five hundred chickens. Two days later I sold eggs in Franklin and Oil City. There was an apple and pear orchard with 100 trees. We sold apples in the market in Franklin on Saturdays.”
John borrowed money to buy some cows, and he planted crops on the only 150 tillable acres on the farm. Then, in the second year, the White Fathers wanted to sell the farm and bought out his lease. He saw no future on that farm, so he was happy to move on.
With the money he was paid for terminating the lease, John bought a run-down farm near Cochranton. Again John was successful, expanding corn production from 1000 bushels to 10,000, and adding 32 cows. And again, an opportunity to profit came along when he had a buyer for the farm.
“We made good money. I found a farm here, and it was real good land. So we bought it, and we really did good. And then we had a little tough luck in 1975. The barn burned down. I had good insurance. We put up a new barn.”
But a bigger problem came in 1981.
“All of a sudden I got real sick. They rushed me to Erie, to the hospital. The valves in my heart had to be replaced. They did it right away.”
The first surgery left him bleeding internally, so they had to operate again. After that, John decided to retire from farming. He sold the farm and bought a house near Jamestown.
During his time as a farmer, John served for eight years as director of the Crawford Soil Conservation District. In 1985, he was voted into the Crawford County Agriculture Hall of Fame.
“Then I got into the wood carving thing. I made one picture after another.”
A few years later, he bought the old train station in Jamestown and turned it into the Jamestown Woodcarving Gallery. Again John was successful. He has made and sold thousands of carvings.
He and Johanna continue to live happily in Jamestown. All of their children became successful farmers – Peter (born in 1955), John (1956), Hans (1957) and Christine (1958).
Their life could be summed up as lots of success through lots of trying. Or, as John puts it more simply, “We have had a good life.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008