WORDS and PICTURES Olivia Page
This year the well known tulip family the Tesselaar’s celebrated the 60th year of running their famous tulip festival.
The Tesselaar family have been in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges for a very long time; before bitumen roads, street lights and of course their highly prized tulips. Today Paul Tesselaar and his wife Rachael, together with a dedicated team of hard-working staff are behind the everyday running of the farm. Paul is one of eight children; growing flowers is in his blood and runs deep through the veins of his family tree. He and his siblings grew up with red volcanic soil under their boots and sweat above their brows; either working on their parents farm during their school holidays or taking on larger roles throughout the years.
The Tesselaar empire has humble beginnings and remains a family affair. Fading black and white photographs of Paul’s Opa Cees and Oma Johanna, and of his parents Kees and Sheila surrounded by fields of flowers adorn the office walls. The Tesselaar roots can be traced back to the Netherlands. On the cusp of World War II Paul’s grandfather Cees was working on his father’s flower farm, as well as running his own small business; delivering eggs and dairy on his bicycle in the evenings. Times were tough, Cees had a lust for a better life. Upon reading an article in a local paper; the words ‘the land of opportunity’ and ‘increasing demand for tulip bulbs in Australia’ sprung up at him. The next day he sold his small-goods business, asked for the blessing of Johanna’s hand in marriage and then bought two open-ended tickets for a ship sailing to Australia. Cees and Johanna departed the Netherlands palm in palm on their wedding day; arriving in 1939 to start a new life. Astonishingly they boarded the last ship out of the Netherlands before war broke out.
Their ticket entitled travel to every port in Australia. Being somewhat unimpressed with their first port of call, a tin shed in Fremantle WA, they continued on to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and then Brisbane. When they arrived in Melbourne it was a Sunday, the city was dead. Sydney captured their hearts; the hustle and bustle reminded them of home. Ultimately the Dutch Consulate recommended they settle in Melbourne; advocating the ideal flower growing climate. In time Cees and Johanna saw Melbourne for the vibrant city that it was.
Cees and Johanna looked at the property that the farm is currently situated on, however initially set up in Ferntree Gully to be closer to transport and the markets. At that time the roads in Silvan were nothing more than dirt tracks. Paul reminisced, “The only piece of advice my great-grandfather gave my grandfather was to stay close to the markets”. In Ferntree Gully they grew gladioli and daffodils, among other bulbs and flowers. However no sooner had they moved in; had they outgrown their modest plot. Once again they approached the owner of the Silvan property. Luck was on their side, the owner was happy to sell. In 1945 they packed their bags and from that point forward the future seeds, or rather bulbs, of Tesselaar were sown.
Interest in their tulips grew exponentially when tourism hit the region. Road-trippers would stop to have a look at the tulips ablaze in colour. Eventually it made sense to open the gates to the public; so in 1954 the tulip festival was born. Tesselaar it seems was just like any other tulip farm in the area, difference being they grasped the reins of potential with both hands. From the 70’s the business grew to be one of Australia’s largest cultural horticultural operations; growing and distributing hundreds of thousands of plants and bulbs including tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, gladiolas and liliums, among others. Over time various family members made their mark on the farm and the festival; theme days and live music were slowly added to the festivals calendar of events.
Paul wasn’t heavily involved with the farm until around 10 years ago. Previous to his current position he was working in E-commerce. During the 90’s and 00’s Paul and his siblings dispersed to either start their own horticultural businesses or to build upon their own aspirations. Paul’s return to horticulture is matched by his words, “You can take the boy out of the country – but you can’t take the country out of the boy”. Paul stepped in when his father began talking about retirement; of either passing the farm down or selling it off. He found the transition easy and his IT background tied in well with the mail order side of the operation. The business was officially transferred over to Paul 6 years ago, he now sees himself as a guardian of a dream his fore bearers worked hard to build. Paul evoked “My father always said – ‘If your hearts not in it don’t do it’. He encouraged us to discover and pursue new interests”. Paul has come full circle to find what he loves.
Today Paul and Rachel work together; Rachel utilises her skills organising the festival and the marketing aspect of the business. Paul’s father is still a great influence in Paul’s life, “He’s semi-retired but he still has one finger in the pie, so to speak. He often repeats, ‘Old farmers never die; they just fade into the background’. I have a great source of knowledge by my side”. History is something that is treasured and revered here. In recent years the family farm has become a 4th generation operation, well almost; their son Austin may only be 3 but his interest in tractors is a promising indication of what the future might hold. There is every chance of a Tulip Festival Centennial.
Today the festival draws over 50,000 visitors annually. “What better way to welcome spring than to tip-toe through the tulips,” said Paul. www.tulipfestival.com.au