Ben Walter Heikel
Born in Ylitornio, Finland, August 27 1879
His parents were August Benjamin (Benne) Heikel ( 1.11.1854 - 10.6.1928) and Jenny Maria Laurin (5.1.1856 - 26.8.1933). Ben Walter was the eldest of 9 children, his brothers and sisters were:
Minna Heikel, Bruno Ossian (Ossi) Heikel, Rolf Einar Benjamin Heikel, Märta Heikel, Karin Heikel, Bror Rainer Heikel, Thor Arve Heikel and Maria (Mia) Heikel
Ben Walter studied to become agricultural engineer specialized in pomology, the science of fruits, at the Royal Pomology Institute of Proskau, Germany. He traveled to continue his studies in Canada and the United States.
In 1908, at the age of 29, back in Finland, he was appointed State Pomologist, a position he held until 1916.
In 1909 he married to Kristina Viktoria (Thora) Söderberg ( 27.8.1879 - 30.7.1974). Thora was Swedish, from the University City of Uppsala.
Ben Walter became a professor at the Lepaa Horticultural College from 1910 to 1916.
During this time, he developed several new types of fruits and berries, many still common in the Nordic countries.
Ben Walter moved to his farm Kassela, and started producing wine out of several berries and fruits, developing a sparkling wine that is still in production in Finland today, and carries his name on the label.
He was appointed Managing Director of the family-owned company Marja Oy in Parola. This company produced among other things, wine of low alcohol content for use in church rituals.
The first son, Kasper was born in 1910, followed by Paavo (Pablo) Benjamin in 1912, Katarina (Katja) in 1914, my father Pehr Wilhelm (Guillermo) in 1916 and Eva Margaretha in 1919.
In October of 1919, Ben Walter was found guilty of producing wine that exceeded the 2% maximum by law allowed alcohol content, and sentenced to two years conditional imprisonment.
This was a major disappointment to Ben Walter, who then decided to resign from Marja Oy and move with his family to the island of Aaland, preparing to emigrate from Finland.
He had reason to be concerned about his own and his family’s safety. Ben Walter had spent several nights hiding away in the woods close to Kassela, to avoid being killed by revolutionary troops during the civil war.
He had published nine books about agriculture, one of them about his experimental farm work in Canada.
Ben Walter Heikel and his family move to the islands of Aaland
In 1919, Ben Walter read an ad in a Finnish newspaper: two businessmen were looking for a third partner with knowledge in production of wine and fruit preserves, in order to establish production in Paraguay. The preserves of exotic fruits would be exported to European markets. Ben Walter bought his share of the initial investment in the joint venture. The two partners traveled to Paraguay to search for suitable land.
In 1920, Ben Walter, his wife Thora and their children moved to Hammarland in Aaland, where they bought a beautiful farm by the sea. The farm house was large and comfortable, the village close by was pretty, and with a church the family visited every Sunday. Thora and the children were happy.
Ben Walter traveled for the first time to Paraguay in late 1920. In Asuncion he met with his two partners. They had bought a small property outside the capital city; the fruit trees planted were not enough for any industrial production, and there was no factory building. The partnership ended there, and Ben Walter lost his investment.
For a while, Ben Walter was working as contracted expert in the Botanical Garden of Asuncion.
He sold the house in Tavastehus and his share of the Marja factory in Parola to obtain the funds needed for a new investment.
Once he found the suitable place to establish his farm and wine production, he bought a large farm of 5.000 hectare close to the city of Villarrica. A “Notarius Publicus” was in charge of the purchase contract and of transferring the titles for the property. The payment was done through this “Notarius”, who took the moneys and vanished.
Ben Walter kept trying for years to get back his investment, to no avail.
In 1922, Thora sold the farm they so much learned to like in Aaland, and started with her children the long journey to Paraguay:by boat to Stockholm, from there by train and ferry to Lubeck, on to Hamburg, then on a Spanish ship, the “Vigo” from Hamburg to Buenos Aires, from there on a river boat to Asuncion, by train to Villarrica and finally by carriage to the small farm Ben Walter bought in Caroveni, outside Villarrica.
All the farming tools arrived soon after and Ben Walter started planting fruit trees and grapes.
A new life begins in Paraguay
There were German and other European immigrants in neighboring farms, Ben Walter and Thora took their children to a German school founded by the immigrants.
There was no dentist in Villarrica or anywhere near. Ben Walter studied in a book how to become a “field dentist” , sent from Europe for the tools needed, and while the fruits were growing, he made good additional income by working as a dentist.
The facilities for production of wine and fruit preserves were built; the whole family and a few local employees were involved in farming and production.
Still, Villarrica was not the tropical paradise Ben Walter was hoping for. The farm had poor neighbors that during the night would steal the fruits, and then sell them in the local market. The tools were often stolen. There were big ants that could eat all kind of plants and fruits. During summer the heat was unbearable. Tropical diseases were common. The local population did not drink wine, so there was not much of a demand for the products.
Ben Walter was not a businessman; he found comfort in developing new and improved fruits and vegetables, and in extensive correspondence with several universities all over the world. With the letters came seeds of plants never before seen in Paraguay. New varieties of fruits and vegetables arised from his research work. He shared his findings with the Ministry of Agriculture in Paraguay, and gave them the plants he managed to develop, never asking for payment.
The children grew up, and left the farm. Kasper went to Finland, Paavo left to study Medicine, my father Pehr Wilhelm studied medicine, and when finishing his first year of studies, decided to become a dentist, he was among the first dentist out of the University of Asuncion. Eva studied accounting in Asuncion and went to work for the Standard Oil Company in Paraguay. Only Katja stayed in the farm with her parents.
The Chaco War (1932 to 1935) brought poverty to Paraguay.
Ben Walter could not return to Finland, he had nothing left there.
In 1938 he read in a Swedish magazine "Vart Hem" about a beautiful island called Tristan da Cunha. Tristan da Cunha, is the remotest inhabited island in the world. Its nearest neighbour is St. Helena 2,334 kms to the North while Cape Town is 2,778 kms to the East. Tristan is an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.
In February of 1939, he wrote to the Secretary of the Colonial Office in London, about moving with his wife to the island, he wrote” I have the last 18 years worked here in Paraguay as plant-breeder. The climate in Paraguay is too hot, and I might no longer be able to support the cold on the Aaland isles”
Ben Walter stayed in his farm until he passed away in 1955.
Thora moved to Asuncion, where she lived with her daughter Eva until she passed away in 1974.