Photo credit (above): Dan O’Reilly
Many Caledon gardeners, both professional and amateur, have fond memories of heading to Humber Nurseries to purchase nursery stock, or tomato plants, or maybe just a couple of seed packets. Located at the junction of Highway 50 and the Gore Road in Brampton, Humber Nurseries for many years was the place to go for purchasing those supplies until it closed in 2020.
The history of how that business got started and flourished has been captured in a book titled Sibylla: One Story at a Time by Astrid Peters, daughter of the founders, Frans and Sibylla Peters.
It is very much Sibylla’s story and is told through her own words. Astrid wrote the book using transcripts of numerous tape recording sessions interviewing her mother, who died in 2011 at the age of 92.
“My mother was very entrepreneurial, very progressive, very interested in people, and very goal-oriented,” says Astrid, in explaining why the book is written through her mother’s perspective and not her father’s. “When her mother (Astrid’s grandmother), died when she was only 14, she made a commitment to make something of herself.”
The book covers a lot of territory and more than few decades, beginning with Sibylla’s life growing up in pre-World War 11 Holland and the anguish she had to deal over her mother’s death. Then, it details the food shortages, bombing destruction, and other hardships the Dutch endured during the war.
It also highlights the treatment of the country’s Jewish residents. In one chapter, Sibylla tells how she easily found employment at, what had been a Jewish clothing store in Amsterdam, only to learn why she had been hired so quickly by the new owners.
“Their Jewish employees were disappearing from their jobs and they needed people to fill them.”
In the next chapter she talks about the fighting between the occupying German Army and the liberating Canadian Army and her own joy at seeing five weary Canadian soldiers on top of tanks.
“We waved endlessly to them and blew kisses to them with our waves. What an indescribable moment of happiness and relief!”
From there the book progresses to Sibylla meeting and marrying Frans, their decision to immigrate to Canada in 1948, the hurdles they encountered as immigrants and the various factors which led to the establishment of Humber Nurseries. After starting the business on a rental property in Toronto’s Mount Dennis area in the late 1940s, the couple relocated it in the late 1950s to land they had purchased at the Highway 50/Gore Road site.
One Story at a Time is actually the culmination of two different research efforts, both equally intense, but separated in time by more than a few decades. The first was in the 1990s and was intended as a family genealogy project, with the goal of producing a manuscript which could be given to Sibylla’s children and grandchildren.
“My mother was an amateur photographer—she started off with a Brownie camera—and had compiled more than 80 family photo albums. I told her that ‘I want to know more about you and the stories of your life’,” says Astrid, who spent two years on the project tape recording her mother’s recollections and then typing them out.
“Then I put it (the manuscript) on the shelf.”
Fast forward 25 years or so and Astrid hit upon the idea of the book. A former French and music teacher with the Dufferin Peel Catholic School Board, she was looking for something to do during the COVID shutdown. However, transforming those family transcripts into a marketable book wasn’t simply a case of retrieving them from a filing cabinet.
“I had to retype sections and put them in more chronical order, as well as subtracting some sections.” By the term ‘subtracting’, she means certain parts—while important to the Peters family—had to be deleted to make the book more interesting to a wider readership. In addition, she also conducted research on life in Holland during the war—while still being careful to write the book through her mother’s words.
“I worked on the book for 18 hours a day. Often I would wake up at 3:00 in the morning and realize that ‘I should do this or I should do that’.”
Once the book was completed to her satisfaction, Astrid was faced with the almost equally daunting task of getting it published. After it was reviewed by a freelance editor who provided valuable editing advice, she sent it to a printing company which also acts as consulting service to aspiring writers.
The book came on the market in February 2022 and she has been actively been promoting it through a series of guest talks to a number of non-profit groups.
While a family history and a memoir, Sibylla: One Story at a Time is also very much a story of immigration to Canada in the post Second World War era, says Astrid, citing the reaction of a close group of female friends. “They can relate to the immigrant experience as their parents came from Europe.”
Quoting the back cover text, she points out that, “Sibylla is one of the last links to our Canadian immigration history of the 20th and 21st, centuries.”
As for Humber Nurseries, it hasn’t disappeared. It was reconstituted as Humber Nurseries 2020, a primarily wholesale business at Bramalea Road and Boston Mills Road in Caledon on land her parents bought decades ago as a growing centre.
Sibylla: One Story At A Time available in paperback and eBook, on Amazon and at Barnes&Noble and Chapters.