George Zaklan’s life was rich and full – and from a Surrey point of view, unique.
He was born on his family’s farm in the Newton area and lived on the same property for all but two of his 90 years. Those two years were spent as a principal in Alberta.
His well-attended memorial service at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Burnaby on Feb. 11 was a tribute to the impact he had on many people.
He was a teacher and principal for 35 years – most of those in the Surrey school district – and he continued to mentor young people all his life. Often they would move into the home he and his wife Evelyn shared, and learn life lessons, both indoors and outdoors.
He continued to farm the property his father had bought not long after immigrating to Canada, from what is now Croatia. That property was known as a “stump farm,” as were most upland Surrey properties.
The stumps were left over from the logging of first-growth trees. They were massive. A few still remain on Surrey properties, but at the time the Zaklans first farmed their land at 84 Avenue and 132 Street, they would have littered the property.
They were not easy to deal with. There were no bulldozers or power equipment, and even if there had been, no one could afford to use them. Life on farms such as theirs was subsistence living – but it was also deeply satisfying in many ways.
In 1999, George told The Surrey Leader that “The stump farmers had a constant deficit in finance, but there never was a shortage of food on the table.”
George was born in 1932, and while he was still a toddler, the family home burned down due to a faulty wood stove or chimney. Fortunately, no one was inside at the time.
It was devastating, but neighbours pitched in to help and a new, very basic home was erected. It is still standing.
The area the Zaklans lived in was primarily occupied by immigrant families, many of them coming from Slavic areas of Europe. Many others were of Japanese origin. After clearing some of the stumps, many farmers planted berries which did very well.
Surrey Board of Education has recognized the contribution the Slavic families made by naming an elementary school in the area after one of them – the Cindriches. Hopefully the board will do the same in the future with a new school, and belatedly honour the many Japanese settlers in the area, most of whom lost their homes and possessions when interned during the Second World War by the federal government.
George and many of his neighbours have been very protective of Bear Creek Park. He attended the dedication of the park by Senator Tom Reid many years ago. A stone plaque there also pays tribute to the early residents of that neighbourhood, and includes a map compiled by George listing names and locations of early-day homes and farms. That area of Surrey has changed dramatically. Most of it is covered with housing or industrial parks. Busy roads mean there is constant noise.
Surrey’s population has grown from about 3,000 at the time of George’s birth on the farm to well over half a million today.
Yet the land remains in the Zaklan family, and some of it is still farmed.
Many years of soil improvements, tree planting and clearing, fencing and ditching have gone into it, and much of that is George’s legacy.
At a time when speculators and developers covet profits, and city officials covet growth, it’s worth remembering the enormous efforts made by the immigrants who came to those “stump farms,” and how they built Surrey with hard work and determination.
Frank Bucholtz writes twice a month for Black Press Media.