WINCHESTER, Calif. — Jules Wesselink was 15 when an American B-17 was shot down near his home in Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 1944. He was 21 when he and his wife, Corrie, left Holland to join the Dutch dairymen of Southern California. He was 64 when he finally learned the fate of the crew of the B-17 and 66 when he went back to the Netherlands to celebrate the liberation by the Allies. On that trip he happened to buy an amateur cheese-making kit.
Today, at 73, he is a keen amateur historian of the U.S. 100th Bomb Group and one of the best cheese-makers in California. His Winchester Gouda is one of a small number of authentic Goudas now made anywhere in the world, including Holland. It is served at top restaurants, including Artisan, Tribeca Grill and the Gramercy Tavern in New York.
"Isn't it amazing what you can do by accident?" he says, beaming.
That smile. Those twinkling blue eyes. The man could have invented merriment. Go to his farm in a rock-strewn patch of Riverside County, meet Wesselink, and his life seems more a feat of attitude than accident. He reeks of bonhomie even when he's complaining about his pronounced limp. "Everything hurts," he laughs. "If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't work any more."
It is impossible to separate the way Wesselink approaches making cheese from the way he approaches life. A good day is one in which family is near, something expensive in a store can be made economically at home, and there is food on the table, preferably a cheese sandwich. A bad day? Wesselink grew up under the bombs of World War II. His teenage years in Haarlem were spent hungry.
"All we did at the end of the war is get our food and stay alive," he says. "Today you see people in the grocery store. They don't like something, they throw it down. I tell them, 'Never throw food away.' During that war, you couldn't find a cat on the street."
His family worked for the resistance, he says; "Everyone did." Their job was to help downed Allied airmen to a port where British boats would collect them. When that B-17 was shot down near Haarlem, one of 177 lost to enemy fire by the 100th Bomb Group, he became obsessed by the fate of the fliers, all of whom were eventually captured by the Germans. He kept a photograph of the wrecked B-17.
When the war ended, he joined the Dutch army, served in Indonesia and returned to Holland, where he married his childhood sweetheart, Corrie van Loon. In 1951, they followed two of Corrie's brothers to Artesia, where Dutch immigrants ran most of the dairy farms. By 1958, he had his own farm and eight of Corrie's 11 siblings had also emigrated to California. "We made sure California would be populated," he says.
As suburbs crowded the old L.A. dairies, Wesselink's family moved first to Chino in 1968 and then, in 1978, to Winchester, a part of Riverside County so barren that it seems to be more rock than earth. Winchester's not everyone's cup of place. Even developers seem to have left it alone.
But from Wesselink's perspective, a craggy patch off Route 79 was ideal. The fewer people around, the fewer people to complain about the kind of farm smells that happen when you have herds the size of Wesselink's, which at its peak swelled to 960 cows.
Though Winchester might sound like a good place to leave, Wesselink's family stayed near. Most of his wife's family settled close by. His brother-in-law Piet Van Loon made his dairy equipment. His sons, Leo and Jules Jr., formed allied businesses clipping cattle hoofs and fermenting oats to make livestock feed. One daughter, Valerie Thomas, and her husband, David, joined his cheese-making business. His other daughter, Pauline, invested in the business. There are 11 grandchildren. At any one time, there will likely be three generations of Wesselinks and van Loons around the place.
The turn to cheese-making was part accident, part economic forces and part tradition. "The whole dairy business went kind of kerplunk in the late 1980s," says Wesselink. As he accumulated more and more cows but got less and less for money for their milk, a fortuitous meeting awakened his fighting spirit. During a holiday in Albuquerque, he spotted someone wearing a B-17 bomber jacket. The man was from the 99th Bomb Group. In no time, the stranger had all five crew members of the downed B-17 from the 100th Bomb Group on the phone.
"We were so excited, we were shaking," says Wesselink. A meeting was held in Cleveland, where Wesselink finally heard stories about how they had been slowly picked up by Germans. One, a gunner named John Seaman, turned himself in, says Wesselink, when he feared a Dutch child had been killed for having helped him and more people might be executed.
Two years later, Wesselink returned to Haarlem for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. He rode in tanks with British veterans. Canadians were put up in the homes of Dutch families. "It was absolutely unbelievable!" he says.