Home  Publications

Robert P. Swierenga -- Publications

Holland, Michigan: A Storied Past

Robert P. Swierenga, Lecture for Dutch American Heritage Day November 15, 2013 at the Pinnacle, Hudsonville, MI

Peter Huizenga is the reason I came to the Van Raalte Institute seventeen years ago. He and the Betty Huizenga family made the Institute possible in the first place. So tonight I recognize Peter & Heidi, J. C., Jim & Ginger Jurries, and Herm & Sue Kanis for their vision in funding a research center with the goal of keeping alive our Dutch heritage.

I also thank the committee for inviting me to speak this evening and talk about the history of the Holland-Zeeland area. It’s impossible to summarize a 2,600 page book, so I’m going to tell some stories that highlight major themes in hopes of whetting your appetite.

Rev. Albertus Van Raalte planted his colony in the Black Lake watershed, a region that for a decade had been home to a Christian Indian colony led by Chief Wakazoo under the tutelage of a Congregational minister, Rev. George Smith. Smith taught the Indians to farm, the children to read, and the adults to worship as Protestants, rather than Catholics. Wakazoo’s band spent their summers up north in the Leelanau Peninsula and their winters on Lake Macatawa. Relations with the Indians were marred by cultural blunders and mutual mistrust, but there was never any overt violence. After three years, the 3,000 Dutch settlers were opening farm and running hogs and cattle through the woods. The Indians to preserve their hunting and fishing way of life decided to move their colony to the Grand Traverse Bay village of Northport.

Van Raalte once took considerable risk to save the life of an Indian baby, son of Shashagua, a medicine man. It so happened that Van Raalte was walking through the woods to bring corn bread to the widow Sterk, who was sick with malaria. He had quinine pills with him, a sure treatment for malaria. On the way, he ran into someone who told him that Shashagua’s infant son was very ill from malaria. Van Raalte went immediately to his log hut, although he was warned that the family might be unfriendly. “God will take care of me,” Van Raalte said. When he entered the hut, Shashagua was not home and his wife angrily tried to push the dominie out. “Papoose sick? Will try to make better,” insisted the good doctor. “White man love papoose.” The squaw relented and Van Raalte gave the baby some quinine. Shashagua came home soon after, and was about to throw the dominie out, when he saw that his baby was much improved. He grasped Van Raalte’s hand in gratitude, muttering, “He make papoose better. Dutchman stay, eat, Indian no hurt you now. Be medicine man’s best friend till die.”

Politics and Pew Rentals

The Dutch pioneers were political novices. Few had ever been eligible to vote in the Netherlands, and now that had to learn about the very different American system. Van Raalte was their political tutor, but he did not expect to have to deal with a near violent fracas among the settlers themselves. And the fight took place in a church, no less! It was a typical American-style caucus, where voters fought over the spoils of office and tax dollars for roads and bridges. Cash money was as scarce as hen’s teeth on the frontier and government offices paid salaries in real money.

The occasion was the Holland Township caucus of April 1851, held at the log church in Zeeland. The caucus pitted the city people against the country people, de stad (Holland) against het dorp (Zeeland). Locals remembered it as “perhaps the most boisterous and disorderly [caucus] ever held hereabout.” Zeelanders were frustrated from the outset that they were being shorted on funds to finish the Black River Bridge at Groningen and extend the road east to Vriesland and Grandville. Besides the historic rivalry between city and country, settlers in the outlying areas resented Van Raalte’s perceived autocracy and theocracy.

Engbertus Vander Veen, an eyewitness and close friend of Van Raalte, described the scene: Early in the morning of the day of the caucus, Dominie Van Raalte, accompanied by such as had the right to vote and also by some friends and boys, went to Zeeland, walking the entire distance, climbing over fallen trees, and wading through water. They arrived in time for the meeting. Dominie Vander Meulen was in the pulpit, acting as chairman. Soon there was great excitement, and Dominie Van Raalte stood on the pews appealing to the men, saying ‘Brothers! Brothers!’ The Zeelanders, supported by their friends from Statesland [Drenthe], wanted all the offices to the exclusion of the men from Holland. The dominie’s exhortations calmed the spirits just in time to prevent hard blows.”

Within three months the Zeeland men petitioned the state legislature to set off Zeeland Township from Holland Township. The animosity between stad and dorp, like a” prickly little thorn,” persisted for more than fifty years.

Many Dutchmen had completed the five-year naturalization process by 1852 and could participate in state and national elections. They voted Democratic right through the Civil War, Lincoln failed to carry Holland in 1860 or 1864, even though Van Raalte had switched to the Republican Party in 1859 and was total Union man. Holland first voted Republican in the 1868 election and remained solid for 144 years, until 2008, when President Obama carried Holland by 127 votes out of 14,500 ballots (.009). Romney carried the city in 2012 with 53%. The city is now evenly divided. The Democratic upsurge is a result of Holland’s becoming a “majority minority” city, in which more than half the population is Hispanic, Asian, and African American. In the public schools, 62% of students are “minorities.” The surrounding townships remain rock-ribbed Republican.

The annual pew rentals could be a raucous as political caucuses. Members bid for the pews they wanted and there the family sat every Sunday. Pew rentals funded church operations; church collections went for the poor and missions. Vander Veen again provides a vivid account of one auction. Elder Aldert Plugger chaired the auction, and clerk Conrad Hofman recorded the outcome, while deacon Teunis Keppel wielded the gavel. Keppel moved from pew to pew, calling out: “‘How much for a seat in this pew?’ ‘Six dollars,’ offered three persons. ‘Who will pay more than six, who?’ ‘Seven dollars!’ ‘Who more than seven?’ The lucky person had to appear before the chairman and pay the money.” Vander Veen continued: “Sometimes the bidding became lively and some of the bidders were swept away in the excitement. So Lambertus Van Dis, Dirk Maurik, and others were loaded with seats at a high price.” The young people found the auction to provide “pleasant entertainment,” Vander Veen noted. “To them any commotion was welcome.” No wonder the consistory decided in 1855 to cast lots for the pews, which “improved order, and removed the charge that money plays a role in the matter.”

Holland Fire of 1871

The biggest tragedy in Van Raalte’s public life was the million-dollar Holland Fire of 1871, which occurred at the same time as the Chicago fire. In the wee hours of Monday morning, October 9, 1871, a raging forest fire sparked by lightning at a time of extreme drought, destroyed 75% of the homes and the entire business district, including 75 shops and offices, all 3 hotels, 5 of 7 churches, and 13 of 15 factories. Only the area east of River Street was spared, including Central Avenue Church and First Reformed (Pillar) Church, Hope College, and the Van Raalte home. The fire left 1,300 people, more than half the population, homeless and destitute. Twenty years of labor went up in smoke. The fire claimed only one life, that of an elderly woman who tried to return to her house to save her valuables.

Van Raalte was in Muskegon on a preaching assignment on Sunday and he only learned that his beloved city was destroyed when he returned on Monday morning. Nearing Holland, the train passed through acres of scorched earth and was flagged down just north the city. The news was relayed to the passengers: “Holland is in ashes.” It was single greatest disaster in Holland history.

Van Raalte rallied the people to rebuild. “With God’s help we begin again with all our might,” he told a mass gathering. God in His inscrutable wisdom “willed” this trial by fire, yet, “let us remember, God lives,” the pastor declared. To a close friend, however, Van Raalte expressed his doubts. “I see darkness, and try to relieve myself by not to think more about the future.” The city council likewise lamented the “fire king [who] has devastated nearly our entire city,” but they also pledged “to rebuild upon a more secure foundation.” Relief aid poured in from neighboring cities and Reformed churches from around the country and within five years most of the buildings had been rebuilt, many in brick.

Some Americans came to live in the Dutch colony land as merchants and physicians. The Dutch were good customers who paid their bills on time. Henry Post and wife Anna opened a general store in 1848. Henry’s younger brother Hoyt came along to clerk in the store. The Posts were from Vermont. Henry and Anna stayed and later joined the English-speaking Hope Reformed Church, but Hoyt left after four years. During his stay, he dated the young English school teacher Van Raalte had hired for the public school. The Posts by necessity picked up some Dutch so they could do business in the store.

Hoyt also kept a diary and was brutally honest in recording his feelings, which were more down than up. He was an immature young man who despised the uncouth Dutch immigrants. Once he was caught in a blinding snowstorm and had to take refuge for three days in the log cabin of the Jacobus Vinke family. With acid dripping from his pen, Post described the various household members. Vinke’s “boy” (hired hand) was “a thick-headed, fat, stout lump of mortality, who seems to have two visible objects in view for which he cares; these are sufficiency of potatoes and pork to supply his wonderfully capacious belly, and his pipe.” Vinke’s six-year-old daughter was a “dirty, lazy, ragged, saucy little imp, who seems to have a large portion of the spirit of evil for so small a body.” Father Vinke, like all Dutchmen, was “loutish,” and his vrouw, like all Dutch women, was “buxom” and unkempt. Wilhelmina Vinke’s kitchen was so unkempt as to make him squeamish about eating the pancakes, after seeing several “being fought over by the cook and a legion of cats and dogs, to be wiped with a greasy apron and returned to the dish as equal to the others.” And eating ham with “the bristles on, lessens materially one’s relish for the food spread before him.” But eat the food Post did; it was that or go hungry. He even learned to “talk Dutch” well enough to do business over the counter with the men and to flatter the young ladies.

Two other non-Dutch residents who surprised Hollanders by “talking Dutch” come to mind. One was Silas Sills, the popular coachman at the City Hotel (predecessor of the Warm Friend), who drove guests to and from the train depot for fifty years, from the 1870s until after World War One. Ben Mulder, editor of the Holland City News, who knew Silas well, left us this portrait of the man. “Old Silas was quite a character. He was never known to get angry. His big bass voice could be heard a block away when he started his team to the depot. Being polite and helpful was popular with the traveling public.” Even more amazing, Silas startled many an arriving immigrant by greeting them in the Dutch tongue. It is safe to say that Silas Sill was the first black businessman in Holland. Silas Sill’s life before coming to Holland is clouded in mystery.

The other unusual immigrant was Louis Padnos, a Russian Jew who at age thirteen fled Jewish pogroms in Czarist Russia and made his way to Amsterdam, where he acquired the Dutch tongue. After a year he took passage to New York, where a railroad labor agent sent him to Iowa. He began peddling across the plains from Texas to the Dakotas. Finally, he went to Chicago with $500 in his pocket and peddled dry goods on consignment.

Since Padnos knew Dutch, some folks told him to check out Holland, Michigan as a good place to peddle. So he took a lake steamer to Holland in 1905. He stayed and began selling dry goods to housewives, willingly taking in trade hides and bones, rags, iron and metal scrap, and anything else he could sell to brokers and scrap dealers. Dutch vrouws liked the personable kleine Hollandsche Jood (little Dutch Jew), as they referred to him, since he stood only 5’4” tall. Ben Van Raalte, the dominie’s son, leased a storefront building on River Street to Padnos and this gave the young man some credibility. Here Padnos opened a scrap year in 1910 and the rest is history.

HCS teachers’ strike in 1911

Would you believe that the first teachers’ strike in Holland occurred at the Christian School? And it wasn’t over salaries or large classes. Salaries were half those of the public school teachers and the average class had 45 pupils. The year was 1911 and the principal Jan Gezon and the school board decided to replace female teachers with males for the two upper grades. Men could presumably better keep unruly teenage boys in check. The decision so incensed the faculty of nine—all young women, that in early June, a week before graduation, they refused to come to school. The board had to cancel classes and, worse, the commencement ceremonies, leaving 21 graduates in the lurch. This was likely their only chance to attend a graduation ceremony, since few completed high school in those days.

The strike shocked everyone, especially the all-male school board, which was incensed that young women would challenge the sacred principle of male headship. The board fired the entire staff! Imagine how the two new male teachers felt about being at the center of the conflict. One was a Holland native who had just completed his freshman year at Calvin College. The novice teacher, then probably nineteen years old, was a name you will all recognize, W. Harry Jellema, the eminent professor of philosophy at Calvin College and Grand Valley State University. Late in life, Jellema said of his year at Holland Christian, “I really got hooked on teaching there.” But his career certainly got off to a rocky start.

I have another Calvin story but it starts with chickens. Zeeland by the 1920s was the chick hatchery capital of the United States. Poultry was an ideal business for the Dutch, perhaps like onion sets and garbage. It was labor-intensive and large Dutch families were needed to tend incubators and feed chicks. In the heyday there were more than a hundred hatcheries in the Zeeland-Holland area, which produced 18 million chicks a year and needed more than 3,000 workers. Trucks handled short-haul deliveries, but hatcheries used the new parcel post service to ship most “peeps” cross country by rail. They required no food for 72 hours because they ate the yolk of eggs just before hatching. The Pere Marquette assigned “chick chaperones” to ride the climate-controlled boxcars on the Grand Rapids-Chicago run and special station clerks made sure that chicks were shipped to their destinations with no delays.

"Sexing” the chicks was a critical skill, because buyers who specialized in chick production wanted males (cockerels) and egg producers wanted females (pullets). Whitey Wyngarden was the first professional sexer at Jake Geerlings’ Town Line Poultry Farm, one of only two still in the business. The other is Janssen Farms. Whitey could sort a thousand chicks per day. But Japanese-Americans proved to be faster and 98% accurate. Dave Miamoto beat Wyngarden hands down. By the way, don’t ask me how they did it!

The DeWitt brothers, Marv and Bill, introduced turkey poult hatcheries. This was the beginning of the immensely successful Bil-Mar Foods and now Request Foods. The second set of De Witt brothers, Jack and Dick, vertically integrated the industry and invented automatic poultry feeding systems that became Big Dutchman, a world-wide corporation.

In the 1940s Bill-Mar had a batch of 500 turkey poults that would not eat. They were about to destroy the birds, when Marv and Bill borrowed a teenager working for Janssen Farms up the road, to try to force feed the birds by hand. This did not work. The teenager then hit on an idea he had heard about, to mix something shiny in the mash to entice the poults to eat. He put children’s marbles in the mash and the birds pecked at the marbles and got beaks full of food and survived.  That’s how a future president of Calvin College earned his keep. The teenager’s name was Anthony “Tony” Diekema!

Did you know that Holland engineers designed and manufactured airplanes and airplane engines in the early 20th century? With some luck, Holland might have beat out Seattle. It started with John Buchanan, an aeronautical buff, who built a model “aeroplane” in 1909. The full-scale version was to be a craft with rigid aluminum wings thirty-five feet in length, and a seven cylinder, fifty-horsepower gas engine with a unique reversible propeller. Enthusiastic businessmen talked of forming a company to “manufacture the ship on a large scale,” believing the “Buchanan machine will be foremost of all.” Buchanan displayed his model at the Detroit Aeroplane Club to enthusiastic acclaim, where “competent engineers” called his design the “greatest airship of the age.” Manufacturing companies in New York and St. Louis were said to be eager for the contract, and Buchanan and local investors formed the Flying Dutchman Aeroplane Co. of Holland to do the work. Over the next five, Buchanan and his brother completely redesigned his model with dual propellers, a one hundred-horsepower engine, and a cabin underneath to carry forty passengers. Despite the excellent design work, the Buchanan brothers never built a full-scale model.

About fifteen years later, a flamboyant Hungarian engineer came to Holland from Moline, Illinois and founded the Szekely (Za-ki) Aircraft & Engine Company. He and some twenty engineers actually built airplanes and motors in a new factory on West 12th Street (now part of Thermotron). He named his aircraft (what else?) Flying Dutchman. Szekely’s three-cylinder motors powered Ford Tri-Motor aircraft, the first commercial airliners. To finance his operations. Szekely offered stock at $45 per share and enthusiastic local investors snapped up the beautifully engraved shares, which featured a vignette of an American eagle.

Szekely’s first love was racing airplanes. He dedicated the city’s first real airport at Riley Street and 136th (later the site of West Ottawa High School). Several thousand spectators came to watch renowned pilots race, compete in a dead-stick contest, and do flyovers of the four runways, two of 2,200 feet. In 1929 he entered his Flying Dutchman in the Los Angeles international airshow and won kudos from racing enthusiasts.

The company went broke in the Depression and that was the end of Holland as an aeronautical center. But one of Szekely’s engines, the Roamer RS3, is on permanent display at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. It says on the display case: “manufactured in Holland Michigan.”

Prince Corp. made Holland a leading car parts and assembly center and engineer Kon Marcus was in the middle of it.

Ed Prince started Prince in 1965 to rebuild used die cast machines. In thirty years the company was Holland’s largest employer, with 5,000 workers. He started on a shoestring with a loan against his and Elsa’s modest home in a small metal building on a dirt road. Frugality was a “depression baby” who knew how to pinch a penny, especially after growing up without a father. For drafting paper on which to sketch designs, Prince sent engineer Bill Van Appledorn, his first hire, to a local butcher shop to obtain meat-wrapping paper. They unrolled the paper on a card table and began drawing machinery layouts. Every contract was precious and every piece of equipment a financing challenge. The small crew put in incredibly long hours, often starting at five o’clock in the morning and continuing late into the evening.

A key turning point came when Prince ventured into the auto parts business, beginning by making the first lighted vanity visor. Kon Marcus, the vice president of product development and an inventive genius, devised the visor. Women loved the lighted mirrors and automakers around the world signed on for them. It was Prince’s first big hit in the automotive parts venture, and it opened the door for the company in the industry.

The idea came to Kon one night in the late 1960s when his wife had difficulty applying lipstick in the car. Ed thought the idea had possibilities and gave Kon the go-ahead, as he did with his engineers. Kon made a crude model by filing down a Tupperware dish and attaching a mirror and light to it. After filing for a patent and making a prototype, Prince, Marcus, and John Spoelhof, another top executive, went to Detroit and convinced GM executives to order five hundred visors for the 1972 Cadillac.

On the way home they realized that they had no machine or production protocol to make the visors. The trick was to sew the plastic molding to the fabric and attach a mirror and light. Since none of them knew how to sew, Ed told Kon to buy two commercial sewing machines, and over the weekend they each took one home and dissembled and reassembled it to learn how they functioned. They found they could not control the needle speed to sew the plastic holder with the desired exactness, so they devised a hydraulic system that delivered constant torque at a slow speed. For the next three months, Kon and a team of engineers sewed visors from dawn to dusk, making fifty a day. The assembly process also included plastic injection molding, sonic welding, and a host of other technical steps, including installing glass so that it would not shatter in a crash and injure passengers. As Cadillac increased its orders by the week, the visor team designed a production system of a dozen sewing machines driven by one hydraulic system. Prince Corp. was in the automotive business to stay. Manufacturing always progresses like this, solving problems one at a time. Marcus went on to patented many more inventions, notably the first digital compass that Chrysler put in overhead consoles and Gentex placed on interior mirrors.

Prince Corp. was one of many family-owned companies in West Michigan started by entrepreneurs, which is a hallmark of business life in Holland. Van Raalte himself was an entrepreneur and his two sons, Derk and Ben, developed businesses in Holland. Enterprising industrialists are numerous in every industry: furniture, automotive parts, food processing, agricultural implements, printing, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, paints, and the list goes on. This a one of the major reasons why West Michigan leads the state in economic growth. Dozens of these businesses are multi-generational. I know of at least 25 that are three- and four-generation and one is now in the hands of fifth generation.

Marsilje Insurance Agency takes the prize. Isaac Marsilje started it in 1875 and today after 138 years it is owned two great-great grandchildren—Thomas Marsilje III and his sister Anne Marsilje-Meyers. In second place for longevity is the Keppel Coal and Hardware companies. Teunis Kepple, a pioneer who married one of Van Raalte’s daughters, started a coal company in 1867 and his sons opened a hardware store that continued in the family until the 1990s, nearly 130 years. Lokker Rutgers clothing store had a 116-year run on 8th Street but not in the same family. Fabianos candy and peanut store and Dykstra Funeral Homes have been in the same family for 113 years. Geerlings’ Town Line Hatchery of Zeeland is 107 years old and going strong. The Nelis family Tulip Farms and later Dutch Market is 103 years old. I believe these are the only century companies. Of course, there are many Centennial Farms with plaques on the front lawn to prove it.


Since this is Elsa’s night, I must mentioned the snowmelt system, one of their proud achievements. In 1988 the city was tearing up 8th Street, sidewalks and all, as part of the Streetscape project, in order to upgrade the downtown after Westshore Mall opened. The region’s first mega-mall threatened to decimate the city center. Ed suggested including a snowmelt system. Holland lies in a primary snow belt and there was no place to go when snow piled up but to load it into dump trucks and haul it away.

City leaders laughed at Prince. “Snowmelt, what’s that?” He told them that he had installed snowmelt in the driveway of the family home and the pavement was dry an hour after a snowfall. “No, it can’t be done,” they replied. The Streetscape committee saw only more complications, expense, and delays. Snowmelt would add a million dollars to the $4 million to the project. The BPW, which owned the power plant that would supply the excess steam, also denounced snowmelt.

Ed Prince took the bull by the horns, as he was wont to do. He went to the city council in person and offered to contribute $250,000, or ¼ of the cost, if the city matched him. He also pledged $25,000 a year or ¼ of the annual operating costs. This did the trick. The vote passed 5-3. Once in operation, the system was so popular that downtown property owners themselves later voted to extend snowmelt to crossing streets. It’s not easy being a visionary.


In 1914, when the silent screen was the rage, the city council appointed a Board of Motion Picture Censors, with a badge that read “Censor — Special Police Arrangements,” to attend movie houses and review new films for immorality and indecency. Censors had the power to reject a film or delete objectionable scenes. The interplay between theater managers and censors seemed like a game of “cat and mouse.” It would have helped if the common council required the censor board to screen all films before they were shown, not after. But the aldermen never could bring themselves to do this.

Censors cut scenes in dozens of movies showing murder, burglary, and suicide. When the Apollo Theater showed a Parisian romance movie, the censors required cutting two scenes in which “women lift skirts immodestly.” Patrons tried to outwit the censors by flocking to the first showings of films that “pushed the envelope.” The interplay between theater managers and censors seemed like a game of “cat and mouse.”

A flash point was the screenings of six “indecent” Charlie Chaplin films at the Royal Theater, which so infuriated the censors that the city council nearly revoked its license. One incident almost caused a riot. The feature film had ended and the trailer, a comedy, had the crowd in stitches, when the screen went dark. The manager announced that the censors had banned the second and third reels. The crowd of shop and factory workers, who had put down good money for their one pleasure, “went wild” and threatened to “boycott the town.”

Finally, the censor board resigned en masse after they could not agree on banning a controversial Strand movie. This aldermen then threatened to revoke the Strand’s license. This set up a showdown in the council chambers between the owner and his attorney, and a huge crowd of supporters that packed the council chambers and the overflow room and lobby. The massive demonstration give the city fathers pause; they decided not to pull the permit. This spelled the end of the censor board.

Several theaters in 1928 began running midnight shows on Sunday, and this led several churches to charge that the movie houses were planning to open their doors on Sunday. When theaters actually did so a few years later, a pastors committee organized a petition drive and quickly collected several thousand signatures asking the common council to legislate against Sunday movies. This led the Butterfield Company, owner all of three city theaters, to give in and close on Sundays.

Women’s rights and suffrage CARTOON

The fight for women’s suffrage, like the temperance movement, began in the 1800s. The Dutch were traditionally opposed to women’s suffrage, believing it to be contrary to scripture. The Christian Reformed Church in particular held to this position. While the Reformed Church by the 1910s did allow individual congregations to determine the voting status of women for church matters, the Christian Reformed Church opposed suffrage in congregational meetings until after 1920.

Prohibition and suffrage became further intertwined in Michigan since the wets, or those who supported alcohol consumption, voted in accordance with their fear that woman’s suffrage would give the drys all the votes they needed to pass prohibition laws. In other words, if they wanted to keep their alcohol, they had to keep women out of politics.

In the general election of 1912, Michigan dealt with the suffrage question at the ballot box. The Holland Equal Suffrage Club, which Francis Davis (Mrs. John W.) Beardslee of Hope Church and other New Women chartered in 1912 under the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association, trumpeted the cry: “Let Women Vote: They Will Know How to Use the Ballot for Civic Housekeeping.” The women dared to believe that men would come to agree.

A state law of 1908, women were allowed to vote on local bond issues and in school elections. In 1914 Martha (Mrs. George E.) Kollen became the first woman to win a school board election, and she was re-elected repeatedly until stepping down in 1947 after thirty-three years. Women first served on a jury in the city hall courtroom in 1919 in the infamous “Chicken Case,” which involved a trivial slander dispute between two women. The fact that women comprised six of eleven in the jury box made headlines, such as: “More interest in jury than in the case,” and “largest crowds ever assembled to listen to a mere justice case.” Women jurors was controversial because it was seen as a precursor to women’s suffrage, which many Reformed and Christian Reformed church folk strenuously opposed.

Hope College female students to form the Susan B. Anthony chapter of the Collegiate Suffrage League. Throughout 1916 and 1917, the Equal Suffrage Club met weekly to study the issues, plot campaign strategy, and design block ads for the city newspapers. “Good Cooks Want Good Votes,” declared one ad which included several recipes. Another cried: “Protect Your Home with Two Votes Instead of One.”

The Michigan legislature in April 1917 approved women’s suffrage in state elections, but an amendment to the US Constitution was needed to guarantee the vote in national elections. This amendment, the Nineteenth, passed in Michigan in the November 1918 election (although it lost in Holland by a margin of more than two to one!) and secured the necessary three-fourths majority of the states in 1920. The women crowed: “Holland women will yet be able to vote in spite of their husbands, who did their best to keep them from the ballot.” Women in Michigan voted for the first time in the state general election in March 1919. The suffrage issue was settled at law by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. In 1994 Marcia Bishop was hired as the city’s first female school superintendent.

Van Raalte’s wealth 

Van Raalte was first and foremost a pastor, but he had to wear many hats—doctor, school board leader, political tutor, business promoter, newspaperman, and most important, land developer. To keep Americans from buying virgin land and jacking up the price for the Hollanders, Van Raalte had to move quickly to control as much land as possible around Lake Macatawa and the village of Holland. He bought 12,000 acres in the first three years and 20,000 acres altogether, and platted a thousand town lots in the village of Holland. Throughout his active ministry, he squeezed sales, legal work, and tax payments in between his pastoral duties. He also invested as a silent partner in grain and lumber mills, and went bankrupt when a mill venture failed in 1852.

His real estate dealings made him fabulously wealthy. Land in and around Holland gained value while he slept, due to the rapid and steady development of the community. His lot prices increased from $40 in 1847 to $800 in 1868. He got in “on the ground floor” and parlayed his land dealings into a portfolio worth several million in today’s dollars. Of course, the dominie bore the risks and had to scramble every year to pay his real estate taxes in "hard money" (no bank notes).

He was often torn between serving two masters—God and Mammon. Van Raalte expressed his angst about wealth in a letter to Anthony Brummelkamp, his brother-in-law in the Netherlands:

I came here naked, but . . . I find myself placed with possessions, which if it pleased God could make me a capitalist. And yet, they were thrown around my neck for my lack of trust and to kill me. They are possessions that the worldling by turns praises. . . . Often I ask, Why? Why? Yet I have the root of all devilish evil in me and also the root of the desire to become rich. . . . Sometimes I say in impatience, let everything break up and go to pieces as it will. However, in a calmer moment, I see it is not without God’s providence that I was placed in this important position.

This telling letter shows that Van Raalte wrestled with his calling as a minister of the Gospel and his desire to enjoy a standard of living above that of most of his parishioners. Yet, he was the only university-educated man among thousands of immigrants, and this alone justified an upper-middle-class lifestyle, according to his Old World standards.

At his death in 1876, Van Raalte deserved the title of “Wealthiest Hollander in Michigan.” His funeral befit a prince. The cortège of 76 carriages made it the largest funeral until Gerrit J. Diekema’s death 75 years later, in 1930. Diekema was the city’s most famous lawyer, politician, and public speaker, who died in the Netherlands while serving as the US minister.

Holland Harbor

The Holland harbor was one of the economic engines. Van Raalte chose the Black Lake watershed because trees were “money in the bank,” a natural resource to be exploited by his penniless followers. They manufactured barrel staves, shingles, sawed lumber, potash, and other forest products for Chicago markets. The harbor was essential for this trade to thrive.

When the Dutch arrived, the channel mouth was barely two feet deep. The men took shovels and dug it deeper but every storm brought the sand back. Even a large dredge funded with a federal land grant did not solve the problem. It took the coming of the Army Corp of Engineers after the Civil War to build adequate piers and breakwaters and dredge the channel to make the fine harbor that Van Raalte had envisioned. He was happy to see it before he died.

Before this, cargoes had to be ferried across the bar on scows and rafts to schooners anchored offshore or docked at piers extending into Lake Michigan. The double loading was time-consuming and labor-intensive. Yet, under these primitive conditions, in the decade of the 1850s, $1 million in cargoes were shipped via Holland harbor. We know this because De Hollander newspaper, which Van Raalte started in 1850, reported every week on the cargoes being shipped in and out and their dollar values.

From the 1890s to the 1950s, Holland harbor was home port to three Great Lakes cruise ships--the North American, South American, and Alabama, and dozens of small passenger vessels ferried people from Holland to the resorts at Macatawa and Ottawa Beach. Since the 1950s lake freighters hauled millions of tons of coal, slag and stone, and scrap metal via Holland harbor. It continues to be service almost a million dollars of commodities annually.

Industrial Bonus Fund, Scanlon Plan, and HEDCOR

Many have seen the Holland-Zeeland region as an industrial powerhouse. The work ethic of the residents is legendary, owners have adopted enlightened labor policies, and business organizations are proactive. I want to highlight three programs that promoted industrial development — the Industrial Bonus Plan, the Scanlon Plan, and HEDCOR (Holland Economic Development Corporation). The first and third involved public-private partnerships.

Industrial Bonus Plan

Today governments use tax abatements to keep or attract industry. A century ago, they used land and cash. In 1895, in the midst of the worst depression in the nineteenth century, leading businessmen formed the Holland Improvement Trust to obtain land for industrial development. The trustees bought several tracts on the city’s southeast fringe along the Pere Marquette RR tracks at 24th Street. They apportioned the land into three categories—industrial sites along the tracks, home sites, and a public park (Prospect Park). They raised $60,000 in working capital by selling the 200+ home sites.

City leaders and residents then joined hands with businessmen. In 1905 voters approved the first of four $50,000 bond issues over the next 25 years. The city named a bonus committee to grant the tax monies to prospective businesses. The private-public partnership gained its first triumph in 1905, when Bush & Lane Piano Co. relocated from Chicago. The Improvement Trust granted free land leases, and the city promised cash bonuses on payrolls at 4% per year for five years. Within a decade, three more companies were lured to Holland—Superior Foundry, Holland Furnace, and Hart & Cooley. The Holland Board of Trade and Holland Businessmen’s Association joined hands to recruit new businesses. The $200,000 in bonded debt helped recruited many companies and created hundreds of jobs. The fame of the Holland Bonus program even reached New York industrialists.

Scanlon Plan

Corporate executives took the next step in the 1950s. D.J De Pree and his son Hugh at Herman Miller adopted the Scanlon Plan, an employee-driven, profit-sharing program. Joe Scanlon, a former prizefighter, labor leader, cost accountant, teacher, and theorist, developed the plan with Professor Carl Frost at MIT. Frost, known affectionately as “Jack Frost,” moved to Michigan State University and tutored the De Prees in the plan for managing the shop floor. It required setting clear objectives and then enlisting employees to implement them and share the profits. Herman Miller in 1950 was the first Michigan firm with a Scanlon Plan.

Thanks to the De Prees, other executives adopted the Scanlon Plan or other employee incentive plans, including John F. Donnelly of Donnelly Corp., Charles R. Sligh Jr. of Sligh Furniture, and Patrick Thompson of Trans-Matic Manufacturing. Charles Conrad of Thermotron Corp., Ed Prince of Prince Corporation, Don Heeringa of Trendway, and Seymour Padnos of Padnos Iron & Metal. In a sense, nearly every local company was influenced by the philosophy of participatory management, making the Holland area unique nationally in this regard.


In the early 1950s the Holland Chamber of Commerce became concerned with Holland’s lagging industrial development and the city was landlocked. William Vande Water, the executive director, quietly had the chamber buy the former city airport site on East Sixteenth Street and US-31 (now Menards). GE chose this site in 1955 for its electric motor division, forever changing the city with its executive team and high-paying union jobs.

Encouraged by this success, the Chamber in 1962 formed a non-profit corporation, the Holland Economic Development Corporation (HEDCOR), which raised $1 million by selling shares that paid no dividends. The money went for the purchase of farmland strategically located south of Holland that was easily accessible to M-40, US-31, and Tulip City Airport. The airport became vital when corporate jets became essential for doing business. HEDCOR put in infrastructure—utilities and streets—which readied the Southside Industrial Park site for industrial development and gave Holland a leg up on other cities. Beech-Nut Lifesavers in 1967 was the first of many companies to locate in the park.

None were “oil on the floor” companies, in keeping with the HEDCOR’s unwritten policy of keeping union labor at bay. At the time, about ¼ of the factory workers in the Holland area were unionized (Hart & Cooley, Chris Craft, GE, Lifesavers, Holland Hitch, Parke-Davis, Chemetron) and they earned 25¢ or more per hour more than non-union employees.

In 1984 the Southside Park was full, so the board created the Northside Industrial Park in Holland Township west of US-31. In 2000 the two industrial parks housed 72 companies with 16,500 workers, and there are many more today. Holland would be an entirely different place without these industrial districts.

Multi-generation businesses

Four-generation businesses are Keppel Coal and later Hardware, Fabiano’s Peanut Store (formerly a confectionary store), Nelis Tulip Farms and now Dutch Market, Howard Miller Clock Co. of Zeeland, and Geerling’s Townline Hatchery.

Three-generation businesses are De Nooyer Chevrolet, Padnos Iron & Metal, Haworth, Holland Transplanter, Jonkers Garden Center, Dykstra Funeral Homes, Boer’s Transfer, Lambert’s Fresh Poultry, Schreur Printing, A. D. Bos Vending.

Three-generation business now closed or sold out of family hands were Vander Veen Hardware, Veneklasen Brick, Sprietsma Shoes, Harrington Coal, Sligh Furniture, Holland Hitch (SAF-Holland S. A. of Luxembourg), Brooks Beverage, Steketee-Van Huis Printing, and Zwiep’s Seed Store and Greenhouses.

Let’s talk vice. SALOONS

Alcohol was without a doubt one of the biggest and most discussed issues of the Progressive Era. In the Old Country, the Dutch Reformed had no problem with beer, wine, and the stronger jenever (gin) and brandy. These alcoholic beverages were part of everyday life and lubricated relations in families and in the community.

Brewing began in the earliest days because water was often tainted, just as in the Netherlands. Ale and beer were the alcoholic beverages of choice. Many folks had a small keg of beer (usually five gallons) delivered to their homes on weekends for $1. Van Raalte reportedly received a free keg each Saturday. Koene Vanden Bosch of the Noordeloos Church had his own Bohemian beer stein (now in the Holland Museum collection). Men at the 1888 Fourth of July celebration consumed one hundred barrels of beer.

The Dutch had no problem with alcohol producers. Seif Brewery at Tenth Street and Maple Avenue in the 1880s produced 124,000 gallons of beer and could not keep up with demand, especially in the summer time. Holland Furnace owners in the 1930s had plant superintendents on hot summer days put a keg of beer on the foundry floor so the men could keep working in the intense heat.

Beer was good, hard liquor was bad.

The People’s Assembly, the first local government in the Holland colony, banned saloons and “hard liquor,” although they allowed druggists to stock “pure wines and liquors” for “medicinal purposes.”

American Temperance Society, a New England Protestant movement, had the goal of getting drinkers to take the temperance pledge and forswear using alcohol. Many dismissed the tee-totalers as fanatics, but the temperance movement became a national phenomenon. The Dutch tended to be wary of government laws on moral matters, given the history of repression by the House of Orange.

The early settlers in Holland had little to say about saloons, since the first saloons opened when the second generation—those born or raised in America and influenced by its drinking habits—came of age in the 1860s. By 1869 the common council felt it necessary to establish regulations for the alcohol industry, which outlawed selling to minors and known drunkards and prohibited Sunday sales. To operate a saloon one needed to buy a license and post a bond. Saloons also had to be closed from ten o’clock in the evening to six o’clock in the morning. So alcohol was fairly well regulated in Holland before the 1870s, when the temperance cause came to the city in earnest.

Regulating saloons by law was a cat and mouse game, fought between WETS and DRYS. It upset saloonkeepers greatly that druggists who sold liquor as medicine did not have to pay for a liquor license. The city tried to tax and regulate saloons to death. In the 1908 spring election, an anti-saloon referendum passed with a five-hundred-vote majority. All alcohol retailers had to close, but wholesale houses were not subject to the law.

A 1910 law prohibited the consumption of alcohol by the glass at the place of purchase, but it did allow beer to be sold by the bottle and whiskey by the half pint. Wholesaler houses had to sell at one time no less than two dozen pints of beer or three gallons of whiskey.  The law also banned all “games of chance, music, or other amusement or attractions,” and required “no selling to or permitting in the place of minors, habitual drunkards, females, or any other persons prohibited by law; no screens preventing an unobstructed view of the place; no lunches or refreshments; no signs or anything to attract the attention of passersby.” A flier of the anti-saloon faction declared that the exclusion of saloons was neither a question of local option prohibition nor even personal liberty, but a desire to have a civilized and moral community free from undesirable places.

While the saloons had all but disappeared, wholesalers were selling more than ever. They simply installed lockers where customers could store liquor their three gallons. The saloon then issued a “drink ticket” that allowed customers to draw down small quantities from their lockers. They could also take their three gallons to some forty drinking places, known as “the jungles,” that sprang up behind billboards, in alleys, stairways of downtown buildings, and along the river north of the train station. Social clubs, like the Elks, Moose, and Marquette, assigning each member a locker as his personal liquor cabinet. A BYO policy. The twelve drug stores in town also could dispense whiskey, wine, gin, and malt liquor in any quantities as medicine at all hours and even on Sundays.

Almost every year liquor referendums were on the ballot in Holland and the wets and drys fought it out at the ballot box. The drys finally won in 1916, when Holland voted dry by a 62 percent majority on a state referendum that also passed statewide. The defeat of demon rum closed the dozen or so licensed saloons and four bottling works in Holland, as it did saloons statewide, beginning May 1, 1918.


The temperance movement came to Holland by way of Methodist and Reformed social reformers with New England and New York roots, who hoped to usher in the Christian millennium by eliminating booze. In 1874 the white ribbon ladies organized a Holland chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which met at the Methodist Church and carried the battle against alcoholic drinks. Sarah Annis of Hope Church was the first president. Isaac Cappon of third Reformed church, Holland’s first mayor, was convinced of the temperance cause and became a leading proponent. But when he tried to raise the liquor tax fee in the city, the common council rebuffed him. Total abstinence was a foreign concept to the Dutch, and those who joined the temperance cause showed they were becoming Americans.

Hope Church, always in the lead of the anti-alcohol movements, allowed its name to be included on official petitions of the Anti-Saloon League. Mayor Germ Mokma considered it a “religious duty to absent himself from church occasionally to see if the saloons are closed.” One Sunday Mokma caught “several prominent businessmen” imbibing in James Selby’s liquor store on Eighth Street, and Selby was arrested. In 1908 the consistory of Central Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Mokma’s church, resolved to censure any member “who to our knowledge frequents saloons.”