Ben and Rusella Klassen’s daughter Sherryne had just arrived with her husband and daughter at Prince George Airport Sunday afternoon and on the way home she asked her parents if they could stop Lakewood United Alliance Church to meet a few people.
That secretive meet-and-greet in the church parking lot for the longtime owners of Homesteader Meats turned into a 35-car parade of well-wishers saying their goodbyes to the Klassens before they make their move to Vancouver Island at the end of the month.
On a blustery but sunny day, Ben and Rusella sat on lawn chairs and waved as their friends, some of whom they hadn’t seen in years, pulled up beside them for a safely-distanced chat as they filled a basket full of goodbye cards and letters.
“I thought it was amazing, it was great to hear them give us their congratulations and a beautiful send-off,” said Russella. “That was a big long parade.”
“I felt the same way, I was totally surprised,” said Ben.
The pandemic prevented a traditional indoor farewell party from happening, so longtime family friend Maureen Bilawchuk organized the parade which drew longtime friends, neighbours, fellow church-goers and some of the Klassen’s most loyal butcher shop customers.
“They have given so much to the community and to our church and to me personally, they have been a family that encouraged and loved all of us through ups and downs,” said Bilawchuk. “You want to encourage all the rest of the community, who haven’t been able to do anything, to be able to give back in some way. That’s what the Klassens have done our whole life; they’ve poured their heart and soul into their business and their church and their neighbourhood and their friends.”
Ben has been a butcher since he was 17, a craft he learned from his meat-cutter father growing up in Dawson Creek. Hired on as a teenager by Spittal’s Meat in Dawson Creek in 1955, Ben opened up his own store in Fort St. John in 1968, Ben’s Skyway Butcher Shop, and ran it for 13 years before he moved to Prince George in 1982. He and Rusella started Homesteader Meats on Second Avenue and were at that location for about a year before they moved the store to the Parkhill Centre – a seven-minute drive from where they lived on North Nechako Road.
Kids got free wieners whenever they visited Homesteader and Ben was known for his hamburgers and steaks and excellent customer service, like the time he got a call at 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve from a woman in a panic because she forgot to pick up the turkey. He drove down to the store and grabbed the bird and delivered it that night and was rewarded every year after that with a box of chocolates. His neighbours on North Nechako always knew they could just knock on the door to dip into the Klassen house freezer if they ran short of meat while hosting a barbecue.
Ben cut and sold the meat and operated the store,while Russella kept everything shipshape at home and was always available for bookkeeping/banking duties or to help out serving customers when they were short-staffed.
“The staff made things fun,” said Russella. “We had lots of laughs at parties, they’d pin a pig’s tail to Ben’s jacket sometimes and they got a big kick out of that when he’d be walking around not knowing he had a pig tail on him. We did have a lot of fun together.”
Customers liked the tailor-made products and that they could phone in their orders and Ben shared one of the secrets that kept them coming back.
“We gave lots of hugs,” he chuckled.
The Klassens sold Homesteader in 2007 but after two years the new owners were unable to keep it open and the bank called and asked them to come back as owners. They did that until they sold the shop again on Feb. 1, 2020, and under new ownership, the business continues to thrive.
The Klassens will have been married 55 years in July. They met at church in Dawson Creek and Russella was working at a credit union when Ben came by to tell her she should come by the butcher shop down the street to buy some of the house specialty.
“I went down to see that little butcher to see if he could get me some Cervelat sausage and the next thing we knew we were going out for some hot chocolate,” Russella said. “I had a ring on my finger pretty quick. He was a good salesman. He’s been a very good husband.”
The Klassens sold their house a month ago and plan to fly to Victoria April 30 to begin the next chapter of their lives somewhere between Lake Cowichan and Qualicum Beach - close to where two of their three daughters now live with their families Vancouver Island also home to three of the 11 Klassen grandchildren.
‘”We really enjoyed raising our family here,” said Russella. “Prince George is very good place to raise a family. We really find it very friendly and the people have been just great. Especially is a person is sick or something like that, the people band together and they really show support, so we really felt loved here.”
“I’ll miss the people,” said Ben. “We’ve really gotten to like Prince George. I always say if our girls weren’t gone we’d be staying right here.”
Butcher shops are become more of a rarity and there are fewer jobs in the trade, with some supermarket chains centralizing their meat-packing operations. Klassen has no regrets about his choice of occupation, a career path his brother Gerald also followed.
“It’s a lost art, and any young people that I try to talk to today, I always tell them to go into it, because it will be one that will come back – they’ll be need people like that,” Ben said. “Meat cutting has always been sort of an art and people like to see that. I did it for 65 years and I would do it all over again.”