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‘KING OF CABBAGE’ a classic immigrant success story

The king of cabbage may have technically abdicated his throne, but still retains the mantle of royal agricultural success.

Archie Demeulenaere

Archie Demeulenaere may not be best known by his last name upon first introduction to Waterford and area residents.

“But if I say Archie’s Cabbage, it’s oh, yeah.”

Demeulenaere represents a classic immigrant success story, his father leaving a small, rented farm near Hooglede, Belgium in search of greater opportunity.

“There was no chance of expanding or even buying the land,” said Demeulenaere, who disembarked on Pier 21 in Canada, April 20, 1955 at the age of 14 with a Grade 8 education, unable to speak English.

Two days later the family arrived in Ontario, a move which opened the door to success, but certainly came with the expectation family members would be ready to work when they passed through.

“If I had ever said to my dad, “I’m going to go on welfare, he would have said ‘sure, no problem - but get out of my house.’”

“There is nothing wrong with welfare,” Archie added. “If you deserve it.”

Demeulenaere hoped to attend school but his father countered ‘They had come to work and make money.’

Archie was sent to work on a tobacco farm with his father show-ing up once a month to collect his earnings. The following year his father grew tobacco with all family members helping, subsequently purchasing his own farm from an elder brother in 1959.

Archie was married in 1961, working on a tobacco farm for five years until growing his own crop, which he did for nine years prior to buying a farm just outside of Waterford. Contracted to grow tomatoes and cucumbers for local canneries, Demeulenaere added two acres of cabbage the following year which he stored in the proper-ty’s existing barn, and his transition to cabbage king was underway.

As his business developed, sequential additions to the barn expanded storage capacity to 150 bins and upward, with the bins built by Archie and his children. The decision to add refrigeration in 1979 and 1,000-bin capability eventually opened the door to a contract supplying cabbage for coleslaw with KFC and Loblaws.

A neighbour once asked ‘what if you lost the KFC contract?’ to which Demeulenaere responded, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t hang myself. There was life before KFC and there would be life after.”

In 1993 a 60-by-100-foot cold storage addition increased capacity by another 2,000 bins, and Demeulenaere purchased an additional farm in 2000. ‘Archie’s Cabbage’ bought its first Mack transport truck to replace a straight truck in 1995, and is currently on its third.

“I’m from the old school,” De-meulenaere smiled of the gradu-ated approach. “First you make some money, then you spend it.”

He also brought an ‘old-school’ work ethic to the business, illustrat-ed during the time when he still did his own trucking. At the age of 55 he recalled planting cabbage until 4 p.m., trimming existing stock until 4 a.m. before jumping in the truck to deliver a load to Toronto.

“And be back in time for planting. Did that for a whole week, once.”

Archie’s approach was to be friendly with everyone, treating workers with respect, and correcting errors by ‘saying it in a nice way.’

The original Thompson Road property’s barn was expanded again, raised and divided into five parts, two for storage, one cabbage trimming and processing, another for storage of processed cabbage and the fifth, a shop for maintenance and repairs.

Sons Dan (agriculture) and Rick (processing) transitioned in, with Archie slowly stepping back. Rick remains, in charge of storage, trimming and shaping, an operation employing eight to ten full-time.

“And he does a good job,” credited Archie, who still enjoys stopping in regularly, but has ced-ed operational control to his son. “That’s the only way it works - if he makes a mistake, he’ll figure it out.”

In retirement, Demeulenaere enjoys time with his wife Maria, five sons, three daughters, 20 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Known as ‘Archie Griswold’ for the Christmas lights on his cabbage storage and processing plant, he’s been an active member of the local Lions club for 28 years, acting as president three times, secretary and bulletin master for ten years as well as a particularly effective draw ticket salesman.

“The secret is, when you ask someone, if they say no, leave it at that,” he said, recalling one memorable sale to a Waterford resident, who deferred outside of a local grocery store. Archie’s response was to suggest he’d watch his children while he did his shopping, letting them sit inside the grand prize convertible. Upon returning to collect his kids, laughing, the resident conceded he’d have to buy a ticket.

“You suckered me into that one, didn’t you?” he laughed.

Demeulenaere has also sponsored the Waterford minor hockey association’s Archie’s Cabbage Peewees for the past 15 years, attending all home games.

“And if there’s playoffs, I go out of town.”

He also presents each player with a hat and ‘presents’ at Christmas and season’s end.

“I do it because I enjoy it.” Demeulnaere also enjoys stopping by Tim Horton’s for a chat with friends, old and new, saying ‘hello’ to everyone he meets on the street uptown. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday September 16th with around 50 vehicles and 100 people sharing best wishes via a drive-by celebration fittingly hosted at Archie’s Cabbage.

“I enjoy life, to me that’s the whole thing,” he concluded with a smile. “I always did.” 

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