Family Histories

Paul Tuitman and Henrietta (Etta) Swierenga

Paul Tuitman was a genuine Groninger, born in Kantens, on July 26, 1908, next to the youngest of twelve children of Barend Tuitman and Hilda Huizingh. The Tuitmans originally hailed from Germany. Paul lived at home until graduating from school at age 17. His father had died in 1918 (March 18) when he was only 9. He worked one year in a brickyard, three years as a hired hand on farms around Kantens, and four years on a farm at Ellerhuizen near Bedum. He earned $10 a week ($520 per year) plus room and board, which was the highest wage in the neighborhood, since the going rate was $1 per day.

The world agricultural depression of the 1920s hit the northern Netherlands hard and the boers cut wages or laid off help. Paul talked about emigrating to America in 1927 but his mother objected. After she died in 1927 (October 11), however, he was free to go. His brother-in-law had a brother in Chicago, Rieks (Richard) Huizinga, who agreed by letter to sponsor him. Huizenga was unmarried and living on the Old West Side around 14th Street and Ashland Avenue in the heart of the "Groninger hoek." On April 10, 1930 Tuitman, along with several dozen other young Dutchmen, took passage in steerage on the S.S. Statendam, the flagship of the Holland-America Line, arriving in New York on the 19th. He boarded the train that same evening for Chicago, changing trains in Buffalo, and reaching the city just after breakfast on the 21st. Since Paul knew no English, he had trouble ordering food. When he first went to a cafe, he overheard a man at the next table order pie and coffee, so Paul repeated the order, and for several days he survived on this limited menu. Soon he learned to order bacon and eggs and other foods.

Huizinga met Tuitman at the rail station and arranged for him to board with a Folgers family in the 1300 block of 59th Avenue in Cicero. After four weeks of searching for work, Huizenga placed Paul with Piet Van Dyke, a truck farmer, who needed a laborer and was also from Kantens. Indeed, Van Dyke knew Paul's father and attended school with his brother. Prevailing wages were $25 per month plus room and board, but Van Dyke gave Paul $50 per month because he was experienced. This was 20 percent more than Paul's wage in Groningen. Van Dyke's small farm was on River Road north of Des Plaines across from Dam No. 2 on the Des Plaines River. After three years Paul hired on with Keimpe Miedema and his wife Alice Swierenga, who farmed ninety acres in Des Plaines and needed reliable help. The Miedemas also hoped Paul would take an interest in one of their two marriageable daughters. But Paul took a liking to Alice's niece Henrietta Swierenga, the twenty year-old daughter of Robert and Grace Swierenga, whose family regularly drove out from Cicero to visit Alice and Keimpe.

In 1934 Paul left farming forever (although he continued to be a serious gardener) and moved to Chicago to peddle ice for Piet Tillema, who owned a truck and route in the city. Paul also transferred his church membership from the Des Plaines Christian Reformed Church to the Second Cicero CRC, where Henrietta's family worshiped. After two years, in 1935, Paul left Tillema when the German owner of the West Side Ice Company offered him the job of route foreman at $45 per week. This was a substantial raise, but Paul paid for it with his health. He had recurring sinus infections from going in and out of the refrigerated rooms in the summer. Twice the doctor had to relieve blocked sinuses by the painful procedure of inserting a long needle up his nose. In 1940 he was spared further agony when the owner fired him after he refused to work one Sunday when the regular driver reported drunk. Paul offered to deliver ice until midnight Saturday and again after midnight Sunday, but the bull-headed German would not agree.

Just at this time Paul's brother-in-law John R. Swierenga, who operated a local cartage company, Excel Motor Service, experienced growth and needed another driver besides himself. He hired Paul in December of 1940 for $20 a week, and for the next thirty years, until his retirement at age 62 in 1970, Tuitman drove a truck for Excel Motor. His wages rose steadily, surpassing $100 per week in 1959 and $150 in 1968. In 1953 Paul joined the International Brotherhood of Teamster, Chicago Local 705, and benefited from its medical and pension programs. As the senior employee, Paul also acted as assistant manager when John was on vacation. For this he received a substantial annual bonus. Etta is the oldest daughter of Robert and Grace Swierenga. She was born in Chicago on March 8, 1913 in the upstairs flat at 1346 South Pulaski Road and baptized at the Douglas Park CRC by the Rev. Jacob Manni. At one year of age her parents moved into their first home at 1404 Kedvale Avenue, and here she spent her entire childhood. As a 6 year-old early in 1919, she remembers fondly the big family celebration when her Uncle Peter Dykhuis, a doughboy, returned from service in the First World War in France. She graduated from Timothy Christian School on Tripp Avenue in 1927 and attended Chicago Christian High School in Englewood for a year, until the mandatory age of 16. She helped her mother with housekeeping after that. As a young adult she made profession of faith in the Douglas Park church and remained a member with Paul of its successor bodies, Second Cicero CRC and Faith CRC of Elmhurst. In 1934 when Etta was 21 the family moved to Cicero.

She then took a job at a factory, the Victor Gasket Company of Chicago, located nearby at 5700 West Roosevelt Road. But the standing and bending on the assembly line caused backaches, so she quit and took up house cleaning. Etta worked as a domestic for much of her life, decreasing her schedule to one or two days per week when her children were young and after her health declined in the 1970s. She is the epitome of the proverbial Dutch housewife, who considered cleanliness a virtue next to Godliness. For many years from 1935 to 1950 she also was the primary baby sitter for the children of John and Marie, and she and Paul took care of the oldest ones, Bob and Ray twice, when the rest of the family went to California to visit Marie's folks. Paul and Etta began to date seriously in early 1938 and were married at the Cicero church on November 10, 1939, by the pastor Rev P. A. Hoekstra, sister-in-law Marie's father. The couple took up residence in a newly-constructed apartment in the basement of her parent's home at 1534 South 59th Court. Rev. Hoekstra lent money for the construction. The Tuitmans lived here for over thirteen years, until 1953 when they purchased their only home at 1434 South 61st Avenue for the price of $16,500. Brother-in-law John Swierenga, held the first mortgage for $12,500. They outgrew the basemant flat because in 1947 and 1951 they adopted infants from a Kansas City agency; Bernard, named after Paul's father, born Jan. 1, 1947, and Dorothy, born Aug. 24, 1951. Both children were baptized at the Cicero II CRC and attended Timothy Christian elementary and high schools in Cicero. Etta was a strict disciplinarian and ruled her household. Bernard married Mary Ann Reilly, an Irish Catholic from the Bridgeport neighborhood, on Aug. 1, 1970, and the couple had two children, Michael and Lynn before divorcing. Dorothy completed nurses training at the West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park and married David A. Nilles on Oct. 21, 1972. The couple has two children. As adults both Bernard and Dorothy became estranged from their parents and caused considerable heartaches and difficulties for the family, but Paul and Etta's love never wavered.

The Tuitmans established a Christian home in the Dutch conservative way. Paul began each meal with a prayer of thanks, spoken in a thick accent, and closed with Scripture reading and prayer, As a sign of their belonging to the covenant community, the children were baptized and participated in the life of the church in worship, Sunday school, catechism class, youth clubs, and young people's societies. The parents willingly scrimped to pay Christian school tuition for fourteen years; because they understood the importance of a Christ-centered education. Paul served several terms in the office of elder and staunchly defended traditional policies and practices.

They lived a frugal lifestyle. Paul gardened extensively and Etta preserved vegetables and fruits by canning, and sewed many of the children's clothes. The family vacationed close to home, usually with relatives. They also regularly visited Paul's sister and her large family in Dunnville, Ontario. They settled there in 1954 after Paul and Etta sponsored them as immigrants from Groningen, and brother-in-law John Swierenga bought a farm for them to work as mortgagees. Earlier in the late 40s, the Tuitmans had sponsored Paul's brother and wife and children, but after a few months in Cicero, the sister-in-law found the American ways too foreign, and at her insistance the family returned to Holland. This was despite the great hardships in postwar Holland and the difficulties in obtaining American immigrant visas. In 1947 the Dutch government rationed people to one egg per week and meat was even scarcer. Paul's family had suffered much in the War, but thankfully, food was more plentiful in rural Groningen than in the big cities.

Five times, beginning shortly after the Second World War in 1947, Paul and Etta traveled by ship and later by air to the Netherlands for family celebrations. Coincidentally, in 1947 they saw the burned out hull of the S.S. Statendam in Rotterdam harbor, a victim of the notorious German bombing raid of May 10, 1940. John and Marie Swierenga accompanied Paul and Etta to Europe on two later visits. Once John and Marie also took them by car to Hanford, California to visit the Hoekstra families, and see the national parks enroute.

Like all males, Paul remembers his first car, a four-cylinder 1928 Chevrolet, bought in 1932 for $25. In 1934 he upgraded to a newer car (the make is no longer recalled), and in 1941 he and Etta bought a 1939 Plymouth sedan, aided by a short term loan from brother-in -law John.

Paul was an avid fisherman and passed his love for it to his nephews, especially Donald Swierenga. Several times a year he and John would take their sons fishing on a Saturday at one of the Fox Lake Chain-O'lakes northwest of Chicago, usually Pistakee Bay. The adventure began with a 4:45 wake up call, a quick breakfast, and then a ninety minute drive to the lake, stopping first at the bait shop, before renting a boat and getting the poles in the water, just as the mist lifted after dawn. Whether few or many fish were caught was not important. The fun was in the doing. What fond memories those days gave!

In his work at Excel Motor Service, Paul for two decades had primary responsibility for the Fruit Growers Express account. The company, located at 59 East Van Buren Street and headed by Bennie Mestrovsky and his assistant Eddie Flavin, provided charcoal and kerosene heaters for insulated railroad cars carrying produce in winter. Paul collected the heaters after they were removed from incoming cars at the freight yards off 16th Street, behind the South Water Street market. He brought them to House No. 2 of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB & Q) railroad on Roosevelt Road. Over time he worked all of the various rail yards, the Chicago & Eastern Illinois (C & EI) south of Roosevelt Road at Wells Street, the Blue Island Yards at 122nd and Western Avenue, etc. As the rail hub of the nation, Chicago yards were always busy.

In the winter season, three and four days a week Paul hauled heaters and 20 lb bags of charcoal to fuel them. The work was cold, dirty, and very tiring. The heaters were cylindrical and made of heavy-gauge steel, weighing from 75 to 125 pounds. They had to be loaded by hand and stacked two high, plus a third row laid on their side on top. For dock work the heaters were moved by two-wheeled carts and four-wheeled wagons, called "trucks," pulled or pushed by hand. Paul's two-ton truck, for years a red 1947 International with a 16-foot bed, had a carrying capacity of 100+ heaters.

Paul was required to keep a record of each heater, according to the serial number and company name imprinted on an attached metal label tag. The tags read "WFE 1090," FGE 4605," CBQ 3062," etc; meaning Western Fruit Express, Fruit Growers Express, and Chicago Burlington & Quincy. Paul carried a clipboard with printed inventory forms and he recorded in duplicate (with carbon paper) every heater number. This was done along the windswept tracks and on open loading docks when the wind chill plunged below zero degrees. It required several layers of heavy clothing and socks, but the cold still penetrated. When his nephew Bob rode with him on school vacation days over the Christmas holidays, both came home reeking of cigar smoke. Paul smoked a cigar in the truck cab at mid morning and again at mid afternoon. He always wore a cap, carried a thermos of hot coffee, and a lunch bucket that Etta had packed.

A major responsibility when handling heaters was to avoid fires by ensuring that all coals were dead and alcohol drained on the ground. One time an empty charcoal heater that Paul delivered to an outgoing rail car came back to life under the train's motion. The metal was cold to the touch but a buried ember in the chamber was live and Paul did not notice it. The charcoal fell to the floor of the car and burned a hole through it, forcing the train to make an emergency stop enroute to Minneapolis. Another time, in 1952, Paul loaded his truck full of heaters and as he was driving on 38th Street a passersby warned that his truck was on fire. Some alcohol had been left inadvertently in one of the heaters and it began burning by spontaneous combustion. Paul stopped, yelled for someone to call the fire department, and began frantically pulling the heaters off the truck to get at the "hot" ones. The canvas tarpaulin was destroyed and the truck body badly burned, but fortunately the firemen saved the tires, which during the War were especially valuable. When in the late 1950s Fruit Growers bought their own truck and hired a company driver, Paul was not sorry to leave heaters behind for general freight hauling.

In 1970 after "retiring" from Excel Motor Service at age 62, Paul supplemented his Social Security and Teamsters union pensions by working for another brother-in-law, Ralph Swierenga, who operated Monroe Cartage Company. For nearly 20 years, until 1989, Paul helped maintain their dock facility in Addison, Illinois, by repairing overhead doors, washing trucks, and doing other small jobs. He finally retired for good after a mild stroke debilitated him. He was hospitalized for four weeks at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park and then spent six weeks in rehabilitation at the Marion Joy Hospital in Wheaton. Now he and Etta reside at the Saratoga Grove Retirement Home in Downers Grove, Illinois. They are able to travel some to visit relatives in Canada and Michigan and are thankful that they are can attend church regularly.


Source: Interviews with Paul and Etta Tuitman, May 22, 1993 and July 26, 1994. The July 26 interview took place on Paul's 86th birthday.

Written by Robert Swierenga, November, 1994