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DeCloet family one of the builders of Norfolk County

DeCloet Family Picture
The DeCloet family was a large group when they arrived in Canada in 1953. Front row, left to right are Rita and Mary. Second row: Ben, Alphonse and Luke. Third row: Paul, Gabe, John and Dan. Back row: Parents Omer and Maria.

In the last century, several farm families have stood out as leaders and innovators in Norfolk County. Many farm businesses have diversified into related businesses that have helped define the county. The DeCloets are one such family.

Although most people today know of one member of the family or their tobacco equipment, they have only been here since 1953. Father Omer and two oldest brothers Dan and Gabe arrived in the spring. They worked in sugar beets and tobacco to raise enough money for the remainder of the children and mother Maria to come that fall from Belgium.

The Langton Lions helped the new immigrants make it through the first winter, something they have never forgotten.

The family consisted of seven boys and two girls. Interestingly, if seven boys are born in a row, the seventh has the king for his godfather. Boudewijn, or Ben, was the seventh and was named after the king. If the family has stayed in Belgium, Ben would have been exempt from the mandatory stint in the army, and would have received free education. If a family has seven girls in a row, the same tradition applies with the queen being the godparent.

Outside of the previously mentioned Dan, Gabe, and Ben, the other siblings were John, Paul, Alphonse, Luke, Mary and Rita. But the family left Belgium and started to forge a new life in Norfolk County. “None of us spoke a word of English when we came here,” Paul said.

Surviving Members Picture
The surviving members of the DeCloet family gathered recently to celebrate their family’s time in Canada. Front row, left to right are Alphonse DeCloet and Mary McElhone. Back row: Paul and Ben DeCloet.

The family were initially share growers on a farm, and after a few years the family purchased a farm near Langton. The older boys didn’t go to high school, so they could work on the family farm. Alphonse was the first to attend high school, and Luke the first to graduate. Luke’s son Brad still lived on the family farm on McDowell Road. John, Paul, and Luke purchased their own farms. Dan started working with Volta tying machines, and Alphonse recalls his brother was a handy engineer.

“He wanted to change things and they (Volta) didn’t, so he started on his own,” Alphonse said.

DeCloet Ltd. was started as a tying machine manufacturer in the mid-1960s.

Ben studied physics at McMaster University and joined the company after graduating.

From tying machines, DeCloet Ltd. bought out Kelsey, the manufacturer of low-pressure steamers for greenhouses and kilns. “That gave us the funds to go further and that’s when we started building bulk kilns,” Ben recalled.

DeCloet bought Unimatic, which was manufacturing bulk kilns in Delhi, and changed the name. In the late 1970s. Powell was the next acquisition, and Balthes followed, leaving

DeCloet as the only bulk kiln manufacturer in the province.

In 1986 as the tobacco business started to decline, Ben sold his shares in DeCloet Ltd. and started DeCloet Greenhouses south of Delhi. After successfully operating the business for 35 years, he sold DeCloet Greenhouses in 2021 and retired.

Paul slowly transitioned into Christmas trees and woodlot management.

Mary, who became a nurse, married a tobacco farmer and kept that connection to farming.

She finished her career as a missionary in Papua, Indonesia.

“We’re all really happy to be here in Canada,” Mary said as they gathered for the 70th anniversary of when the family came to Canada. “We’re grateful for Canada. It’s been a land of prosperity for us.”

The youngest sister Rita pursued a career in education, until her retirement.

Alphonse was the only family member who did not get into farming. He started working for the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, and completed his career there.

“In actuality, we started a new life here,” Paul said. “I remember being overjoyed here the first day we arrived.”

Several of the family members have passed on, but Paul, Alphonse, Ben and Mary still gathered for the anniversary of when the family came to Canada. This is a tradition that is carried on every five years.

Outside of farming, Paul never forgot the support the family received from the Langton Lions Club. He  became a member of Lions International, and still is a member of the Tillsonburg club.

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