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Our Town: Ten Surprises in Writing Holland's History

Dr. Robert P. Swierenga, Research Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College

Lecture for Century Club, Graves Hall Chapel, Holland, MI, November 1, 2010

Choosing ten surprises was difficult and those of you who are Holland natives might well have picked differently. I'm a relative newcomer, having come in 1996. But these are my choices, and I add one as a bonus, to make eleven surprises.

1. Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte planted his Christian Dutch colony in an area already occupied by a Christian Indian colony, the Old Wing Mission of Rev. George Smith. The Mission was established in 1838 at the request of Chief Wakazoo and his band of several hundred Ottawa Indians. Van Raalte knew about the Indians, since he used the Mission as his base when he came to scout out the area in January 1847, while his followers waited in Detroit to learn where they would settle. Van Raalte's decision compelled the Indians to relocate the mission to Northport in 1849, in order to maintain their traditional way of life.

2. Rev. Van Raalte died a rich man because of astute land dealings. Although his primary focus was the Christian ministry, Van Raalte spent considerable time and effort as a land dealer and developer. It happened by necessity, not by design.

For the Holland Colony to be viable, the settlers had to control the lands in the Lake Macatawa watershed. The key was to get title before speculators or American farmers did so. If word got out of that a large Dutch settlement was in the offing, speculators would rush to the Public Land Office in Ionia and enter the lands, which were still mostly in government hands. Then the Dutch would have to pay high prices to middlemen. 

The problem was that the settlers did not have enough money to buy the lands, even at the land office price of $1.25. And in frontier communities, titles were often clouded by quitclaims of squatters and speculators, errors in the land surveys, and other factors that militated against warranty deeds. The solution was for the colony's Board of Trustees to ask Van Raalte to buy the land, plat the city, and market the lots. The initial city plat, set off in 1848, contained 690 lots (69 blocks with ten lots each). Later plats brought the total lots to 925. 

What happened to the lots? Van Raalte donated some to Hope College, First (Pillar), Second (Hope), and Third Reformed churches, the RCA Board of Foreign Missions, and to the city for Centennial Park (originally Market Square), Lincoln Park (originally Public Square), and Columbia Park (originally Fish Market).

Van Raalte sold all the rest to settlers, usually on time--one-third down and two years for the remainder. Prices started at $40 in 1847 and rose to $800 by 1868. Land values went up in tandem with the city's development. The dominie bore the risks and had to scramble every year to pay his real estate taxes in "hard money" (no bank notes).

Over twenty years, Van Raalte sold 850 town lots and 7,200 rural acres, for a total price of $116,000. His most lucrative sale was in 1871, when he sold 45 lots on the east side of Hope College for $11,000 to the Michigan Lakeshore RR for a right-of-way and depot site. It was a sweet deal for Van Raalte, but professors and students have been bothered by train whistles ever since!  The second highest priced sale was the Van Raalte Farm on East 16th St., which he sold for $10,000 to his son Dirk. Van Raalte's land sales totaled more than $160,000. Converting into today's dollars, that was $4.8 million! (The  inflation factor since the 1870s is 30:1, according to U.S. Consumer Price Index).

Two months before his death in Nov. 1876, VR divided the remaining 75 town lots and several hundred acres of farmland among his five children. The property at the time was worth $24,000 (almost three quarters of a million in today's inflated dollars). Land was the dominie's estate, his bequest to his children.

3. Holland 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 his mind's eye, Van Raalte saw large schooners entering the channel. The channel mouth was less than 3 feet deep when the Dutch came, and only canoes and flatboats could pass, He had faith that the problem could be fixed, but he underestimated the cost and complexity of the silting. It took 30 years and millions of dollars for the Army Corp of Engineers to dredge the channel and build breakwaters to keep it open.

Forest products provided the cargo. Van Raalte considered the woods around Holland as money in the bank, to be exploited by the penniless settlers to raise cash. Already in the first decade, colonists shipped thousands of tons of forest and farm products (timber, lumber, shingles, barrel staves, bark for tannin, potash, hides, live pigeons, barrels of buckwheat, bushels of peaches, etc.) to Chicago by using flatboats to clear the mouth and then loading the goods on lake schooners anchored offshore. The ships returned with processed foods--flour and pork, and consumer goods of all kinds.

The value of exports and imports via Holland harbor in the 1850s totaled $1.2 million ($36 million in today's dollars). This more than justified Van Raalte's faith in the harbor.

4. Americans in the Holland Colony

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.

Four who met these conditions were Isaac Fairbanks, George Harrington, Henry Post, and Ira Hoyt. Fairbanks settled on a farm near the Old Wing Mission, where he was the agricultural agent in the 1840s. Fairbanks said it was harder to learn Dutch, than the Algonquin Indian language he had picked up. Fairbanks started the Methodist Church in 1861.Harrington drove the ox cart from Allegan that carried Van Raalte to Holland in Feb. 1847 and the rest of the families in April. Hoyt was the first teacher in the district school. 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 inhabitants made up 14 percent in 1860, 18 percent in 1870, and 35 percent in 1880. The number of non-Dutch doubled between 1870 and 1880. There were other immigrant groups in Holland too by 1880--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 even through intermarriage.

5. Board of Public Works (BPW) as the city's cash cow.

The BPW was established in 1893 to manage the city-owned water works (1885) and power plant (1892). The city went into the electricity business after citizens in a public referendum voted "yes" by 71 percent. The electricity was to light lamps on 8th Street. Few cities in the 1890s had publicly-owned electric works. And Holland did not make this decision without a serious debate over the issue of public versus private ownership.

By 1900, the BPW's Fifth Street electric plant was earning an annual profit of 36 percent. This embarrassed Mayor Nicodemus Bosch, who insisted that a municipal monopoly should only charge enough to cover operating expenses and depreciation of equipment, and not return high profits to city coffers.

The fiscal history of the BPW shows that it often violated Bosch’s dictum, much to the satisfaction of subsequent city administrations, which used the power plant and water department as cash cows to fund public projects--the hospital, library, and parks. 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). Three-quarters of the $250,000 cost of the new Holland Hospital in 1928 came from the BPW. The public works also helped balance the city budget during the Great Depression.

By 1948, the annual presentation of the check by the BPW chairman to the mayor had turned into a ceremony, replete with the obligatory photograph and front-page story in the newspapers. Soon, 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."

As BPW revenues rose, the "contribution" rate was reduced to 3.5 percent by 2000. When the City Council faced serious budget deficits beginning in 2007, they gradually upped the rate to 5.5 percent. This income transfer of $4 million brought in one-fifth of the entire city general fund budget in 2010. Recent BPW "payments," actually a tax on ratepayers, caused a deficit in the BPW budget, and the board asked the City Council to approve rate increases for electricity, water, and wastewater. One way or another, the residents have to ante up for city services.

6. Entrepreneurship

The secret to Holland's industrial success was the skill and 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. Most were guided by their religious faith, and had a strong sense of stewardship and spirit of giving back to their community. Van Raalte himself was an entrepreneur and his two sons, Derk and Ben, developed large businesses in Holland

Isaac Cappon, Holland's first mayor in 1867, owned Cappon & Bertsch Tannery, Holland's leading company in the 1890s with sales of $1 million a year. He was the city's wealthiest man at the time. Reinder Werkman was Holland's leading industrialist in the 1870s and 1880s. He owned Phoenix Planning Mill and Werkman Manufacturing. George Hummer and his son-in-law Charles Kirchen ran West Michigan Furniture--Holland largest furniture plant--for more than sixty years, from 1890 to 1951. Hummer, former superintendent of Holland Public Schools, was mayor of Holland (1893-95) and a prominent businessman and Democratic politician. Kirchen cut a wide swath in Holland business, civic, and social circles, including serving as president of the National Furniture Manufacturers Association and director of the Grand Rapids Furniture Market.

Other entrepreneurs are Holis Baker (Baker Furniture), Earnest and son James Brooks (Brooks Beverage), August Landwehr of Holland Furnace who bankrolled Tulip Time in the early years, the De Prees (Con of De Pree Chemicals and D.J. and sons Hugh & Max of Herman Miller), Bill and Marv De Witt of Bill-Mar Turkeys and Request Foods), the Donnelly family (Bernard P. and John Fenlon), G.W. Haworth and son Dick, Edgar Prince, Charles Sligh and son Dick, Chris Smith, whose sleek wooden Chris Craft cruisers were the envy of boat aficionados, and Leon Slikkers and his sons David and Robert at Tiara Yachts and Pursuit powerboats.

Augmenting the local entrepreneurial talent were top-flight executives of outside firms that located in Holland, such as Holland Furnace, Hart & Cooley, Chris Craft, GE, Beech-Nut Life Savers, and Chemetron. The outsiders caught the vision and joined the locals in promoting the city's welfare.

7. Inventors

I'll only mention three or four (among dozens). Did you know that Holland had an aircraft industry 75 years ago? It was the Szekely (zay kī) Aircraft & Engine Company of Otto Szakely, a native of Budapest, who came in 1928 from Illinois and began building airplanes in a factory on West Twelfth Street. He chose the trade name, Flying Dutchman, for his airplanes, which were five-cylinder, two-seaters, designed for racing enthusiasts. Test pilots, including one who flew Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis," put one of Szakely's planes through its paces at the Los Angeles international air show in 1928, where it was "enthusiastically received." Weeks later, Szekely displayed two of his aircraft at the Chicago Coliseum air exhibition. Holland was gaining a reputation as an airplane center.

In 1929, Szekely built the city's first real airport at Riley and 128th Avenue, where the Harbor Lights Middle School now stands. Spectators came by the thousands for the dedication, to watch ace pilots race one another and do flyovers in a Ford Tri-Motor powered by one of Szekely's three-cylinder Roamer engines (SR3). The airport had four dirt runways, two of 2,200 feet and two of 1,500 feet. Szekely's factory only made a few planes before the company went bankrupt in the Great Depression and Szakely left town abruptly for New York, leaving many locals with thousands of dollars in worthless stock certificates. The Puma Air & Space Museum in Tucson has on display the only Szekely Roamer engine known to survive. The description notes that the engine was made in Holland, Michigan.

Ed Prince was the leading industrialist in the 1960s-1980s. He recruited Konrad "Kon" Marcus from Donnelly, where he was the chief engineer and involved with the aerospace giant, Lear, designing lighting for aircraft cockpits. At Prince, Marcus developed the lighted vanity mirror that we all take for granted on the back of sun visors in cars. The idea came to Marcus one night in the late 1960s when his wife had difficulty applying lipstick in the dark in the family car. Ed Prince thought the idea had possibilities and gave Kon the go-ahead, as he did with his engineers.

The 1972 Cadillac Seville was the first to carry the vanity mirror. It was a big "hit" and opened the way for Prince's automotive parts division to flourish. The lighted mirrors were in such demand that John Spoelhof, Prince Corp. CEO after Ed retired for health reasons, could not build factories fast enough to meet production demands. Kon's next invention was the digital compass in the overhead console for the 1985 Chrysler New Yorker. He had to go to the U.S. Airforce for the initial technology.

Harlan Byker and Jon Bechtel were electrochemists at Gentex, who invented SmartBeam headlights and self-dimming interior and exterior mirrors. Byker invented the electrochromic mirror and Bechtel the glare-sensing circuitry to darken the mirror to relieve glare. The first Gentex self-dimming mirrors went into the 1988 Lincoln Continental. Sales were $24 million the first year. “Gentex is like a rocket poised on the launching pad,” CEO Fred Bauer declared. “There is a world of possibilities out there and we have just begun.” Gentex scientists and engineers next applied the technology to side windows, sunroofs, rear hatches, instrument panels, and backup video cameras, as well as applications in the aerospace and military industries and in commercial buildings.

The mirrors also became the “gateway” for other electronic wireless, Internet, and navigation features car buyers wanted, including GM’s OnStar system based on GPS satellite technology. Gentex’s "telematic mirrors,” one business reporter enthused, we’re “on the stars.”

In the first three quarters of 2010, Gentex earned a profit of $100 million, thanks to sales of SmartBeam headlamps and rear camera display systems. It will sell 600,000 SmartBeams and one million rear cameras this year. The company's profits in the last fiscal year surpassed those of Herman Miller and Haworth combined.

Byker in the late 1990s had a second major invention, thermochromic windows, which lighten or darken in response to light just like eyeglasses. In 2005, Zeeland’s largest employer landed a $15 million contract with Boeing to outfit its 787 Dreamliner passenger aircraft with the self-dimming windows. This contract gave Gentex entry to the aerospace industry. Byker wasn't finished yet. In 1997, he founded his own company, Pleotint, where for thirteen years he and small team of researchers perfected Sunlight Responsive Thermochromic film for windows of office buildings. They reduce heating and cooling costs up to 30 percent and eliminate the need for window coverings. Byker has the unusual distinction as a scientist of making two significant inventions in a lifetime. His former colleague, Jon Bechtel, who is now in the 70s, recently received his 100th patent at Gentex. Both men are geniuses.

By singling out these men, I passed over many others. Parke-Davis' blockbuster drugs Benadryl, Lipitor, Dilantin, and Neuronyin were developed in the Holland Laboratory by local chemists, who remain anonymous, given the nature of pharmaceutical research.

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.

Ed Prince also was a sparkplug in Freedom Village (along with Bill Vanderbilt), and in Evergreen Commons, which his daughter Emily Wierda spearheaded.

9. Participatory management in industry

Herman Miller in the 1950s, under D.J De Pree and his son Hugh, was the first company to adopt the Scanlon Plan, an employee-driven profit-sharing program. When John F. Donnelly Sr. heard a report from a Herman Miller truck driver that his company was "giving money away to his employees," Donnelly went over to talk with D.J. De Pree and he adopted the same plan. Max De Pree, after he became CEO of Herman Miller in 1980, added an ESOP Plan (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), by which employees received bonuses of company stock.

Ed Prince in 1975 had already instituted a variant of the ESOP, known as an ESOT (Employees Stock Ownership Trust) [a defined contribution plan, in contrast to a defined benefit plan], which vested employees with company stock. Ed and his successor John Spoelhof, like John F. Donnelly, also treated employees as family. Prince Corp. bought the Holland Tennis Club and turned it into the People's Center (now M.V.P.), where employees were given financial incentives to work out and do aerobic exercises. Prince Corp. opened a full-fledged medical center staffed by physicians, nurses, lab technicians, a pharmacist, and x-ray machines to treat employees on and off the job.

Don Heeringa, CEO of Trendway, started a profit-sharing plan in 1980. From then on, employees received bonus checks for eighty-four straight quarters, until 2001 when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center set off a 40 percent decline in the furniture industry. The bonuses encouraged teamwork and a focus on the company goal of timely and accurate deliveries, which became a Trendway hallmark.

In the 1990s, Dick Haworth changed the focus at Haworth Corp. from profits to employees and customers. Employees were paid an hour of overtime per week for brainstorming ways for the company to serve customers better. "We want to give our employees freedom to do what's right," said Haworth.

10. Philanthropy

Benevolence has been a hallmark of the Reformed faith since the Protestant Reformation. The deacons traditionally took a charity offering after the quarterly celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Thanksgiving Day offerings in Reformed churches in Holland are a unique demonstration of benevolence. Already in 1923, offerings totaled $250,000. Newspapers reported giving per congregation, which sparked a sort of competition in generosity. Third Reformed Church was the "banner giver" until 1927, when Ninth Street and Fourteenth Street Christian Reformed churches surpassed Third Reformed. Fourteenth Street won again in 1937, giving more than $2,000 in the throes of the Great Depression. The Methodist Church collected a "large amount of canned fruit and vegetables" for social agencies. After the Second World War, churches organized the annual CROP drive, which began in relief for war-torn countries in Europe and Asia and evolved into a relief program of Church World Service. Thanksgiving Day offerings still run high. In 2010, for example, Central Avenue Christian Reformed Church collected $155,000 and Christ Memorial Reformed Church $142,000.

Corporations are also generous. Prince Corp., for example, from the early days tithed 5 percent of pretax earnings to non-profits, charities, and Christian schools. Ed Prince gave the money without strings attached. "If God's given me this money, and I've been directed to give it away this way," he said, "then he's going to make sure that its used in the right way…. And if it isn't, then they don't get any more money." His gifts included ten acres for Holland's Davenport University campus, donations to Hope and Calvin colleges, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Hospice of Holland, $1 million to help found the Evergreen Commons Senior Center, $250,000 for the city snowmelt system, etc.

Employees contribute about $1 million per year to the Greater Holland (now Greater Ottawa County) United Way through payroll deductions. And the Community Foundation of Holland/Zeeland in 2009 distributed $2.7 million to civic and non-profit organizations that it earned on some $38 million held in 422 funds.

The most unusual act of benevolence occurred in 1997, when the Prince family sold Prince Corp. to JCI. First, the 4,500 employees received a lump sum payout of their retirement accounts, totaling $300 million. Then Elsa added bonuses of $80 million based on longevity, as a token of appreciation for the employees' part in making the company a success. Some employees received checks in six figures. Elsa's decision to share the sale proceeds with employees was likely the most generous gesture by an owner ever witnessed in Michigan industrial history. But it was in keeping with her late husband's practice from the beginning.

11. Diversity

Hispanics likely outnumber the Dutch in the Holland area. The 2010 census counted 16,000 in Holland and Holland Tp. Holland Public Schools for the last three years had 60 percent “minority” students--Hispanic, Asian, or African American. The word minority has become a misnomer. (The statistics exclude Charter and Christian schools).

Hispanics, mostly single young men, first came in the 1920s, courtesy of the Holland-St. Louis Sugar Company. Heinz and its contract farm growers in the 1950s began hiring Mexican stoop labor to pick tomatoes and pickles and other crops. Later, Hispanics worked in the berry fields, on tree farms and nurseries. In 1970, Holland had five times the state average percentage of Hispanics (10 percent of the population), and by 1990, the city had seven times the state average.

That Hispanics came in the summer and stayed for the fall canning season is not surprising. What is remarkable is that they stayed and became residents. Why? They were welcomed here. Churches provided food, clothing, day care, and medical care. The Christian Reformed Spanish mission, Nueva Vida, was founded in 1953. The United Methodist, Central Wesleyan, and Reformed churches also reached out. Rev. "Andy" Fierro, who led the Hispanic RCA Crossroad Chapel for more than twenty years, grew up in Holland and was, in his words, "about as Dutch as you can get," yet, he often felt like a "visitor." Yes, there were instances of discrimination and acts of prejudice, but generally Hollanders welcomed the minorities and the schools accommodated them.

Since most Hispanics are Roman Catholics, St. Francis took the lead in ministering to them. The parish had 250 Hispanic families in the 1970s.

The first full-fledged ministry in the migrant camps began in 1961 by the Holland Area Council of Church Women United. Later, the CRC started Buen Pastor (Good Pastor) in conjunction with Good Samaritan Ministries and Ottawa County Community Coordinated Child Care. Volunteers watched preschool children at Rose Park Christian School and then at Third Reformed Church, while the parents worked in the berry fields.

Asians--Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, mostly Buddhists, came as war refugees beginning in 1975, all sponsored under Church World Service by local congregations or individual members. Church volunteers found and furnished housing, introduced them to the American way of life, and helped them find jobs. Bil-Mar, Herman Miller, Donnelly, Prince, Gentex, and other firms hired them. Today there are 3,600 (9%) Asians in H City and H Tp. St. Francis enveloped the Catholic Vietnamese. The Christian Reformed Church sponsored Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese congregations.

African Americans made their way on their own. There are about 2,200 (4%) now. Most belonged to Pentecostal, Baptist, or Reformed churches. The growing diversity in Holland's population helps explain why Barack Obama carried Holland in the 2008 presidential election. Not even Franklin D. Roosevelt could accomplish this in four tries. Holland last voted Democratic during the Civil War, in 1864. That's nearly 150 years! I close with this eleventh surprise.