Elk Grove Citizen’s Lifestyle

LifestyleThe following article about how my family came to California from Holland and settled in Elk Grove was published on August 1, 2013 in Elk Grove Citizen’s Lifestyle section by Elizabeth Pinkerton.

Elk Grove’s Multicultural Festival is Aug. 24 and to celebrate our diversity, today’s focus is on another Supergrad, Margaret van Steyn Duarte (Class of ‘67). She is a resident of Franklin and a well-known writer, and her parents came to California in 1948 from Holland. Anne van Steyn, Margaret’s mother, wrote this on Nov. 7, 1948 (translated from Dutch):

Journey to California

“Farewell dear Fatherland. I will always miss your beauty and your flag, but we have no choice. Farewell dear parents, brothers, sisters and friends. Keep us in your prayers now we start our new life in this new and unfamiliar world.”

Anne and Jack van Steyn and their two sons, Case and Tony, set off on their journey with “no money and a limited command of the English language,” Margaret said. “My father hoped to become a tulip farmer as he had been in Holland, but his life took a different turn.”

LifestyleJack took a job with a dairy in Tracy, and that is where Margaret was born.

The van Steyns moved to Escalon in 1950 where Jack worked on another dairy and sons John and Ron were born. “Our family was poor, but happy,” Margaret said. “Dad and Mom saved every dime. In 1953, they came up with a whopping $3,000—enough to rent a dairy in Lockeford and buy 15 cows. Dad was finally his own boss.”

However, the milk barn burned and the family moved to another dairy. Daughter Theresa was born, and Anne became ill with pleurisy. Eight-year-old Case helped care for the young children until Anne recovered.

English as a second language

The family spoke Dutch at home, and this created a problem for Case when he started first grade as he knew no English.

“Dad and Mom decided to speak English at home to make it easier for us,” Margaret tells us. “Later when Tony and I started school, we spoke English.”

Margaret, as a second language learner of English, is a talented writer. She explains the family’s journey to Franklin and Elk Grove.

Life in town

“My father was working 17-hour days and his hands and feet were raw and blistered, but he worked hard to be successful. In 1956, he heard about Carl Johnson, a Swedish dairy farmer in the Franklin area who needed a working partner. Dad and Carl struck a deal, with Dad providing the labor and Carl the capital and the ranch. Carl had 70 cows and Dad brought his herd of 70. As a family of six, we all had the will to work hard.

“We kids were thrilled to live in a garage for two weeks until our parents found a house on Kelsey Drive in Elk Grove. This was our first time living in town! What an adjustment! Mom and Dad befriended the neighbors—how could they not with six kids taking over the street? And what awesome neighbors they turned out to be. The Brewer family had a built in pool and color TV, and they accepted us into their fold. The Howard Winter family and the George Nemetz family were also our neighbors, and later, Mr. Winter and Mr. Nemetz were my teachers in high school.

“Kelsey Drive dead-ended with an apple orchard so the street became a community playground.  We played baseball and foursquare and roller skated on the sidewalks. I got my first babysitting jobs as a fourth grader. With all those brothers and sisters, the neighbors deemed me more than qualified.

Back to the country

“Case, Tony, and I started Elk Grove Grammar School. Jack and Marianne were born, and then our family moved back into the country on Lambert Road near Franklin. The Johnsons had built a new house, and we moved into their old one. Case and Tony began working on the dairy after school, and the rest of us found new playmates and a new playground.

“The Johnsons owned three horses and rented a section of wooded property along the Cosumnes River where we rode horses, swam, and picnicked. We built forts in the hay barn and swung from ropes tied to the rafters.  Later, as a high school senior, I spent hours alone in the woods—my very own Walden Pond—writing and communing with nature—one of the reasons I am a writer today.

“Again, we were blessed with great neighbors, though now separated by fields instead of streets: the Freddie Johnsons, Rauleins, Dietricks, Willefords, Maitas, and later on the Onetos. In the country, distance is measured in miles instead of yards, so neighbors also included the Simoeses, Hardestys, Wagemanns, Tollenaars, van Ruitens, Machados, and Wackmans. We all became friends.

School years

“In 1959, I started fifth grade at Franklin School, my fourth school in five years. Stability at last! In 1963, I started Elk Grove High. We moved to the new building, and my class of 1967 was the first to go there all three years. I have so many memories of Elk Grove High, but I’m most grateful for my English teachers, Mr. Nemetz, Mr. Farr, and Mr. Penna, who inspired me to write. I became active in school organizations such as Girls League Council and California Scholarship Foundation.

“In 1965, Carl Johnson sold his dairy and cows to my father. In the meantime, our family had grown to 10 children, with the addition of Paul and Mike. My brothers and sisters were everywhere—FFA, County and State Fair, National Guard, St. Pius Seminary drama, Shakespeare at Joseph Kerr, cheerleading, choir, band, baseball. Mom was forever on duty driving the young ones.

“Scholarship in hand (thank you, Ms. Shenk and Soroptimists), I entered Sacramento State College, where I earned a BA in English and a secondary teaching credential. Then I did something I swore I would never do! I married a dairy farmer. My husband, John is a Portuguese immigrant whose story is similar to ours, so he and my family had a lot in common.  He was also my next door neighbor, which meant I more or less jumped the fence when it came to relocating after marriage.

Branching out

“In 1989, after 17 years in a family partnership, John and I ventured out on our own with the J & M Dairy. We raised two sons and I taught at Joseph Kerr Middle School. I dabbled in an assortment of hobbies, but did little writing other than in my journal. It wasn’t until our sons were grown that I finally returned to what my teachers had encouraged me to pursue in school—writing. I currently write visionary fiction and hope to have the first of four novels published this year.

“My brothers and sisters have all become productive citizens, eight living in Elk Grove, with occupations as diverse as farming, banking, teaching, fiction writing, cyber security, administrative assistant to a school principal, performing/singing, and computer programming. Last count, there were 72 of us, including spouses, children, and grandchildren.”

Thank you to Margaret for sharing her story.