Eelco Boswijk: Never a Dull Moment
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Listen to the 2012 Spectrum broadcast on Eelco ...
One-time owner of Nelson's iconic Chez Eelco cafe, Eelco remembered his rich life as he approached his 80th birthday.
Born in 1929 in the village of den Dolder in central Holland, Eelco enjoyed a happy and secure childhood. The middle child of five, Eelco was born after one of the coldest winters on record: " My mother used to thank me for keeping her warm!" Eelco's mother was from Freisland in the Netherlands and spoke the Freisian language, which Eelco understood.
His father was a psychiatrist at a large mental hospital:
"Like all Dutch boys we had small or second hand bicycles. Nobody had a car in the neighbourhood- maybe a few doctors but my father didn't- he was a nature man."
The German occupation of the low countries in 1939, marked the end of Eelco's carefree childhood. "As kids we were always watching the Germans after they came into Holland- following them on our bikes, watching what they were doing- we were just curious."
However the reality of the war soon began to bite. Eelco says his older sisters who were good looking blond girls, were messengers for the Underground. Halfway through the war, the Boswijk family were kicked out of their hospital house and his father was imprisoned in Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.
"My mother had to drag five children to another part of the village. The war made life difficult for the people. The Nazis were terrible."
"My father spent two years in Dachau. He was so anti-German but he survived because of being a doctor and he was always helping other people. He lived only half a year after returning from Dachau - he died of heart failure."
By mid-1944, the war was beginning to turn. The Boswijk family lived near a military airfield and in August 1944, American liberators dropped bombs on the airfield. Eelco remembers it was summer and there was a lot of dust in the air which obscured aircraft views of the target. " A bomb exploded in the front of our house - there was a crater as big as a room. My sisters were in the backyard and the bomb fell near them."
When the war was over, Eelco went back to school but he says he was not academic, and after his father died, his mother suggested he try a new life in a new country. "You could get immigration help to go to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. I said I'd like to go to New Zealand because before the war I'd been given some New Zealand stamps with a Maori motif and they were my favourite stamps.
"My family stayed back in The Netherlands and my mother died a year later. My sisters stayed and my brother went to Canada. He became a Canadian and I became a Kiwi and I never had a moment of regret about it."
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines were flying Dutch immigrants to Sydney to be reunited with relatives and had organized special flights for Dutch women married to soldiers in Indonesia. In 1951, Eelco flew with them, arriving in Auckland via the flying boat from Sydney after a five day journey.
He wanted to work on a farm and the Labour Department placed him in Christchurch where he was met by fellow Dutch man, Gerrit van Asch. Eelco worked on the farm for two years, improved his English and in the process found a second family. "It was in the Hoon Hay Valley. I milked the cows- every day was a new day. It was quite amazing because I got on so well with the family." but there was more to see and do for the young adventurer. The next five years saw Eelco working on farms, driving trucks and working in restaurants around New Zealand. " I found work all over the place. I would hitchhike and I could fit in anywhere. I liked New Zealanders, I saw these people as good people."
In 1958, Eelco returned to The Netherlands and with his brother, Bart Jan, planned to return to New Zealand in a VW combi van, traveling through Africa and then sailing for New Zealand. The roads were rough in Algeria and Morocco and one day as they crossed the Moroccan desert, a land mine exploded, completely wrecking the van. Bart Jan's pelvis was fractured and while Eelco was uninjured, he had to leave his brother in the hostile desert and retrace their path on foot across the landmine-spiked land to find help. After 53 hours, Eelco's brother was located and rescued by a group of French travellers, who found another landmine just three metres from where he lay.
Eelco returned to a depressed New Zealand, arriving in Wellington on a cold, windy day, with no prospects. In 1982, he told the Nelson Mail's Dave Manning: "It was a long day in my life. I had no money and didn't know where I was going.
"When I came back the second time, I lived in Auckland and worked in one of the first real coffee shops in New Zealand. I'd never had coffee in Holland but now, I would be happy to drive around with a bag of fresh ground coffee in the car just for the smell," he smiles.
In 1960, he hitched a ride from Auckland to Nelson with a Dutch friend. "He was a salesman, so I came for a ride. He knew some people and I stayed doing various jobs. I was going to move on but the coffee house idea was bubbling away, so I looked around for a space. In Auckland I'd learnt how to set up a café."
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Social life in provincial New Zealand in the 1960s was a bland landscape of milkbars and 6 o clock pub closing. There was nowhere to go after the ‘Pictures' (movies), so when Chez Eelco opened at the top of Trafalgar Street in 1961, up to 500 people would be waiting to get in late on Friday nights.
"People welcomed it. It was quite amazing from the beginning because it was a new thing in society. It would fill up from the early days."
‘Meet you at the Chez' was a common catch-cry in Nelson for more than three decades. The European- style café at the top of Trafalgar Street, with its Bohemian décor, hosted theatre, film and classical and jazz evenings - and there was always a warm welcome for artists. Works by Toss Woollaston, Jane Evans and Sally Burton, as well as many others were hung in the exhibition space.
"I'm not an artist, but I appreciate it. I enjoyed artistic people- they got an idea and had the energy. I was happy if I could help by listening and putting a bit of energy into it. Yes there were lots of dreamers but I listened to them. I take people as they present themselves."
One of those dreamers was Suzie Moncrieff. " There was a lovely lady in my coffee house looking very frustrated. She said she had an idea and needed some money for it. I gave her a cheque (for $1000). Things still had to be developed- it was still an idea. I could never have imagined what Wearable Arts would turn out to be. It was in the minds of these lovely women but it was fantastic to be involved."
Other people remember Eelco's generosity. Margaret Jackson , the musician, remembers, "He did lovely things. When we first started a Montessori school in Nelson, Eelco, who had been educated at a Montessori College, lent us money to buy the equipment from Holland.
"Anybody who walked into the Chez would feel they had come home and you don't find that very often. He was so generous. He would give old people meals- deliver them to their homes - and he would give street kids old buns from the café. Once when our daughter had a terrible accident and we were staying up at Nelson Hospital with her, Eelco sent meals up to us every night," she says.
Margaret says Eelco was also a social butterfly who loved women. "He was a very good looking, sexy man, and women fell at his feet. He just adored women. He made every woman feel special- it could be the oldest, ugliest woman in the world.
For its founder, Chez Eelco was always about creating a social space, which he maintains was uniquely Nelson. " I never compared myself to Europe- I'm not there, I'm here. It was popular because it wasn't pretending to be anything- it was just itself."
When it's suggested to Eelco that Chez Eelco was a fantastic venture, he nods his head and says ‘Yes, yes' but he does not regard himself as a mentor or icon. In fact while he acknowledges the gesture of the bust at the top of Trafalgar Street, he seems a bit bemused. " They have even put me in steel. I feel a bit sorry for him because he's cold out there.
There is a sense of wonder about how good life has been to him. "I have been a very lucky boy. I have enjoyed anything I have done. I have always lived in the moment. You just have to get on with things- there is no time to lose. I have always been positive- it probably came from my parents. I had a lovely wife (his ex-wife is potter, Christine Boswijk) and we had three lovely children.
"I'm a bit of an escapist, but it didn't matter because I have lived life to the full - and Mt Cook is still waiting for me to climb!"
Eelco has donated his extensive archives to The Nelson Provincial Museum. The large and varied collection includes extensive records, memorabilia, correspondence, and printed materials such as labels for the famous mussel chowder and Chez Eelco's unique map tablemats. "This will make a fascinating research collection and ensure that the history of The Chez and Eelco's contribution to developing Nelson culture won't be forgotten," says Judith Taylor, Head of Collection Services,The Nelson Provincial Museum.
The cafe closed in 2004. A sculpture of Eelco was installed at the top of Trafalgar Street in 2008, commissioned by the "Friends of Eelco" and created by Siene de Vries. Eelco passed away in March 2013.
In September 2013 Nelson's community awards were given the new permanent name to commemorate one of the city's most well-known characters. The Eelco Boswijk Civic Awards are now given every three years to Nelsonians who help make their region a better place.The awards, running since 1985, have previously been named the Achievers and Good Citizenship Awards, the Civic Awards and the Community Spirit Awards.
This story was written by Joy Stephens and published in Wild Tomato http://www.wildtomato.co.nz/ in September 2008.
Updated May 1, 2020
Edited August 2023
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Further sources - Eelco Boswijk
- Schouten, H, and Andrew Johnston (1992). Tasman's Legacy: the New Zealand-Dutch connection. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand-Netherlands Foundation, 206-208.
- Sheehan, G. and David Burton.(1994). Character cafes of New Zealand. Wellington: New Zealand: Phantom House. 29. (Photograph only)
- Bell. J. (2000, September). Local heroes: Nelson. North & South (174), 102-106.
- Brock, H (1998, January 30). Support for Wearable Art recognised. Nelson Mail .p. 13. Ed. 2
- Coddington, D. (1991, January). Heroes: people who make a difference: food heroes. North and South, 100-111.
- Collett, G. (1996, November 16) Brewing up a cup of coffee. Nelson Mail, p.13
- Collett, G. (2000, April 29).Eelco calls it a day at the Chez. Nelson Mail. p.1.
- Hoby, K. (2005, December 31).Coffee, art a special blend. Nelson Mail. p.1.
- Hunt, T (2008, December 15). Cafe pioneer's story brought to the stage. Nelson Mail. p.1
- Kidson, S. and Neal, T.(2013, March 7)Tributes flow for local legend Eelco Boswijk. Nelson Mail. p.1.
- Manning, D. (2000, May 27).Eelco - the man and his place. Nelson Mail.p.15.
- Moore, B. (2000, May 31) Farewell to a Nelson institution. Nelson Mail, p13. Ed. 2
- Moore, C. (2000, May 6). Rich aroma: a salute to the Chez. Press (Christchurch). sup.p.3
- Neal, T. (2000, May 12). Eelco, the people's choice. Nelson Mail, p.1.
- Neville, P. (1992, April, 13). Joy and heartache for Dutch Kiwis. New Zealand Woman's Weekly, 48-51.
- Chez Eelco on Spectrum (2012, January 22) Radio New Zealand [web page and downloadable podcast]
Russell, R. (2009) Two iconic Nelson cafes. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 7(1), p.65