Dundas Valley Historical Society
Windows on our past—
Reflecting on our future
by Stan Nowak
This article was first published in the August 13, 2004 edition of the Dundas Star News. Reproduced with permission of the author.
The Bishop's Cap sat beside the Old Man with the Red Crown sitting by the Golden Barrel at the Turkish Temple. Where on earth could such a scene possibly take place? Would you believe right here in Dundas, where those were just a few of the over 200 species of cacti that were once housed at Ben Veldhuis' greenhouses, at one time North America's largest producer of cacti.
March 1, 1976 was a memorable day in Dundas history when Town Council proclaimed Dundas "The Cactus Capital of Canada". It was also around the same time that the local Chamber of Commerce and the Dundas Jaycees were attempting to establish a community summer festival with a strong central theme. Thus, the Cactus Festival, acclaiming the international reputation of Mr. Veldhuis, was established and a tradition was born.
Barend (Ben) Veldhuis was born in Amelo, Holland on Friday, December 13, 1913, and emigrated to Canada with his family in 1927, when he was 13. Ben went to work right away at his father's nurseries in Burlington. There he had his own little spot which he used for growing cacti, and a life-long fascination with the prickly plants ensued.
Ben carried on the family tradition first in Limehouse (near Georgetown), then in Burlington, Waterdown, Hamilton and, finally, Dundas, where in 1951, Ben and his wife Marika purchased the Peterson Greenhouses at 154 King Street East and started Ben Veldhuis Limited. Recalling his childhood fascination, he expanded production of cacti, but he also began to specialize in succulents and tropical foliage plants.
At first, the business necessitated mostly importing and distribution, but Ben quickly built up his stock and developed his own methods of propagation. Eventually, his system of cacti production from seeds and cuttings enabled Ben Veldhuis Limited to produce most of the cacti itself. As the business flourished, the number of greenhouses expanded to fourteen, and eventually to twenty-plus, all on roughly two acres of property. The sizes of the cacti ranged from less than an inch to over 30 feet in height with exotic names such as Tiger's Jaws, Pincushions, Fish-hooks, Ruby Dumplings and Living Stones, which would take a decade to reach the size of a silver dollar.
In 1959, Ben expanded even further. "Florida Cactus" was established in Plymouth, Florida to service the southern market, and in1971, operations were set up in Leamington for propagation of plant material to be sold at the Dundas location. In a year, Ben's operations could produce up to 3,200,000 specimens of cacti.
Ben's reputation grew globally, and he became so well known in international horticulture that a letter addressed simply to: CACTUS, ONTARIO found its way to the Dundas headquarters. The man from the land of tulips had become renowned as the Cactus King of Canada.
By 1981, Ben was effectively retired and only modestly involved in the business, and his family managed the day-to-day operations. In 1988, he sold the Dundas business, but continued to work occasionally. In 1994, within months of each other, both Ben and his wife Marika died, with Ben passing away on August 8, succumbing to cancer.
Ben Veldhuis was a big, burly—and "typically stubborn"—Dutchman with a keen business acumen. Despite being born on a Friday the 13th, he was never a superstitious man, and he made his own good luck which grew to global prestige—and inspired a certain local summer festival.
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