Valley Lives - Helmut Koeck

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the July 24, 2013 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Artistic woodwork testament to former gas bar owner

by Lucy Scholey

Anybody passing through Chelsea in the 1980s might have met Helmut Koeck while pumping gas into their cars. They might have seen the then-owner of the Golden Arrow Gas Bar wearing his Bavarian hat and trademark big smile.

Longer-term residents - who lived in Chelsea long enough to remember the gas bar's homecooked German food or antiques - would know Koeck as the construction builder whose artistic work still remains in the Gatineau Hills.

Valley Lives
Helmut Koeck was known as the former owner of the Golden Arrow Gas Bar in Chelsea. It has since been converted into Les Fougeres Restaurant, but his woodwork - like in many places around the Gatineau Hills - still remains. In this photo, he is 85 years old. Photo courtesy Andrew Koeck.

The solid wooden door he carved for the gas bar is still there - even after it was converted into Les Fougeres restaurant in 1993. He also carved the wood signs for Gatineau Park trails, Larrimac Golf Club fairways, the Chelsea Smokehouse fish sign and built many Chelsea homes.

Koeck died suddenly from stroke complications July 1. He was 85.

Koeck moved overseas from Bavaria, Germany, in 1956 with Rita and their two sons, Christian and Norbert.

The family visited Chelsea in the 1960s and "that's where he knew he wanted to settle down," recalled youngest son Andrew, now 45 years old.

Andrew was born when the family lived across from Tulip Valley Restaurant (now officially La Vallee, although still commonly referred to by its former name). For 11 years, the family lived on a five-acre piece of land Koeck bought with brother-in-law Oswald Koch. Helmut built a cottage there, which he later expanded into a family home.

Andrew remembers the "very European" ornate doors painted with flowers, his dad's workshop and the backyard tree house.

Helmut's intention was to develop a career in homebuilding and renovating. With Koch, he started Cascade Home Improvements in 1971. The duo fixed up the Alpengruss Restaurant and Hamilton Motors when it was still on Riverside Drive.

But when the Parti Quebecois government was first elected in 1976, many people moved away and Koeck felt the industry was drying up. Three years later, to make ends meet, he bought the gas bar. His wife operated the snack bar, where she sold her apple strudel and goulash.

Over the years, the eatery was converted into an antique shop and, at one point, was the area's largest garden centre.

The gas bar changed the family's plans. Gone were their winter trips to Florida in a camper, because Koeck worked almost every day of the year.

Valley Lives
Koeck outside his antique shop in 1984. Photo courtesy Andrew Koeck.

But he could still take time to enjoy an afternoon mug of beer. The German preferred Labatt Blue, which was a running joke in the family. Koeck said it was a "very good pilsner."

Though he was soft-spoken and mild-mannered - with a credit account for many of his regular clients who couldn't afford gas until their next paycheques - he once fought off a robber at the gas bar.

At age 15, Andrew Koeck remembers coming to the front of the store at about 10 p.m. and seeing his dad wrestling with a knife-wielding robber. At about five-foot-eight and 140 pounds, Koeck was smaller than his younger opponent, but the son and father team managed to kick the robber in the stomach and put him in a headlock - all without getting stabbed. They threw the robber outside until the police came.

In 1993, the Koecks retired and sold the restaurant to Charlie and Jennifer Warren-Part, who then converted it into Les Fougeres. The duo met with Koeck many times leading up to the sale.

"We gratefully remember his kind, so penetrating eyes and encouraging smile, which truly made us somehow feel more sure that moving to this property in Chelsea, Quebec, was the right thing to do," they wrote in an email to the Low Down.

"Just before the sale, he revealed a precious secret. He took us into the woods and pointed out a beautiful glade of lady slippers, which we may never have discovered on our own. This was a gift which meant so much to him, and us. It seems to us that Helmut was a singularly wise and generous spirit. He certainly was very supportive towards us and though we did not meet often, in these latter years we feel our lives were significantly affected by crossing paths with Helmut," they wrote.

Koeck fuelled his passion for building over the years. He even helped his three sons build their first homes - one in Wakefield and two in Chelsea. Although Koeck did not feel he could build his life on his artistic construction work early on, he found a new love in running the gas bar.

"The many Chelsea residents I met and befriended during the 14 years I owned the Golden Arrow was by far my greatest reward," Koeck told son, Andrew, June 11 - the day he celebrated his 62nd wedding anniversary.

Koeck leaves behind his wife, Rita, sons Christian, Norbert and Andrew, his grandchildren Justin, Matthew, Krista, Lisa, Melissa and Amy, and greatgrandchildren Isla, Evey and Lucy.

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