Paper presented to the Century Club of Holland, Jan. 3, 2005
There are more
than a dozen towns and cities in the USA
Hollandale, and Hollandtown. But Holland, Michigan has the distinction of being the Dutch capitol
More Dutch immigrants in the 19th century headed for West Michigan than anywhere else. And they made their presence felt
by clustering in urban neighborhoods and rural villages across the
five-county region, bounded by Holland, Muskegon, Grand Rapids, and
By 1910, at
the apex of the great century of immigration, one-third of Grand
Rapids' population was of Dutch birth or ancestry, as was
three-quarters in Holland and more than 90
percent in Zeeland. In 1990, nearly
300,000 residents of Dutch ancestry lived in West Michigan,
making it the largest Dutch settlement area in the United States.
landscape is dotted with a Dutch presence. Besides the Dutch names on mailboxes
and storefronts, and the long lists of family names in the phone books
beginning with Van and De (there are 3,500 names in the GR white pages alone),
we have public buildings with the names of De Vos, Van Andel, Meijer, and
Vanden Burg-a medical research center, concert hall, children's hospital,
botanical gardens, a plaza, and soon a fieldhouse. Holland
also has Windmill
Island with its authentic
Dutch molen. And some eighty historic Dutch houses still survive, with their
distinctive red and buff-colored brick from the kilns of the Veneklasen
Brick Company in Zeeland.
The Dutchness of
Michigan raises a number of questions. First, why was West
Michigan the favorite Dutch destination for more than one hundred
years? Second, what accounts for the Dutch clustering in this region? And
third, what are the implications of this "Dutchness" for the region?
Van Raalte chooses Southwest Michigan
We have the Rev.
Albertus C. Van Raalte to thank for West Michigan's
Dutch character. He chose Ottawa
County in 1847 for his
colony of religious Seceders from the Dutch national church, all fleeing
religious persecution and economic distress. And like a piped piper, Van Raalte
lured many to follow him.
That Van Raalte
located his colony in West Michigan was
strictly a fluke. He was actually bound for Fond du Lac,
Wisconsin on the shores of Lake
Winnebago. But in early December of 1846, when his vanguard of
some fifty colonists reached Detroit on the lake
steamer Great Western from Buffalo, bound for Milwaukee
over the Straits of Mackinac, word came that the Straits had iced over and the
shipping season was closed for the year. The only alternative was to continue
by rail. But the railroad at this time only ran as far west as Kalamazoo, and Van Raalte's party could not
afford the tickets in any case. So they had to winter unexpectedly in Detroit, then the state
hand of winter" stopped the Dutch cold in Detroit,
then the state capitol, and the delay gave Michigan
boosters and promoters time to persuade Van Raalte that the Wolverine State
was far preferable to the Badger
Romeyn, an Old Dutch Yorker was one of these politicos. He introduced
Van Raalte to his pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Rev. George Duffield.
Romeyn also took Van Raalte to meet Governor Epaphroditus Ransom and other
These men played
card." They knew that there was no love lost between Calvinists and
Catholics in the Netherlands
since the Wars of Religion against Spain in the 16th century. So they
informed Van Raalte that Wisconsin
was fill of German Catholics. Michigan, on the
other hand, was settled by English and Scots from New England and New York, with their Presbyterian,
Congregational, and Methodist churches. These were theological cousins
of the Dutch Reformed; all traced a common lineage from John Calvin. There were even a half
dozen Dutch Reformed churches in Michigan,
including one in Grand Rapids;
all were English-speaking and established by Old Yorkers who had moved to the
frontier. Van Raalte took the surprising news of Michigan's Calvinistic orientation as a sign
of God's providential hand.
boosters explained that Michigan was already
linked by rail to New York City, whereas
Wisconsin residents had to rely on the Great Lakes
and shipping stopped every winter. So Michigan
beat out Wisconsin for the primary
Dutch colony in North America.
Raalte's new friends directed him to investigate several open tracts of land in
Romeyn and Duffield put him in contact with Rev. Ova Hoyt of Kalamazoo's First
Presbyterian Church, who in turn introduced him to Allegan Judge John Kellogg.
Kellogg personally took Van Raalte on a scouting expedition to survey the lands
around Black Lake
in Ottawa County
used by a small band of Ottawas
at the Old Wing Mission. Van Raalte was impressed and declared, "This is
marked quite a turnabout. Van Raalte had previously confessed to harboring
"many a bias against Michigan."
"I would have chosen another place to live," he wrote his brother-in-law
and associate in the Netherlands.
But his new friends had convinced him otherwise. Van Raalte confided to his
wife that he trusted the "God-fearing, upright gentlemen" he had met
decision disgusted his associate in the ministry and fellow immigrant leader,
the Reverend Henry P. Scholte, who was to follow with his group and join Van
Raalte in one big colony. When Scholte learned that Van Raalte has selected the
dense woods of Michigan, he broke ranks and
went instead to the rolling prairies of Iowa
to plant his colony of Pella.
Scholte said his people wanted be farmers, not woodsmen. From this time on,
there was rivalry between the two men and their colonies. Van Raalte proved to
be a better promoter. His settlement quickly doubled that of Pella in population.
"land-hungry" Dutch, with their proverbial large families, quickly
spread out from the initial settlements like a giant oil slick, across the
2,000 square-miles of the five counties, filling in virgin lands and buying out
American farmers. When farms came on the market, the Dutch paid premium prices;
to live among family and friends was worth overpaying a bit. By 1870 the core
"Dutch Colony" covered much of Ottawa
and northern Allegan counties and their property values reached $1 million.
Dutch ethnic clustering
the Dutch Reformed were always a minority in West Michigan,
they enhanced their impact by clustering in tight ethno-religious islands
centered in their churches and Christian schools. The first immigrants
brought regional cultures and dialects. Witness the village names: Borculo,
Drenthe, Friesland, Harderwyk, New Groningen,
Nijkerk (Niekerk), Noordeloos, and Overisel, among others. It took a generation
before the Dutch thought of themselves as a single ethnic group. The Frisians
never did; they spoke the Fries language at home, raised Frisian horses, and
posted the Frisian emblem with its green colors on their front doors.
Not only in
rural villages but also in the cities, the Dutch lived among kith and kin. In Grand Rapids there were twelve distinct Dutch
neighborhoods, comprising a little Zeeland, a little Groningen,
and a little Friesland.
Zeelanders were clustered in the Grandville
Avenue area, and along South Division, and in the
"Brickyard area" of East Fulton-Lake streets. The Brickyard had the
highest concentration of Dutch in Grand
Rapids at 75 percent. Frisians were concentrated in
the West Leonard-Alpine Avenue
district. Groningers were so thick in the Wealthy-Logan district that the area
was known as the "Groninger buurt" [neighborhood]. Oakdale Park
was another Groninger center.
Kalamazoo, with one-eighth (12%) of its
inhabitants Dutch, also had a provincial clustering--Groningers lived on the
north side and Zeelanders on the south side. The two groups spoke the same
language and followed the same Reformed faith, but they lived and worshipped
very much apart. The late history professor, John Izenbaard of Western Michigan
University, enjoyed telling the story
of growing up in the Zeeland neighborhood on
the south side but marrying a north side Groninger. He considered it quite
remarkable that he bridged the cultural divide.
In the village of Holland,
immigrants from the Province
predominated at first, because Van Raalte had itinerated throughout that
province planting Seceder churches in the decade before he immigrated. For this
he earned the title "Apostle of Overijssel." Later, other provinces
were represented as well in Holland.
South of town were the villages of Graafschap and Bentheim, founded by fellow
Reformed immigrants from County Bentheim just across the Dutch border in Germany. These
Germans were as tight religiously and culturally as the Dutch.
In Muskegon and environs,
with 10 percent of the population Dutch, almost all were Groningers. The Grand Haven-Spring
Lake area was also
settled by Groningers.
The Dutch imprint
Given the Dutch
prominence in West Michigan, it is no wonder
that they had a great impact on every aspect of life and work. The Puritan
scholar Christopher Hill calls religious enclaves like the Holland colony "contractual
communities," that is, places where residents willingly shared the same
values and norms. Contractual communities are highly corporate, strong on
communal authority, quick to draw boundaries, and yet caring and compassionate.
The downside of
contractual communities is that people are prone to religious infighting. Among
the Dutch, the old rhyme is apt--"One Dutchman a theologian, two Dutchmen
a church, three Dutchmen a schism." Within five years of the founding of Holland, the
congregations in Drenthe and Graafschap faced schisms and after ten years
(1857) the seceders formed a new denomination, the Christian Reformed Church.
Van Raalte and
his associates managed to hold 90 percent of the members within the Classis of
the Holland of the Reformed Church in America, but the minority who seceded wanted to
remain tied to the mother church in the Netherlands. Ever since 1857, every
Dutch locale had a Reformed and Christian Reformed church facing one another
across the street. The RCA was more open to American culture, while the CRC
deliberately remained a Dutchy church for a century or more.
tell us that religious conflicts serve to keep group boundaries sharp. After
all, there is no better way to differentiate insiders and outsiders than to
argue about obtuse theological and church order issues that only insiders care
about or perhaps can comprehend.
communities, secession may also be a way to protest against the concentration
of power in the church leaders. Hermannus Doesburg, editor of the colony's
first newspaper De Hollander, in 1852 derisively called Van Raalte and
his fellow clerics in Classis Holland the "the pope and his
"Vatican Council" in Holland
tried mightily to suppress vices and keep the Sabbath day holy. Many of Van
Raalte's title deeds to lots in Holland
specified that no alcohol could be sold from the premises. When the first
circus came to town, two of Van Raalte's elders posted themselves at the
entrance to the tent, which so inhibited traffic that the promoter in
frustration left "this d--- hole." Another elder criticized a woman
whose dress was not properly closed at the collar. When merchants unloading
cargo at the mouth of Holland
harbor on Sunday, the consistory quickly made them desist.
not wonder what Van Raalte and his cardinals would have thought about Fred
Meijer's decision to open his supermarkets on Sunday (1969 in Grand
Rapids and 1978 in Holland and Jenison). A 24-7 operation made perfect economic sense to
Meijer, who was not a Reformed church member and hence beyond the arm of any
consistory. But among many of his devout Dutch customers, the adage was:
"If you don't have it by Saturday, you don't need it."
for worship, but from Monday to Saturday the Dutch left their mark on the land.
In large stretches of the region, they drained the swamps and farmed the
rich bottomlands. Cultivating wetlands was a unique Dutch skill and they
thrived in the muck soils, supplying vegetables to urban tables. In Kalamazoo, Dutch truck farmers transformed the muck around
the city into the celery capital of America. "Kalamazoo
Celery" in the 1920s and 1930 was featured on the menus of the trendiest
restaurants of Chicago.
Today the Dutch raise flowers instead of celery in the muck.
endeavors have the Dutch made a greater impact than in education and medicine.
The disproportionate number of teachers and professionals among them is
legendary. Van Raalte was a strong believer in Christian education. Barely four
years after starting his colony, he began the Holland
Academy to train teachers and
ministers; it evolved into Hope
College and Western
Seminary. The Christian Reformed leaders followed with Calvin College
and Seminary, and in the twentieth century, the Reformed Bible College.
Christian colleges sit atop a dense network of eleven Christian school systems
in the region, with thousands of students. Holland and Zeeland Christian together enroll
about one-third of all students in their districts. Holland Christian is larger
than half the public schools in Ottawa
County. Of course, most
Dutch Americans attend and teach in the public schools. And a Dutch-American,
J.C. Huizenga, operates the largest charter school system in West
Michigan, National Heritage Academies.
physicians listed in the current Holland-Zeeland Area yellow pages, I tallied
40 percent with obvious Dutch family names. This proportion certainly over-represents
them both in the medical profession and in the general population.
West Michigan has a rich history of entrepreneurship and
multigenerational, family owned businesses. Among car dealers, for example,
think of Baker, Betten, Borgman, Cook, De Nooyer, Duthler, Flikkema, Gezon,
Koning, Kool, Van Andel, Verhage, Versendaal, and Wierda. Dutch entrepreneurs
are similarly imbedded in every area of business. At the risk leaving out many,
I note the furniture makers Bergsma, Doezema, Hekman, Miller, Sligh, Steelcase,
and Worden; the food industry's Hekman, the De Witts, the Bouws, and the
Meijers; in retail, the Steketees (now gone after more than 140 years),
Vogelzaang (also gone), Fris, and Muller Shoes; in transport, Waste Management,
Star Truck Rentals, UFS Holland Motor, Associated Truck Lines, Art Mulder, and
Les Brink; in oil and gasoline, the Boeves and Essenburgs; in manufacturing,
Holland Hitch, Prince, and S-2 Yachts.
You can each add to the list many other examples.
also made Grand Rapids
the national center of Christian book publishing, and it's all in the family.
Four firms--Eerdmans, Zondervan, Kregel, and Baker Book House--were founded by
interrelated Dutch immigrants, all devout members of the Christian Reformed
Church. These publishers have had an immeasurable impact on readers of
Christian books around the world.
Both the Reformed and Christian Reformed denominations also have their
international headquarters in Grand
Rapids and publish their official periodicals, the Church
Herald and the Banner, there. The now-joint publishing arm of both
denominations, CRC Publications, is also located in Grand Rapids.
is part and parcel of the Dutch Reformed social ethic. As a Grand Rapids
Press editorial noted a few year ago, "Though every city has
philanthropists and business leaders willing to work for a cause, Grand Rapids is
particularly rich in that regard." One could rightly add Holland as well.
back to the community" is normative in the West
Michigan business community. Witness only America's
"Dutch Twins," Rich De Vos and the late Jay Van Andel. Their crown
jewel, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, has rejuvenated the downtown since it
opened in 1981, and the Van Andel Arena has recharged the city center. The De
Vos Medical Research Institute is spawning an entire research complex, which
will hasten the day when Michigan State University
moves its college of medicine to Grand
In Holland, Edgar Prince
reshaped the city like no one else. Until Ed Prince's untimely death a decade
ago, he was Holland's
leading industrialist and philanthropist. As is well known, he was the driving
force behind the rejuvenation of Holland's
downtown in the 1980s. He and his wife Elsa had their hand in every major
project--the renovation of 8th
Street, Evergreen Commons senior center, Freedom Village
retirement home, Knickerbocker Theater, Holland Museum,
and more. Others in this room worked tirelessly in many of these endeavors as
well, as you well know.
I note one
more example. In 1996 the state of Michigan
launched Project Zero, a program to place every able-bodied welfare recipient
in the workforce. Within a year, Ottawa
County was the first in the state to
achieve "zero" and Kent
County was third. To
reach this goal required the cooperation of the public and private sectors, and
especially business owners and corporate CEOs. Their altruism nicely coincided
with a need for workers in the full-employment economy of the 1990s.
On the farm and
the factory floor, the strong work ethic among Dutch Reformed employees in Southwest Michigan is legendary. The obverse is that they
spurned labor unions and crossed picket lines when strikes occurred, like the
1911 furniture strike in Grand Rapids.
Union leaders miscalculated badly in that one. More than half the 7,000 workers
were Dutch Calvinists, almost none in the union. Polish Catholics, who made up
one-quarter of the workforce, and were all in the union, pushed the strike.
Catholic priests endorsed the union cause, while Reformed clerics condemned it.
Joining a secular union was to "be unequally yoked" with a
brotherhood of unbelievers.
eighty-six years after the aborted 1911 strike, a leader of the same union, the
Carpenters and Joiners, admitted in an interview with a Grand Rapids Press
reporter: "West Michigan is a pretty hard
area to organize."
The aura of a willing labor force and strong work ethic has not been lost on
industrialists coming into the region.
If Southwest Michigan was tough for big labor, it has been
equally difficult for Democrats. The Dutch have helped keep West
Michigan in the Republican column for nearly 140 years, since
1868. Even Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal did not change the long-term
alignment. In presidential elections, Ottawa County
is always one of the most Republican counties in the state, often above 70
percent in support for the GOP.
is that the Dutch turn out to vote. They take their citizenship obligations
seriously and see candidates and issues through the lens of their religious
values and perspectives. This has sometimes served narrow ends--low taxes,
welfare cutbacks, and sin campaigns against saloons, gambling, Sunday
desecration, and more recently, Indian casinos. But with their religious
worldview, the Dutch have also promoted a positive agenda--social and economic
justice, environmental laws, educational reform, and, many would add, pro-life
efforts and school choice.
Michigan is rich in Christian social service organizations, such as Pine
Rest, the largest Christian psychiatric hospital in the United States; Bethany,
the largest Christian adoption agency; the various Holland Homes for the
Acres for troubled youth; Hope Network for disabled adults; and the
Holland Deacons Conference group homes for disabled adults and women and
children in transition. These agencies all stem from the strong diaconal tradition in
the Reformed churches, and, although private, they work closely with the public
the Vietnam War, the churches in the region sponsored so many thousands of
refugees from Southeast Asia that Grand Rapids
have become Asian centers, with Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian churches of
Reformed persuasion. Jerry Hertel of Holland
was a leader in the relocation of these refugees. Hispanic congregations also
abound, the product of ministries in the migrant camps since the 1960s.
remarkable cultural diversity that has come to Holland in the last fifty years is evident to
all. Business writer Mike Luzon, in a column in the Sentinel in 2002,
rightly attributed this to Holland's
"Christian foundation." This community, he noted, "sponsored
untold numbers of Asians," and it never stood in the way of Hispanics and
blacks. Luzon's left-handed compliment does
not do justice to the positive ways that the community has reached out to
non-white residents. And the drastic cultural change in the past 40-50 years
took place with a minimum of social conflict. "Nowhere in this community's
legacy is there any broad notion of hatred or intolerance," Luzon concluded.
The Dutch are no
longer the largest segment of the population in West
Michigan. Hispanics who total one-third the population of the city
outnumber the Dutch. But the 360 Dutch Reformed and Christian Reformed congregations with
more than 160,000 members still have a significant impact. The cultural mores,
social ambience, work ethic, and attitudes of the movers and shakers are still
largely shaped by the Reformed vision of building "a city on a hill,"
a place where faith plays an integral part in all of life.
has enriched the region and made life generally prosperous and pleasant. West Michigan has attracted new residents in droves, making
it one of the fastest growing regions in the state. Both Grand
Rapids and Holland
have been named All-American cities.
Van Raalte could
never have imagined in his wildest dreams how his decision to locate his colony
in Holland could have had such a long-term
impact on West Michigan. The Dutch, and their
increasingly diverse neighbors, have reason to take pride and satisfaction in
what they have done. And the story is far from finished.
. For a general
history, see Henry Ryskamp, "The Dutch in West
Michigan" (Ph.D. Diss., University of Michigan, 1930). A
journalistic account is Z.Z. Lydens, The Story of Grand Rapids (Grand
Rapids: Kregel, 1966), 540. See also Robert P. Swierenga, "Better
Prospects for Work: Van Raalte's Holland Colony and Connections to Grand Rapids," Grand
River Valley History 15 (1998): 14-22.
. Robert P.
Swierenga, "Decisions, Decisions: Turning Points in the Founding of Holland," Michigan
Historical Review, 24 (Spring 1998): 48-72.
"Decisions, Decisions," 61, 63; Albert Hyma, Albertus C. Van
Raalte and His Settlements in the United States (Grand Rapids,
Census: 1930, Population, Vol. 1 (Washington,
1931), Tables 18, 19.
. David Vander
Stel, "The Dutch of Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1848-1900: Immigrant Neighborhood and Community
Development in a Nineteenth-Century City" (PhD. Dissertation, Kent State University,
1983); Robert P. Swierenga, Faith and Family: Dutch Immigration and
Settlement in the United States,
1820-1920 (New York:
Holmes & Meier, 2000), 80-82.
. This estimate is
by Jacob Quintus, editor of the Sheboygan Nieuwsbode, who visited Kalamazoo in 1853. Cited
in Henry S. Lucas, Netherlanders in America (Ann Arbor, 1955, Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 279.
Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York: Schoken, 1964), as
cited in Lawrence J. Taylor, Dutchmen on the Bay: The Ethnohistory of a
Contractual Community (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, 9-16.
. Hank Meijer, Thrifty
Years: The Life of Hendrik Meijer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984); Olson, Grand
Rapids, A City Renewed, 127-28; Grand Rapids Press, 30 Aug. 2001;
Mike Lozon, "Six-day operation," ibid, 17 Sept. 1995.
. Marinda K.
Anderson, "Business is all in the family," Grand Rapids Press,
9 Sept. 2001, B1; Barbara Wieland, "Trucking in His Blood," ibid., 1
Oct. 2001, A8; Lydens, Story of Grand Rapids, 541; Gordon L. Olson, Grand
Rapids, A City Renewed: A History Since World War II (Grand Rapids Historical
Commission, 1997), 126-28; Larry B. Massie, Haven, Harbor, and Heritage: The
Holland, Michigan, Story (Allegan, MI: Priscilla Press, 1996), 159, 178-79,
183-84; Russ' Review, published in celebration of "Russ' 50th
Anniversary," 1984 (local clipping files, Van Raalte Institute).
. This and the
next paragraph rely on "Religious Publishing Was All in the Family,"
in Gathered at the River: Grand
Rapids, Michigan, and
its People of Faith, eds. James D. Bratt and Christopher H. Meehan (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 122-23.
Grand: All-Important," editorial, Grand Rapids Press, 14 Oct. 2001,
A10; Jack Naudi, "Two Grand Decades," ibid. 5 Oct. 2001, A17;
"The Arena at five years," editorial, ibid, 15 Oct. 2001, A10;
Jennifer Leo, "Richard De Vos and Jay Van Andel," in Elliott Robert
Barkan, ed. Making It in America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans
(Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2001), 95-96; Olson, Grand Rapids, A City
Renewed, 11, 122-23.
Kirchherr, et al., "Holland
loses a Prince," Holland Sentinel 3 Mar. 1995; Gary Agar,
"Prince's Vision," ibid, 4 June 1995 (local clipping files, Van
Mike Luzon, "An exercise in futility," Holland Sentinel, 26
. Mary Ann
Sabo, "Labor council hopes to create 'Union City,'" Grand Rapids Press,
1 Sept. 1997, D7, quoting financial secretary Brian De La Gandara (local
clipping files, Van Raalte Institute).
Dieleman, "'City on a hill' worthy goal for Holland," Grand Rapids Press, 7
Feb. 1997, L5; Dieleman, 'City's roots shine through," ibid, 16 May 1997,