Moving the North: the Bandstra freight dynasty

🕔Dec 01, 2011

John and Margaret Bandstra were married in Holland in the spring of 1951. Just two weeks later they packed their suitcases to board a ship bound for North America. John had been driving truck for a dairy company in Holland, but he wanted to do something on his own. “In those days, a fieldman came to Holland and often talked about immigration to Canada,” John recalls.

The fieldman, Jacob Prins, had emigrated to Alberta in 1927 and was a strong advocate for Dutch settling in the Edmonton area and in BC’s Bulkley Valley. The idea of trying another country appealed to both John and Margaret. Margaret’s brother had already moved to Smithers and from him they learned there were opportunities for new immigrants in the area.

They took a chance and sailed from Antwerp to New York City. During the 10-day passage, John and the other male passengers slept in the belly of the ship in swaying hammocks while Margaret stayed with the female passengers in the berths on the upper deck. From New York they made their way north, then by train across Canada to Smithers where they found a small but supportive Dutch community.

The Bandstras bought a small, rough-planked home just outside town for $600. John found a job driving truck from a small sawmill in the bush near Houston to the Duthie Mine on Hudson Bay Mountain. Margaret worked as a lumber-camp cook. Supplies for the camp were bumped over rough trails and the eggs were always broken. She shakes her head when she recalls the challenges; she was not used to Canadian food nor the cooking. “But she caught on,” smiles John.

They both had to learn English quickly while they worked. John learned the language by driving; he had to understand directions, freight measurements and amounts. He remembers how little English he had when he first started. “When I wanted gas I had to pull up to the pumps and point. But I learned!”

Opportunity knocks
Just four years after arriving, John teamed up with his brother Theo (who had immigrated to the area in 1952) and Andy Beerda to purchase Capling’s Transfer, a Smithers-based general-delivery company. They saw potential in owning their own business and driving for themselves. John remembers his conversation with Capling about buying the business. When asked, “What assets do you have?” John replied, “I have a wife and three kids.”

He also discussed the purchase with his wife. “I said to Margaret, ‘I will be on the road at night. Should we do it?’ And she said, ‘Go for it. That is why we came, for the opportunity.’”

Under the name Smithers Transport, the Bandstra brothers and Andy Beerda became the owners and operators of Capling’s two single-axle trucks in 1955. They also became the drivers, mechanics, and warehousemen. Their main business at the time was shipping general freight between Smithers and Prince Rupert, including groceries which at that time all came by boat to Rupert. The dockworkers who saw the new owners navigating the rough roads were skeptical, John remembers.

“They said, ‘I give these guys three months.’”

Delivering groceries for the Goodacres’ and Leach brothers’ stores in Smithers was their steady business. John would often arrive in Smithers with a shipment early Saturday morning before the stores were open and recalls having to hunt someone down to open up for him so he could unload and go home.

There was other freight that kept them busy, too.

“For quite a long time we hauled milk to Terrace and Rupert.” They also dropped freight to the small communities along the way, including Trout Creek, Kitseguecla and Cedarvale. They picked up lumber at a sawmill in Usk (“all the lumber had to be hand-loaded, then hand-unloaded”), and on the return run from Rupert with groceries the drivers picked up other freight when they could fit it in. They also hauled gas and sometimes dynamite for the Telkwa coal mines.

Rough roads
In 1955, it would take up to 12 hours to drive the 350 kilometres between Smithers and Rupert. “It was all bumpy roads, all gravel,” says John. “Sometimes we even had boards along to cover a hole, then drive over it and pick up the boards again for the next hole down the road.”

Conditions were so challenging, he says, that many times he was the only vehicle on the road between Smithers and Terrace. And when he did see another vehicle it was often stuck. In the spring there was so much water on the road in places that the Smithers Transport trucks would pull smaller vehicles through. There were times when drivers were forced to lighten a truck by unloading it to get it out of a ditch or washout; then of course the freight all had to be re-loaded.

The drivers went from Smithers to Rupert with stops between; they un-loaded, took on the new freight and drove back. The long days of driving were a challenge, John recalls. “Sometimes I got out of the truck and I was so tired I didn’t know if I came from Rupert or was heading to Rupert. Sometimes you tried everything—shoes off, stand in the snow—to stay awake.”

The drivers were cautious but drove with confidence in the changing weather. The stretch between Rupert and Terrace was very narrow with rock walls on one side, railway tracks and river on the other. In winter, when CN plowed the tracks, the heavy wet snow was pushed in huge piles onto the road. “Once, on the other side of Terrace, there was so much snow that the trucks were stuck from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning. Even the graders got stuck. They had to bring bulldozers in from Prince Rupert.”

John tells stories about washouts that could swallow a truck with ease. There were no radios in the early trucks, and usually no heaters. “If you had trouble shifting gears, you took the motor apart on the side of the road.”

“They were young—they could do anything,” Margaret says.

“We never gave up,” says John.

A change of name
The business grew. “Over the years we got more business, a few more trucks and more drivers,” John recounts. Theo left to work in the automotive business and brother Dick (who had arrived in 1963) was brought in. The company remained competitive by expanding both in operations and area. They hauled freight and did general moving. They became a member of United Van Lines and operated a furniture van. There were major national and international shippers moving into northern BC and the Bandstras concentrated on exemplary service to set their business apart.

In 1971, a new warehouse and shop opened. Beerda was bought out and the Bandstra brothers John and Dick opened more terminals in northern BC, taking over smaller storage and moving companies in Houston, Terrace and Kitimat. In 1983 they opened a Vancouver division. They were operating under four different names at this time but in 1988 consolidated the company under Bandstra Transportation Systems.

John and brother Dick have retired, but the business is still very
much family-run with their descendants taking the lead at the head office in Smithers and satellite offices throughout BC. “And now the grandchildren are coming to work for us.”

“We made out alright,” John reflects. With 75 trucks and 200 employees under the company’s wing, John must have displayed savvy business sense. But he places credit for its success elsewhere: “The one thing that always kept us going was our faith,” he says. “We have been very blessed by the Lord.”