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What Made Holland, Holland: An Historical Overview

Robert P. Swierenga, lecture for Holland Historical Society, Holland, MI, January 8, 2013

“It was the untiring energy of a man inspired by a great vision that made the Dutch colonization of Michigan a reality” (quote in Hope Milestone, 1930).

“Some men are dead before they die; others live on long after they are gone.”

Egbert Winters, dedication speech for the opening of Van Raalte Memorial Hall on the Hope College campus (Anchor, Oct. 1903).

Every city is unique. Its character is shaped by its history and the culture of its people. Origins, institutions, economic life, social capital, demographics, and a host of other factors determine its development.

Holland’s founding as a haven for religious dissidents fleeing poverty, religious discrimination, and social opprobrium in the Netherlands, shaped its character.

The original colonists were all Seceders from the state church, which made them a minority of one percent in the homeland. Yet this one percent put its mark on Holland for a century or more. The pioneers were religious and social conservatives of the strictest sort, and their leader, Rev. Albertus Van Raalte, gave voice and direction to this mentality. His vision made Holland the city that it is. Van Raalte lived on, so to speak, long after he was gone.

That’s why I titled my book Van Raalte’s Vision, because his ideals, goals, and purposes shaped Holland until at least the 1960s. What he would say about the city that Holland has become since then is pure speculation. He would undoubtedly be proud of Hope College and applaud the renewal of Pillar Church in 2012 as a joint CRC-RCA. He must have turned over in his grave at the division in 1882.

The city that Van Raalte had in mind in 1847, I think, was a place like Ommen in the province of Overijssel where he had served a small Seceder church for eight years. When I was in Ommen a little over a year ago for the Van Raalte Bicentennial Conference, I was struck by the similarity of the area to West Michigan. Ommen is a traditional Dutch village, with several churches and schools and a few small manufacturing plants, one of which he co-owned with his brother-in-law. Ommen lay along the Vecht River, which drained a watershed of woodlands and meadows and emptied into the Zuijder Zee and then into the North Sea. Today the city is hardly the size of Zeeland. It is connected to larger markets by good roads, notably the provincial capital of Zwolle about fifteen miles distant.

1. Religion

Everything centered around the church. The Seceders emigrated for freedom of worship and the entire enterprise was religiously directed. Van Raalte and his brother-in-law Anthony Brummelkamp saw emigration as a remedy for his hurting followers. They formed at Arnhem the “Society of Christians for Dutch Emigration to the United States of North America” to oversee the colonization. Their colony was clearly to be a place for Christians.

Holland has always been known as a city of churches. Every neighborhood had one within walking distance, actually two, since Reformed and Christian Reformed churches often stood within shouting distance from one another. The rhythms of life revolved around worship services, catechetical instruction, and church societies.

For this reason, Van Raalte could affirm in the darkest days of 1847 when some thought the entire enterprise might fail: “My work cannot be in vain, because I have built in faith.”[1]

2. Schools

Seceders wanted Christian schools and Van Raalte especially had a heart for them. Educational freedom was the second most important reason for emigrating. Only four years after coming to the Black River frontier, in 1851, Van Raalte founded the Pioneer School. It evolved in 1857 into the Holland Academy and in 1866 into Hope College and in 1884 Western Theological Seminary. These institutions provided secondary and professional education in the classical tradition for preachers and teachers, but they did not serve elementary-age children.

Van Raalte also chaired the district school board for ten years and his followers supported public education from the start. But Van Raalte also saw a place for Christian schools.

In 1854 he had the Classis of Holland adopt his resolution calling for parochial schools. “It is the judgment of the assembly that the churches ought to take care that their children are taught in schools where they are brought under definitely Christian influence, and that consequently, wherever there is overwhelming (italics added) influence of unbelief and superstition, it is emphatically a duty to establish congregational schools.”[2]

In Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Grand Haven, all cities with a diverse religious and cultural milieu, public schools were already overwhelmingly secular. Reformed congregation in those cities founded parochial schools, aided by denominational funding. But in the Holland colony, the early public schools were essentially Christian schools, and parents did not feel as threatened.

In Holland the public school and Pioneer School shared the same teachers and building until 1856, and Van Raalte served as president of both boards. But that year the two schools were separated, and Van Raalte urged his consistory to establish a parochial school, with instruction in the Dutch language, the Bible, and the Heidelberg Catechism. The study of the Dutch language was necessary because the Reformed faith was wrapped in that language. Otherwise the youth might be drawn to Methodism, the predominant American religion of the day.[3]

Van Raalte’s parochial school began in 1857, housed in a small building built on Tenth Street in back of the church. To the dominie’s great disappointment, the school never enjoyed the congregation's full commitment. Members rather built bigger barns and frame houses to replace their drafty log cabins. Van Raalte was chagrined at the “blameworthy lukewarm attitude” of his parishioners for a “godly education.”[4] The school limped along until 1862, when the consistory voted to close it.

On the issue of Christian day schools, Van Raalte stood alone. His congregation, like the Reformed denomination generally, was satisfied with public education. The minority who seceded in 1857 to form the True (later Christian Reformed) Church backed Christian schools. This fledgling denomination was Van Raalte’s natural ally on Christian schools, but the secession so stuck in his craw that he held it in total disdain.[5]

Forty years passed before the Central Avenue and Ninth Street Christian Reformed congregations, imbued with Abraham Kuyper’s ideal of Christian education, founded Holland Christian Schools in 1901. Hope College continues to offer Christian higher education and make its mark on the city. At its 50th anniversary, 81 of its 600 alumni lived in Holland. In 2011 6,000 of its more than 30,000 alumni, one in five, were Holland-area residents.[6]

3. Harbor 

Van Raalte was always "harbor-minded." He thought Lake Macatawa offered the best harbor on the entire west coast of Lake Michigan. It would open the Colony to the booming markets of Chicago and even to New York City via the Great Lakes and Erie Canal.

“In my minds eye, I saw here not only a locality well adapted to the condition of streams of laborers, but I saw also flourishing fisheries, a beautiful harbor with its inevitable advantages, filled with our own ships, together with a soil well adapted for raising fruit, and a rich rural community, for all of which I already thanked God.”[7]

Little did Van Raalte know how difficult it would be to develop the harbor, yet he lived to see the day in 1866 when the Army Corp of Engineers took over management and successfully dredged a channel and built breakwaters lined with rock and brush 300 feet into the lake.

At first the mouth of Black Lake was barely two feet deep. The settlers dug the opening deeper with shovels, but every storm washed the sand back. The Dutch then built a pier into the lake, to which schooners could dock and unload cargo to scows and rafts that were poled through Black Lake to Holland and beyond. When the pier was destroyed in the first major storm, the schooners had to anchor off shore and unload to scows. The Black River was navigable to the fork at the former Country Club, where scows going toward Zeeland, Friesland, and Drenthe continued east on Frenchman’s Creek (today Noordeloos Creek) to what is now Paw Paw Drive. The South Branch Black River was navigable by canoe to the Old Wing Mission at 40th Street, which the Indians reached by canoe.

In 1855 the colonists bought a dredge with funds from a federal swampland grant and dug a new opening where the present channel runs. November gales again destroyed their work. They tried again and again. Sometimes in periods of high rainfall ships could clear the bar. Despite its shortcomings, the harbor was always an economic driver of Holland’s economy.

Forest products provided the outbound cargos in the first years. Van Raalte considered the woods around Holland as money in the bank, to be exploited by the penniless settlers to raise cash. In the decade of the 1850s, despite the repeated closing of the channel mouth, Holland harbor handled $1.2 million in wood products outbound to Chicago, Milwaukee, and other lake ports, and manufactured goods of all kind inbound. ($1.2 million in today’s dollars, taking into account inflation 30 times, is $36 million). Van Raalte's faith in the harbor was more than justified.

In the 1870s and 1880s fruit shipments to Chicago were big, and on the return trip came resorters flocking to Macatawa’s hotels. In the 20th century cruise ships plied the harbor and freighters carried bulk products (coal, stone and slag, and recycled metals) in the millions of tons annually. (Parenthetically, the harbor is now is the greatest jeopardy since Van Raalte’s day, because of the decision to close the DeYoung Power plant. Without coal shipments the harbor may not have enough tonnage to warrant federal funds for dredging.)    

4. Americans

Van Raalte's goal was to build an ethnic island, a "little Holland" in the American Midwest. For the colony to succeed, however, he realized that his followers, mostly farm laborers and simple workmen, needed the expertise and savvy of American businessmen, professionals, and educators, who could bring in much-needed capital and teach the laws, customs, language, and business practices of the new land.

But these "Americans" or "Yankees," as the Hollanders called all native-born citizens of whatever ancestry, had to be of the Protestant faith, willing to adapt to Dutch folkways, and learn enough of the language to get by on the street, in the shops, and in church. Even then, Van Raalte and his followers viewed their American neighbors with suspicion and barely tolerated them.

Three Americans who met these conditions were the Isaac Fairbanks, George Harrington, and Henry Post families. Harrington drove the ox cart from Allegan that carried Van Raalte and the vanguard to Holland in Feb. 1847 and their families in April. Fairbanks was the former agricultural agent at Old Wing Mission and went into farming there after the Indian mission relocated to Northport in 1849. Fairbanks said it was harder to learn Dutch than the Algonquin Indian language he had picked up. He started the Methodist Church in 1861. Post and Van Raalte went into the milling business together. Post and his wife Anna gladly joined the new English-language, college church, Hope Church, in 1862. This was for the professors at the Holland Academy who all came from the RCA in the East. Over time, a cultural mixing occurred, and the outsiders became the yeast that leavens the loaf. They brought progressive ideas, introduced the arts and sciences, and built up Hope College. Some Americans intermarried with the Dutch, which was the ultimate assimilation.

The main influx of Americans came after the Civil War and especially after the great fire of 1871, to take advantage of business opportunities in the thriving Dutch enclave. Non-Dutch households (based on the household head) made up 14 percent in 1860, 19 percent in 1870, and 35 percent in 1880. The number of non-Dutch almost doubled between 1870 and 1880. There were other immigrant groups too—Germans, Norwegians, English, and Irish. It is quite remarkable that after thirty years, more than one-third of Holland's population was non-Dutch. Van Raalte died in 1876, so he witnessed this change in his beloved city. But he did not comment on it publicly or in any private letter, as far as I know.

That Americans helped lay the foundations of Holland is an inescapable fact. They did as much to improve this Dutch city as any Dutchman. Indeed, Americans provided professionals services and founded many of the major manufacturing industries. Over time, the two groups were being fused into one, in purposes, values, ideals, and through intermarriage.

5. Entrepreneurship

“I am full of hope that at an early date our people shall own and operate mills and factories,” Rev. Van Raalte declared early on. The leader set the pattern. If he had not followed his father into the Dutch Reformed Church pastorate, he surely would have been a businessman. He had the instincts of an entrepreneur and was a risk taker. Already in Ommen he had invested in a pottery works and tile factory. He had a dynamic view of money and always tried to put ready cash to work, expecting to earn market rates of interest on his investments. He boasted in 1851 that his profits were 30 to 40 percent.

The secret to Holland's industrial success was the work ethic of the employees and the entrepreneurial talents of the many family-owned businesses who often passed their genes to succeeding generations in multigenerational companies.

There are two five-generation businesses: Marsilje Insurance and Fris Stationery (now Outfitters). Isaac Marsilje began in 1875 and the firm continues in the same family today—138 years and counting! It holds the record. Lambertus Fris launched his stationery, books & Bibles, newspapers & notions, and confectionary store in 1900.

Four-generation businesses are (or were) Keppel Hardware, Wolbrink Agency, Fabianos, Kleis’ Holland Rendering Works, Sligh Furniture, Buis Mattress, and Geerlings Townline Hatchery in Zeeland. Lokker-Rutgers had a 116-year run on Eighth Street under several owners. Other notable Eighth Street stores are (or were) Vogelzang Hardware (John’s store first anchored Washington Square), Du Mez department store, Teermans, Borr’s Bootery, and Meyer Music. Dykstra Funeral Home on Ninth Street dates from 1902 when John Dykstra bought it from John Alberti, Holland’s first undertaker. The Julius Kleinheksel family has owned and operated it since the 1930s.

E. J. Harrington, son Austin, and grandson Harry operated a variety of businesses for more than 100 years, beginning with a store on Eighth Street in 1852 and the Harrington Dock at the foot of Eighth Street in 1862. Under son Austin, a ship captain who owned steamboats, the dock transitioned from lumber products to coal and feed.  Harry Harrington, mayor in the 1950s, operated the dock and a fuel oil station on North River Avenue.

I don’t have time to mention the 20th century family-owned factories.

6. BPW

Despite a belief in private enterprise, Hollanders were willing to make exceptions for public utilities, believing that the rates would be cheaper. Few cities in the 1890s had publicly-owned electric works. Private utility companies were the American way, but regulated by government since the Progressive era. The locally owned Wolverine Light & Power was ready to give Holland a full-fledged electric system. But the common council put the issue to a public vote and the citizens agreed by an overwhelming 71 percent to bond themselves for a power plant. In the campaign, citizens debated the question: “Is it as a rule good, public policy, for a municipal government to embark, in business, in competition with that of its own citizens?” A yes vote clearly would destroy the infant Wolverine company, in which energetic local businessmen had invested $18,000 at the urging of downtown merchants to provide street lighting and electricity for stores and offices. Was the city playing fair with its most entrepreneurs?[8]

After the vote, Wolverine’s major investors filed an injunction to restrain the city from issuing bonds for the electric plant. The petition, written by attorney John C. Post, charged that the city lacked the authority under its charter to sell power for commercial purposes; it could only generate power for public uses such as streetlights. Ottawa County judge Hannibal Hart granted the injunction, which stopped the city cold for nearly a year. While waiting for the court to hear the case, Mayor Edward Harrington and the common council set about broadening the city charter to allow for selling commercial power. The council then rescheduled the bond proposal and voters again approved a city-run power plant—this time by 77 percent.[9] Instead of a regulated private utility, Holland would own the electric utility. Of course, BPW also runs the water works, sewage plant, and most recently, an area-wide fiber optic network. Natural gas remained in private hands in the 1890s only because the city could not afford to buy the miles of pipelines already laid by a private firm out of Niles.

BPW has delivered reliable electricity at reasonable rates and has been a cash cow for the public treasury. BPW “profits” funded three-quarters of the cost of Holland Hospital in 1928 ($250,000) and helped balance the city budget during the Great Depression. From 1923 to 1945, BPW gave the city nearly $3 million dollars (90 percent came from the power plant; 10 percent from the water department).

In the 1950s the City Council made the "voluntary" contributions mandatory and even set the amount, initially 50 percent of net earnings. In 1966, the BPW "contribution" to city coffers equaled 40 percent of local property taxes. Without this "free" revenue, Mayor Nelson Bosman declared, residents would face sharply increased taxes "to provide the same service Holland residents now receive." In 2010, the income transfer of $4 million from BPW covered one-fifth of the entire city general fund budget. Recent BPW "payments," actually a tax on ratepayers, caused a deficit in the BPW budget, and the board asked the Council to approve rate increases for electricity, water, and wastewater. One way or another, the residents have to ante up for city services.

7. Politics

Holland has been a Republican bastion and we Van Raalte to thank—or not. He  displayed sharp political instincts from the beginning. He walked the halls of the statehouse and rubbed shoulders with lawmakers within days of arriving in Detroit in December 1846. These contacts led to the decision to plant his colony in West Michigan rather than eastern Wisconsin, his intended destination. In the next years, Van Raalte met with state officials several times to lobby for funding for Holland harbor.

Politics was the penultimate vehicle of Americanization. Van Raalte pushed the colonists to become naturalized citizens and to participate in local, state, and national government as voters and later as candidates. The Dutch were permitted to vote in township elections in April 1851, 2½ years after filing first papers. They had to wait five years until full citizenship to vote in presidential elections. Van Raalte and the Dutch voted Democratic, in line with their American friends Post, Harrington, Fairbanks, Judge Kellogg, etc. The dominie switched to the Republicans in 1859 and supported Lincoln, but the colonists voted Democratic until the first election after the war, in 1868. Thereafter, Holland went Republican in every presidential election until 2008, when President Obama carried the city by a slim margin. Last November Romney won the city vote by an equally slim margin. The city is now in play, politically speaking, thanks to Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans, who total half the population.

Dutch Americans have held elective office at the state and national levels since Gerrit Diekema became a Congressman in 1907. Pete Hoekstra followed in his steps, after defeating fellow Hope College alumnus, Guy Vander of Cadillac.

In the mayor’s office “Ernie” Brooks, a Democrat, broke the Republican string in 1928 and again in 1930. A minister’s son from Chicago who vacationed with his parents at Macatawa Park, Brooks spent two years at Hope College (1908-10) and graduated from the University of Chicago. After completing military service in World War I, he returned to Holland and went into the insurance business with Arthur Visscher and joined his brother Phillip in the new 7Up Bottling Company. Ernie believed in an activist government. FDR’s New Deal suited him just fine and he “joined the team,” becoming chair of the State Welfare Commission (1930-34), secretary of the State Emergency Relief Administration (1933-35), and director of the Federal Surplus Foods Corporation (1933-35) in Michigan. Under the federal relief programs, Brooks started the school lunch program for needy pupils in the state. Later, he served two terms as state senator (1937-41) and ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1944. Randy Vande Water aptly called Brooks “Holland’s best known Democrat” from the 1920s to the end of Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams’ tenure.


The principle of mutuality or cooperation was imbedded in the very process of migration. I already mentioned the “Society of Christians for Dutch Emigration to the United States of North America.” The Classis of Holland had a similar idea when in 1853 they decided that it was a “permanent duty” of the churches to loan ticket money to “many dear children of God” who were poor and needy in the Netherlands. Classis established a Commission that drew up regulations to run the revolving fund, with recipients repaying loans as they were able. Van Raalte and elder Aldert Plugger represented the Holland congregation. The collections continued for five years, until 1858, when the national financial crisis of 1857 took its toll. During those years, the churches raised $2,500, which benefited fourteen families chosen by lot, but only three families repaid even a part of the loans. At best, the congregations experienced the “grace of sharing.” Raising this sum of money in the 1850s is astounding, considering that Holland still had a barter economy and every penny was precious.[10]

The dominie saw Holland as the market center for the colony and he instigated an annual Market Day on Eighth Street. The livestock auction was a calling card for farmers, while their wives came to shop. Merchants called an end to Market Days in the 1880s after the event got out of hand. A little liquor and the dreaded Drenthe boys would get into fights and tear up the place. The annual Holland fair took the place of Market Days. The fairs were a combination of education and entertainment; education was the purpose and entertainment the lure. The fairs promoted innovation in animal husbandry, agricultural machinery, and best farming practices, as shown by gentlemen farmers who were able to take risks in trying new crops and machines

In the 1890s several hundred progressive farmers organized the Holland Farmers Association to discuss common concerns. The association helped farmers negotiate better contracts with the Holland sugar beet processing company, when the company tried to low-ball them. Later the farmers organized cooperatives and exchanges to give them enough clout to deal with chambers of commerce dominated by local merchants and agribusiness interests.

Industrial bonus fund

In the 1890s, when Holland suffered a severe economic slump along with the rest of the nation, a number of public-spirited citizens conceived of a unique bonus plan, under which new industrial firms, particularly in the higher-paying metals industry, would be offered financial inducements to locate here. The goal was to add good paying jobs for both skilled and unskilled workers. The prime movers—all close friends—were Arend Visscher, William Beach, George P. Hummer, Gerrit Diekema, Henry Kremers, Isaac Cappon, John C. Post, and Patrick McBride. In 1895, in the midst of the worst depression in the nineteenth century and second only to the Great Depression, these men formed the Holland Improvement Co., a trust, to provide land for industrial development. The partners bought several tracts on the city’s southeast fringe north of Twenty-Fourth Street in what is now Prospect Park. They apportioned the land into three categories. The portion between Twenty-Second and Twenty-Fourth Streets along the railroad tracks was set aside for industrial development; seven wooded acres to the west—the last virgin forest in the city—was donated to the city for a public park; and the cedar swamp north of Twenty-Second Street was drained and platted for home sites.[11]

The partners’ proactive plan to recruit new industries was so successful that the city fathers got behind the program. In 1901 the city placed a ten-year, $50,000 bond issue on the ballot that the voters approved by a two-to-one majority. The common council then named a bonus committee to evaluate applicants and grant the tax monies to prospective businesses and create jobs. The private-public partnership gained its first triumph in 1905, when the Bush and Lane Piano Co. of Chicago decided to relocate to Holland (chapter 14). The tough negotiations set the pattern for future firms. Bush and Lane demanded land and a new building, but the bonus committee and Holland Improvement Co. wisely decided not to give outright cash grants or titles to property. Rather, they offered free leases on lands and buildings, with a proviso that companies could earn cash bonuses over five years at the annual rate of four percent of their payroll. The Bush and Lane Co. bit on this carrot. To raise cash for operations, Visscher hit on the idea of selling the 214 home lots in Prospect Park through a subscription lottery, which gave the Improvement Co. $60,000 in working capital. Mayor Henry Geerlings in his farewell address in 1906 singled out the Improvement Co. partners for high praise. Within a decade, they and the city bonus committee had lured three more companies with a total of seven hundred employees—Superior Foundry, Holland Furnace, and Hart & Cooley.[12]

So successful was the first bonus fund that in 1910 the citizens overwhelmingly approved a second $50,000 bond referendum, the monies to be doled out by the Bonus Fund Trustees, comprised of fourteen men, including the mayor and William O. Van Eyck as secretary. The Holland Board of Trade, a business and industry group then led by Cornelius Ver Schure and Austin Harrington, set up a manufacturing committee to recruit new businesses, and the Holland Businessmen’s Association under John Vander Sluis followed suit by naming an industrial committee. It was a winning trifecta, although from time to time tensions arose between the impatient businessmen and the deliberative bonus fund committee, which had to work in secret much of the time. The solution was to put Vandersluis on the bonus committee, and thus give the businessmen’s association a seat at the table. One of the first new industries was Chicago’s Dearborn Engraving Co., which opened a $100,000 plant at Twenty-Fourth Street and Ottawa Avenue in 1913 to do commercial photography, engraving, and catalog work for the largest local firms.[13]

The bonus applications from new businesses were so numerous that the money was all dispersed by 1916. So the chamber of commerce approved a third bond issue, this time for $50,000, amid a mass meeting of two hundred boosters. The fame of the Holland Bonus Committee reached New York industrialists, who wanted to know the details of underwriting factories with low risk to city funds. By 1929 all but $13,000 of the $50,000 was disbursed, and more was badly needed. It was high time, said chamber president Dick Boter, for the city to step in, rather than to rely on a few Eighth Street merchants to dip into their own pockets time and again. City leaders agreed. In April 1929 the common council announced a new $50,000 bonus fund, the fourth. The alderman reconstituted the bonus committee with fresh blood, a new title of Industrial Commission of Holland, and Mayor Earnest Brooks as the new president. But the stock market crash in October delayed the project, and the chamber leaders urged the city fathers to speed up the bond issue, which recipients were required to repay at a rate of 4 percent of their payroll.[14]

The coordinated commitment to industrial growth placed Holland in the forefront in Ottawa County. The 1910 Michigan Bureau of Labor report listed fifty-two companies, with 2,477 employees, and apart from two companies in Grand Haven, “there is nothing in the county to compare with any of the industries here in number of men employed,” crowed the local newspaper.[15]  

Benteler Aluminum Systems (formerly Bohn Aluminum, Holland Precision Parts, Hydro Automotive)

A group of Detroit businessmen founded Holland Precision Parts in 1940 to manufacture ball bearings. The chamber of commerce under secretary-manager Abe Stephan recruited the company by granting $5,000 from the bonus fund to cover the cost of either running a rail spur or digging wells to provide an adequate water supply to the factory to be erected in the southwest part of the city.

Kolla moved his operations to Holland in large part because of the bonus committee (chapter 12), although the city’s location made it accessible by rail and water for raw materials and shipping. The Holland City News reported that the bonus committee gave the firm the inducement of a three-acre site along the Pere Marquette Railway line north of East Twenty-Second Street, and the rail company agreed to run a siding to the factory. Company board minutes state: “It was decided to ask for a deed of the Company’s grounds from the trustees of the bonus funds, giving in return a proper bond. That bond to be tendered to the Holland Improvement Company in exchange for the deed to the Furnace Company’s grounds.” In addition to the site, the members of the bonus committee and other boosters subscribed to $12,000 of the initial $50,000 in capital stock, and several prime investors became officer

Arend Visscher as president, William Beach as vice president, and Charles M. McLean as secretary. The board in 1907 gave Kolla $12,000 in shares, so that he had skin in the game, so to speak.[16]

Arthur Visscher, son of Arend and a budding entrepreneur, gave a rousing talk to the Century Club in 1917 that breathed with the “do-it-for-Holland” spirit. He praised the “high standard Holland businessmen set in regard to wages, sanitary and cheerful buildings, excellence of productions, and fairness of methods,” but the city had four unmet needs: a second railroad to compete with the Pere Marquette, more bonus fund money to attract industry, greater efficiency in manufacturing, and moderately priced housing.[17]

In 1909 J. Ogden Armour of the Armour & Co. meatpackers at the Chicago stockyards bought out the Holland firm, and John and Abraham Cappon continued as managers. Armour paid more attention to the North Side Tannery and erected several new buildings—one a three-story plant built in 1913 that used a million bricks. A three-story pigskin plant was added in 1915, after the Holland Common Council offered $5,000 from its industrial bonus fund (see below) to counter a Muskegon city offer of $20,000 and sixteen acres of land. Armour favored the north side because it had space to expand, a good water supply, and was near the main rail line. The decision to expand in Holland, rather than in Muskegon, could have been influenced by the more favorable labor climate. Holland was a staunch non-union city, unlike the Eagle-Ottawa Leather Co. of Grand Haven, where all forty workers went on strike in 1916 over wages and hours. The strike failed after experienced tanners from Holland came to replace the strikers. To keep labor peace at home, Cappon & Bertsch granted an unsolicited ten-cent-a-day bonus to its workers every three months.[18]

In 1920 Armour & Co. separated its $90 million tanning businesses from its meatpacking enterprises, and Cappon & Bertsch was incorporated into the new Armour Leather Co.

8. Downtown

The renewal of Eighth Street in the 1980s surprised everyone, except perhaps Gordon Van Wylen and Ed and Elsa Prince. But even they were amazed at the transformation they did so much to bring about. Saving Holland's downtown is a story that tells much about the character of the community and its leaders. In the Foreword to Mike Luzon's Vision on Main Street, Van Wylen identified the salient features--a comprehensive vision, a snowmelt system to preserve the street grid system, compact stores and shops facing the street with private residences above, restored historic turn-of-the-century buildings, quality retailers, free parking, benefactors such as Edgar and Elsa Prince, and the Riverview Development Limited Partnership to get everyone on the same page.

Throughout the 1970s, various outside interests announced plans for malls on the outskirts of town. If these plans succeeded, city leaders were convinced that the downtown would die. So in the early 1980s, they decided to build a large mall downtown, covering the entire area from River to Central, and from 6th Street to the alley behind 8th St. But Eighth Street merchants blocked this project, believing it would kill off many businesses, destroy historic buildings, snarl traffic, and give outside developers control of the city center. Then Westshore Mall opened in 1988, and the future of downtown looked even darker.

A prime mover to save downtown Holland was Ed Prince. He had a major role in the Main Street Committee (1984), Riverview Advisory Committee (1987), Riverview Development Limited Partnership (1988), Streetscape/Snowmelt (1988), and Lumir Corporation (1989). When Ed proposed the snowmelt system, the city fathers balked at the cost and novelty, but he donated $250,000 and they change their minds. Then Ed and Elsa formed Lumir Corp, and donated $1 million to fund the restoration of one building after another, starting with the Tower Clock Building. By September of this year, Lumir has restored 69 buildings, with the former Holland Bowling Alley perhaps No. 70. From 1990 to 2005, private sector investors had invested $230 million downtown.


Benevolence was central to Reformed religious practice since the Protestant Reformation and it was in so Holland from the start. This heritage of the Reformed diaconal ministry was evident already before the immigration, when wealthy people paid the fares for poor families. In America, deacons were tasked to care for the poor in the congregation. They scheduled regular offerings for charity, especially following the sacrament of Holy Communion, and the moneys would be distributed to the needy immediately following the worship service. During the “dying time” in the first fall and winter of 1847-48, when both parents sometimes succumbed, the colonists built an orphanage, but it was never needed, because families took the orphans into their log cabins. The colonists also set up a voluntary fund to collect monies for poor immigrants awaiting immigration who were chosen by lot to receive passage money. Out of this diaconal ministry came a plethora of social service agencies that make Holland unique.

Nellie Churchford started the Holland City Mission in 1907, which has continued to the present with separate facilities for men and women and children. Dutch Americans in 1907 founded the Hollandse Onderlinge Hulp Vereeniging (HOH), the Dutch Mutual Aid Society, to cover burial costs. In 1924 came the Sunnycrest School for Girls. In the 1940s the need for Christian senior housing drove the Reformed faithful to establish Resthaven Home for the Aged, which today includes a half dozen Christian residential and nursing facilities. The Holland Deacons Conference, a united effort of the diaconates of the Christian Reformed Classis of Holland congregations, since 1979 has opened a shelter for women and children in crisis, five homes for special needs adults, a day care program for migrants and three for working parents, and a health clinic.

Social agencies include Community Action House, Good Samaritan Ministries, Holland Rescue Mission, Jubilee Ministries, Hospice of Holland, Lakeshore Pregnancy Center, Center for Women in Transition, Kandu Industries (supported employment), Goodwill Industries, United Fund (Red Cross and Community Chest), Evergreen Commons senior citizens center, and the nascent Benjamin’s House. This list is far from complete. Almost all of the agencies receive supportfrom the United Fund and the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area, an umbrella organization to collect, manage, invest, and distribute charitable gifts. No wonder an official with the Greater Ottawa County United Way asserted in 2001: “Holland is very unique in its philanthropy.” Ottawa County itself is unique. A 2012 study ranked the county first in the state in charitable giving; while the typical American donates 4.5 percent of discretionary income to charity, people in Ottawa County give 9.1 percent, twice the national average. Volunteerism is valued as highly as charitable giving. Successful business people and everyday folks alike give back to their community. This is a major reason, along with the activities of churches and societies, for the city’s reputation as a warm and caring place.

Nellie Churchford started the Holland City Mission in 1907, which has continued to the present with separate facilities for men and women and children. The same year, 1907, Dutch Americans founded the Hollandse Onderlinge Hulp Vereeniging (HOH), the Dutch Mutual Aid Society, in order to cover burial costs. In 1924 came the Sunnycrest School for Girls. In the 1940s the need for Christian senior housing drove the Reformed faithful to establish Resthaven Home for the Aged, which today includes a half dozen Christian residential and nursing facilities. The Holland Deacons Conference, a united effort of the diaconates of the Christian Reformed Classis of Holland congregations, since 1979 has opened a shelter for women and children in crisis, five homes for special needs adults, a day care program for migrants and three for working parents, and a health clinic.

Social service agencies include Community Action House, Good Samaritan Ministries, Jubilee Ministries, Hospice of Holland, Lakeshore Pregnancy Center, Center for Women in Transition, Kandu Industries (supported employment), Goodwill Industries, United Fund (Red Cross and Community Chest), Evergreen Commons senior citizens center, and the nascent Benjamin’s House, to name the most prominent. Almost all of the agencies receive support from the United Fund and the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area. The latter is an umbrella organization to collect, manage, invest, and distribute charitable gifts. No wonder an official with the Greater Ottawa County United Way asserted in 2001: “Holland is very unique in its philanthropy.” Ottawa County itself is unique. A 2012 study ranked the county first in the state in charitable giving; while the typical American donates 4.5 percent of discretionary income to charity, people in Ottawa County give 9.1 percent, twice the national average. Volunteerism is valued as highly as charitable giving.

Van Raalte chose the Black Lake (or Macatawa) watershed for his colony for several reasons. He saw trees as money in the bank for poor settlers who could produce forest products for the Chicago market and earn ready cash to develop farms and businesses. Second, Americans had not yet opened farms in the area and so it was possible to control the land and form a homogenous Dutch colony. The goal, remember, was a colony of devout Dutch immigrants.

Van Raalte began the practice of giving back to the community. He donated city lots for most of the churches, the Holland Academy and Hope College, public squares such as Market Square (Centennial Park after 1876), and for professors to build their homes. He never took his full salary as pastor of First Reformed Church and he served on numerous boards and organizations, including the school board, harbor board, fair board, and as clerk of the Classis of Holland. Business people and everyday folks alike have followed the dominie’s example.

Twenty-five years ago Holland’s downtown shopping street, Eighth Street, was dying while the new Westshore Mall was thriving. Community leaders, led by industrialist Edgar Prince and retired Hope College president Gordon Van Wylen, among others, set plans in motion that literally saved downtown by initiating the streetscape program, including the famed snowmelt system, and restoring one building after another to its original beauty, and adorning the streets with bronze statues. Merchants taxed themselves to pay the operating cost of snowmelt, remove parking meters in favor of free parking lots, install decorative lighting and seasonal displays, and finance street theater. The city council added Window on the Waterfront, the Farmers Market, public restrooms, and other amenities. Michael Luzon’s book, Vision on Mainstreet, recounts the revival.

In recent years, Holland has received recognition from various national entities. The National Civic League named Holland as an All-American City in 1999. Money Magazine in 2006 named Holland one of the five best US cities in which to retire, which placed the city on par with Williamsburg, Virginia and Prescott, Arizona, among others. In 2009 the Gallup-Healthways national phone survey placed Holland number two on its top ten “Well-Being” list, and number two in the “Basic Access” ranking, the reason being that the Holland area led the nation in providing basic necessities to its residents. And in 2010, the “Happiness Survey” ranked Holland near the top of the national happiness index.

What is it about Holland that brought these well-deserved accolades? The energy and perseverance of the pioneers, nurtured by religious values and a strong sense of social responsibility has been transmitted in the genes to the fifth and sixth generations.

Is Holland unique?

Is Holland unique? In a sense, every community is unique, just as every person is unique. One way to look at this question is to compare Holland to its sister cities, Allegan and Grand Haven. Both were thriving county seat towns when the Dutch arrived. Yet, within a few decades Holland surpassed both in population, industry, wealth, and institutions—religious, educational, social, and cultural.

Not to put the other cities down, Holland has a thriving Eighth Street anchored by the Farmer’s Market; international corporations with annual sales in the billions—Donnelly, Herman Miller, Haworth, JCI, and Gentex, among others; a thriving college, seminary, and its facilities—Haworth Conference Center, De Vos Fieldhouse, Van Andel Soccer Stadium, Knickerbocker Theatre, and the new concert hall; fine music with the Holland Chorale, Holland Symphony Orchestra, and Evergreen Chorale; chater schools—Vanderbilt, Black River, and Eagle Crest; Holland Christian, Calvary, and St. Francis Christian schools; Evergreen Commons Senior Center; Holland Hospital and related medical facilities, Hospice House, a rich array of senior housing—Freedom Village Resthaven, Appledorn, Royal Park, and Oak Crest, to name the major ones; social service agencies—Holland Rescue Mission, Community Action House, Good Samaritan Ministries, Jubilee Ministries, Center for Women In Transition, Holland Deacons Conference group homes and preschool and migrant centers and a free health clinic; Holland Museum; Herrick Library; Holland Aquatic Center; Holland Civic Center; many high quality restaurants; a daily newspaper (Holland Sentinel) since 1896; and I could go on.

Culture is everything.

Van Raalte quoted during the dying time in the summer of 1847:

“If my head were laid low, the place would still go on. My work cannot be in vain, because I have built in faith.”

“Anna C. Post’s Reminiscences,” Lucas, Dutch Immigrant Memoirs, 1:403.

“… this people planted here by God’s hand. . .” Van Raalte letter to Brummelkamp, 11 Sept. 1852:

Holland son Albert Hyma (history professor at the Univ. of Michigan and Van Raalte biographer in 1950):

Van Raalte ranks as the foremost personality and leader among the Hollanders of Western Michigan and his memory is indelibly written in the hearts of posterity. “The flowering of the church is the fruit of his faith; his tribulations were the fountains of our material prosperity.” 

[1] Anna C. Post, “Reminscences,” typescript by Barbara Lampen, 1980, Van Schelven file, Van Raalte Institute.

[2] Classis Holland Minutes, 12 Apr. 1854, 157, italics mine.

[3] Ibid., 23 Dec. 1856; Van Brummelen, Telling the Next Generation, 49-50. Te Roller's home burned in the great fire of 1871 and he rebuilt on Tenth Street and College Avenue, on the present site of Hope College's admissions office.

[4] Consistory Minutes, First Reformed Church, 2, 20 Sept. 1859.

[5] Letter, A.C. Van Raalte to Giles Van de Wall (Bloemfontein, Zuid Afrika), 29 June 1862, JAH.

[6] “News from Hope College,” Dec. 2011, p. 12.

[7] Van Raalte’s 1872 address at the 25th anniversary celebration.

[8] Holland City News, 26 Mar. 1892.

[9] Ottawa County Times, 10 June 1892; Holland City News, 17 Dec. 1892, 27 Jan. 1893; 14 Apr. 1894; Post’s injunction petition on behalf of Wolverine Electric to Judge Hart, dated 7 June 1892, in Holland City Records, HMA; Board of Public Works, Annual Report, 1918, 6.

[10] De Classis en de Immigratie,” De Hope, 14 May 1907; Classis Holland Minutes, 143, 148-50, 165, 168-69, 177-78, 186, 217-18, 237, 255, 261; Van Schelven, “Historical Sketch of Holland City and Colony.”

[11] For this and the next paragraph, see Visscher, “Recollections,” section “Civil War,” 59, HMA; Donald L. van Reken and Randall P. Vande Water, Holland Furnace Company, 1906-1966 (Holland, MI, privately published, 1993), 4-5.

[12] Holland City News, 25 Jan. 1901.

[13] Ibid., 3, 31 Mar., 7 Apr. 1910, 21 Mar., 16 June 1912, 26 Feb., 19 Mar., 23 Apr. 1914.

[14] Ibid., 20 July, 10 Aug. 1916; Holland Sentinel, 10 Apr. 1929; Holland City News, 18 Apr. 1929; Holland Board of Trade, “The Park Bonus Proposition,” 31 Mar. 1931; Mayor Nicodemus Bosch, “To the Voters!” 13 Mar. 1916, both in Holland City Records, box 1, HMA.

[15] Holland City News, 26 May 1910.

[16] Ibid., 3-6. Other Holland investors included Hope College professors John H. Kleinheksel and John W. Beardslee, Jacob G. Van Putten, pharmacist Heber Walsh, attorney Philip H. McBride, physician Henry Kremers, realtor Isaac Marsilje and his son Thomas, Holland Foundry president Edward Muehlenbrock, Daniel G. Cook, Bastian Keppel, and merchant D. B. K. Van Raalte. Kleinheksel, Van Putten, and Keppel were all members of the Van Raalte family. Isaac Marsilje joined the board in 1910 and held the position of secretary until his death in 1922. Arend Visscher was president until his death in 1921.

[17] Holland City News, 8 Feb. 1917.

[18] Holland City News, 15 May 1913, 21 Jan., 4, 11 Feb., 27 May 1915, 10 Feb., 2 Mar., 25 May 1916.