Arie and Maartje De Jong boarded a ship bound for New York with 10 kids and $25 in 1949.
They were in pursuit of an American dairy dream.
Arie was a Holland dairy farmer, but the writing was on the wall in his country. He had seven sons who wanted to work on the family farm, but there were limited growth opportunities and land was expensive. A couple of the boys urged their father to move to America where Arie had a twin sister running a California dairy farm.
Arie, though, was hesitant about making such a leap, so he headed to America to see what sort of impression he would get about relocating.
“He came back and said ‘I did not know there was a promised land on this earth,’ ” said his daughter, Ellie Griffioen Roeloffs, 76. “He was so ready to get out of Holland. We sold the cows and had a yard sale.”
Within months, the family began its 11-day ocean journey to Ellis Island. Once in New York, they boarded a plane for California and were milking cows the morning after landing.
Arie had a business plan that called for a collaborative effort among his built-in workforce.
“He said to the seven boys ‘you have to promise me you’ll stick together until we save enough money to buy our own farm. Then you can do what you like,’ ” Ellie said.
The family adopted a thrifty lifestyle, living in three tiny homes and spending money only on life’s necessities. The boys never had a day off while working at their aunt’s farm and others in the area, but they never complained, Ellie said. After one year they had saved $10,000.
One day, Arie was driving down a freeway when he saw a herd of cows in a field and a “for sale” sign. He could not read or speak English so he had someone translate the sign’s meaning. When he realized he could purchase the farm, he made an offer to buy his first U.S. dairy.
It was just the beginning of the family’s dairy story in America. Arie purchased other farms and creameries in western states over the next several years, and his children also pursued their own opportunities.
Arie passed away in 1989 at the age of 88 with his legacy firmly entrenched in the U.S. dairy industry. At the time of his passing, he had 54 grandchildren, including many who ran dairy farms. One grandson who shares his name – Idaho dairy farmer Arie Roeloffs – figures descendants and relatives of his grandfather today milk about 250,000 dairy cows on various family farms across the country.
It’s a staggering impact and one that isn’t lost on Ellie, who sold her dairy farm to a family member about 15 years ago before retiring with her husband in California.
She looks back fondly on her father and his legacy, recalling a man who was positive and complimentary of others, and who strived for a balance of hard work and fun. He often demanded that his grandsons head to the nearest swimming pool after a hard day of farm work, and he loved his coffee and sharing a story or a laugh with an array of friends. Ellie also remembers her father’s “humble pride.”
“My dad always praised his family for what he became,” Ellie said. “He said ‘I didn’t do it.’ But he was the captain.
“We’ve been blessed beyond where we ever thought we would be. My dad taught everyone to give because he said you take nothing with you. He was a real joy.”