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Robert P. Swierenga, "The Dutch Imprint in West Michigan"

Paper presented to the Century Club of Holland, Jan. 3, 2005

Published in The Dutch Imprint on West Michigan, The Historical Society of Michigan Chronicle and Newsletter, 27 (Winter 2005): 18-22.

There are more than a dozen towns and cities in the USA named Holland, Hollandale, and Hollandtown. But Holland, Michigan has the distinction of being the Dutch capitol of America. 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 Kalamazoo.

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.[1]

     The 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 capitol.[2]

The "icy 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 State. Theodore 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 state officials.

These men played the "religion 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.

Second, the 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.

Van Raalte's new friends directed him to investigate several open tracts of land in western Michigan. 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 the place."

This decision 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 in Michigan.[3]

Van Raalte's 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.

The "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.[4]

Dutch ethnic clustering

     Although 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.

Urban enclaves

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.[5] 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.[6]

In the village of Holland, immigrants from the Province of Overijssel 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.[7]

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.

Sociologists 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.

In closed 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 cardinals."

The "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.

One need 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."[8]


Sunday was 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.


In no 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.

The 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.

Among 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.[9] You can each add to the list many other examples.

The Dutch 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.[10] 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.


Philanthropy 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.[11]

"Giving 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 Rapids.

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.[12]

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.[13]

Non-Union Labor

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.

In 1997, 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."[14] 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. 

One reason 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.

Social Action

West 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 elderly; Wedgewood 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 sector.

Following the Vietnam War, the churches in the region sponsored so many thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia that Grand Rapids and Holland 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.

The 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 of Holland, 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.[15]

This heritage 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.


[1]. 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.

[2]. Robert P. Swierenga, "Decisions, Decisions: Turning Points in the Founding of Holland," Michigan Historical Review, 24 (Spring 1998): 48-72.

[3]. Swierenga, "Decisions, Decisions," 61, 63; Albert Hyma, Albertus C. Van Raalte and His Settlements in the United States (Grand Rapids, 1947), 75.

[4]. Fifteenth Census: 1930, Population, Vol. 1 (Washington, 1931), Tables 18, 19.

[5]. 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.

[6]. 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.

[7]. Christopher 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.

[8]. 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.

[9]. 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).

[10]. 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.

[11]. "Amway 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.

[12]. Gary 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 Raalte Institute).

[13]. Mike Luzon, "An exercise in futility," Holland Sentinel, 26 Feb. 2002.


[14]. 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).

[15]. Dale 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, L4.