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Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City        2002

                   Robert P. Swierenga

              A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College







 1 Dutch Chicago Takes Shape

 2 Like Mother, Like Daughter: Dutch Calvinism In America

 3 Guided by God is Guided Well: The Founding Years

 4 Pulpit and Pew in the Heyday of the Groninger Hoek

 5 White Flight: Reformed Churches Seek the Suburbs

 6 Churches of Roseland: The Frisian Settlement

 7 Feeders of the Church: Christian Schools

 8 A Covenanted Community: Church Social Life

 9 From Womb to Tomb: Mutual Aid Societies and Cemeteries

10 The Elites: Dutch American Social Clubs

11 "Plowing in hope": Truck Farming and Colonization

12 Business is "picking up:" Garbage and Cartage

13 Buying Dutch

14 Help a Hollander: Ethnic Politics

15 The "Other" Hollanders: Jews and Catholics

16 The Dutch Reformed as a Covenanted Community


 1 Dutch Garbage Companies

 2 Dutch Cartage Companies

 3 Churches, Schools, and Missions

 4 Societies and Clubs

 5 Church Membership, 1853-1978





          great grandfather Jan Hendriks Swierenga (1847-1899)

          grandfather Bouwko (Robert) Swierenga (1887-1949)

          father John R. Swierenga (1911-1999)

          uncles Ralph Swierenga (1919-1987),

          Henry R. Swierenga (1924-1998)

          Paul Tuitman (1908-    )

          and all the Groninger teamsters on Chicago's West Side   


     My paternal great grandfather, Jan Swierenga (1847-1899), a canal bargeman in the Netherlands, died thirty-six years before my birth, but his decision in 1893 to emigrate to Chicago from the province of Groningen had a direct bearing on his descendants. Instead of hauling grain in Groningen, Jan's sons and grandsons became teamsters and produce wholesalers in Chicago, except for a son and daughter who farmed.

     Jan Swierenga's ancestors were humble peasant folk of Reformed persuasion who devoted themselves to family and faith. For at least nine generations since the late-1600s, the family, despite frequent moves, lived clustered within an eight-mile radius of Stedum, which is located about twelve miles north of the city of Groningen, the provincial capital. They sometimes married cousins and even in-laws, which suggests that the clan shared a social life. Until the nineteenth century, the family belonged to the national Reformed (Hervormde) Church. But after a spiritual revival and secession in the 1830s, some joined and served as officers in the more orthodox Christian Seceded Church (Christelijk Afgescheiden Kerk), later renamed the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijk Gereformeerde Kerk). Jan and his family joined the Christian Reformed Church in 1876.

     Over the centuries the Swierengas worked as farm laborers, farmer operators, and, in the last three generations in the nineteenth century, as canal bargemen and grain brokers.

These last hauled wheat and other grains to market in the city of Groningen and set prices for the various grades at the national board of trade in the city.

     The wheat-producing region of Groningen and Friesland suffered a severe depression in the 1880s, due to falling prices in world markets caused by the glut of new production on the rich American and Canadian prairies. The agricultural crisis forced Dutch farmers to mechanize and consolidate land holdings in order to compete with North American growers. Farm laborers and small farmers were cast off by the tens of thousands, and emigration to America offered the best long-term prospects.

     Jan owned a canal barge and tow horse and transported grain from a windmill, known as Olle Widde (“Old White", which stood among fertile grain fields beside his rented red brick home on the outskirts of a small village in the north of the country. Across the road was the canal, the Damsterdiep, which ran directly to the national grain market in the city of Groningen.

     The precipitating event in Jan's decision to emigrate to Chicago was a financial blow caused by a canal shipping accident. While hauling a full load of wheat to the Groningen grain market, Jan had to pass through a sluis (“lock" on the canal. He followed the usual procedure of tying his barge to the side of the sluis but failed to allow enough slack line. When the water level in the lock dropped suddenly and unexpectedly, the rope became taut and caused the boat to tip, and the entire load,

about twenty tons, was soaked and ruined. This disaster drained Jan financially. He decided to start over in Chicago, where his older brother had settled on the West Side eleven years earlier, having followed a paternal uncle who immigrated shortly after the Civil War. It was a typical "chain migration," in which members of an extended family follow and assist one another over time.

     Jan and his wife and eight children arrived amidst the great Columbian Exposition. Like most immigrants, they had left a pinched existence for the promise of a better future in an expansive new land. Chicago was a burgeoning metropolis, dubbed the "lightning city" because of the unbelievable pace of growth that came with its strategic location as the gateway to the West.

Jan again took up transport work, buying a horse and wagon to haul limestone and commodities of all kinds. But 1893 was not a good year to arrive in the United States. One of the periodic business panics struck that year and set off a depression second

only to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Swierenga family suffered greatly, living in a damp basement and lacking adequate food. Before the economic crisis had run its course, Jan's wife Katrijn had died in 1897 of "consumption," and Jan had succumbed

two years later to tuberculosis; both were diseases of poverty. The parents left seven orphans, three boys and four girls, since the oldest daughter had married.                

     Jan and Katrijn emigrated and sacrificed their lives for the sake of their children, all of whom married Dutch Reformed spouses and prospered. The oldest son farmed in South Dakota, and the other two sons together operated a wholesale produce house at Chicago's Randolph Street market. The food business provided a solid middle-class living for their families and launched several of the children on the road to even greater success in the trucking business in Chicago. They lived out the promise of America, and in their memory I dedicate this book.


1.1  Dutch in Chicago, 1850

1.2  Dutch in Chicago, 1860

1.3  Dutch in Chicago, 1870

1.4  Dutch in Chicago, 1880

1.5  Dutch in Chicago, 1900

1.6  Reformed Churches on the Old West Side

1.7  Map of Chicago and Environs, 1867

5.1  Churches and Schools in Cicero, Berwyn, and Oak Park

5.2  Churches and Schools in Englewood

5.3  Churches and Schools in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn

5.4  Churches in Summit District

6.1  Churches and Schools in Roseland

7.1  School attendance by age and sex, Dutch in Chicago, 1900

15.1  Holy Family Parish, 1857-1923


 1.1 Dutch-born and Dutch Parentage, by Ward, Chicago, 1850-1900

 2.1 Emigration by Year, Reformed Church and Seceded Church Members, 1835-1857

 2.2 Mentalities of Chicago’s Dutch Reformed Churches

15.1 Dutch Jewish Wards in Chicago, 1870, 1900


     "Many hands make light work," says the old adage, and I experienced its truth in writing this book. Most helpful was the assistance in transcribing, translating, and reviewing Dutch-language church records, periodicals, and newspapers. Hendrik Harms transcribed thousands of pages of consistory minute books, thus making often obtuse, hand-written text eminently clear. Henry Lammers read these copies, and many more in the original form, and summarized or translated relevant items. His knowledge of Reformed Church history and polity gave him a sharp eye to hone in on important trends and turning points, and to see the deeper meaning of seemingly routine consistorial work. Lammers also reviewed microfilmed files of the important Dutch-language Chicago newspaper, Onze Toekomst. Huug van den Dool and Simone Kennedy translated several items from other newspapers and sections of books published in the Netherlands. Dirk Hoogeveen translated the remarkable Chicago letters of Bernardus De Bey. I also benefited from the translation by William Buursma and Nella Kennedy, under the auspices of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute, of the minutes of the Classis of Wisconsin of the Reformed Church in America for the years 1856-1890. This classis included the immigrant congregations of greater Chicago until 1918. Ginger Evenhouse Bilthuis shared genealogical information from her voluminous records of West Side families.

     Martin Stulp, a friend and fellow member of my Timothy Christian School Class of 1949, recorded on video tape more than twenty hours of reminiscences of native westsiders, including Jake Bakker, Dirk Brouwer, Effie Dwarshuis, Ben Essenburg, Ben and Martha Heslinga, Mike and Lena Keizer, Tom Oldenburger, Ralphina Roeters, John R. Swierenga, and Hank and Marie Tameling. Essenburg drove Stulp around the Ashland Avenue district of the Old West Side for two hours. With Stulp's camera running, they traversed every street, and Essenburg recounted from his incredible memory which Dutch families lived in which houses in the 1930s and 1940s, where the boys played baseball, life on the

schoolyard and in the churches, and favorite soda fountains and watering holes. Since most of the buildings are gone and the streets stand empty and largely deserted, Essenburg's memories are a time warp that recreate a time when life was lived on the front porches, and the streets were alive with activity.

     I interviewed a number of other westsiders on audio and videotape, including Dick Blaauw, Henry Martin Stob, Clarence and Anna Boerema, and Robert Vander Velde. Above all, I mined the vivid memories of my late father, John R. Swierenga, a Chicago cartageman and churchman who knew everyone and could recall the most minute details of people, places, and events. I only wish he had lived to see the end product of this research.

     Many men who know the Chicago scavenger industry at first hand shared with me their knowledge, family and business records, and photographs. I am particularly indebted to Calvin Iwema for making available for the first time the minute books of the

Chicago & Suburban Ash and Scavenger Association for the years 1935-1943. William Buiten, Sam Hamstra, Jr., Peter H. Huizenga, the brothers Edward and John Evenhouse, and William Zeilstra read all or parts of chapter 12 and offered advice and information.

     Ross and Peggy Ettema, with the valued assistance of Randy Bosma, freely provided genealogical information on Roseland families from their treasure trove of data extracted from church, school, and social records. William Prince and Jackie Vander Weide Swierenga Vogelzaang shared books and photos of early Roseland.

     Jane Wezeman Smith and her brother Fred Wezeman kindly made available the voluminous files of their father, Frederick H. Wezeman, principal of Chicago Christian High School and Chicago Christian Junior College. The files included rare photographs and documents and a nearly complete run of Wezeman's newspaper, the Chicago Messenger, 1934-36. William Buiten shared his firsthand knowledge of the Timothy Christian School imbroglio with the Lawndale Christian Reformed Church. Arnold Hoving provided valuable information on Timothy Christian Schools in the 1970s

and 1980s. Peter H. Huizenga, Timothy alumnus extraordinaire, provided a publication subvention that made this effort feasible. His can-do attitude nudged me to "get it done."

A number of "FOPs" (Friends of Peter) generously provided funds to ensure that the book reaches the hands of the children and grandchildren of the "greatest generations," whose story is told here. These benefactors are Ken and Gwen Hoving, Dick and Pixie Molenhouse, Martin and Janet Ozinga, Jr., Martin and Ruth Ozinga III, Rob and Sally Petroelje, Steve and Joan Tameling, Terry and Linda Van Der Aa, Jack and Carolynn Van Namen, and Wayne and Barbara Vriesman.

     I owe much to the cooperation and expertise of the directors of the premier archives for the study of the midwestern Dutch in America, Geoffrey Reynolds and his predecessor Larry Wagenaar of the Joint Archives of Holland, and Richard Harms and his predecessor Herbert Brinks of the Calvin College Archives. They let me photocopy materials with abandon and suggested sources to use. This work rests heavily on these guides and their rich storehouses of records. Reynolds and Harms also enhanced the quality of the many photographs from their collections that complement the text by scanning them electronically. Reynolds gave countless hours to this tedious task, as did my student assistant, Christina Van Regenmorter. Timothy Ellens designed the jacket cover in his imaginative style, and my nephew Richard Boomker drew on his computer graphics training at Trinity Christian College to draw the maps and figures.

     My colleague, Elton J. Bruins, then director of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute and a constant source of encouragement and support, read the entire manuscript. So did Ben and Martin Essenburg, Timothy Douma, and William Zeilstra, all of whom have special gifts of insight and reflection on the meaning of growing up on the Old West Side and Cicero. Donald Bruggink, professor emeritus at Western Theological Seminary and the general editor of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, under whose auspices this book is being published, put his sharp pencil to the text, as did his copy editor, Laurie Baron. Klaas Woltersdorff shepherded the book through the production process at the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, as did copy editor Jenny Schakel Hoffman and her staff. Gordon De Young also read the final text with his trained editorial eye and saved me from a number of errors and muddled passages, for which I am deeply appreciative. Others who read and commented on various chapters are William D. Buursma, Henry J. Hoeks, Fred W. Huizenga, Arnold Hoving, Hans Krabbendam, Willliam Prince, Richard Schuurman, Jackie Vander Weide Swierenga Vogelzang, and Homer J. Wigboldy. My daughter Suzanna Swierenga Breems red-penciled grammatical and other problems in various drafts. Needless to add, I am solely responsible for the mistakes that careful readers will doubtless find in this book. There would be many more, were it not for the eyes of so many.

     Finally, I am grateful to the A.C. Van Raalte Institute of Hope College for providing me with a congenial place to work in a research center devoted to the study of the Dutch in America. The institute has generously supported my research and given encouragement at every turn. What more can a scholar ask for than the unfettered opportunity to follow one's head and heart? And telling this story of my own community and family has given me more satisfaction than any previous writing project.


     In 1980 an estimated 250,000 Chicagoans out of 5,000,000 in the greater metropolitan area (5 percent) claimed Dutch birth or ancestry, and the Windy City was second only to Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a Dutch center (with 20 percent). Yet the Chicago Dutch have remained an invisible people to historians and journalists for 150 years, and no wonder. At the high point of ethnic identity in 1930, the Dutch ranked only tenth among foreign-born residents, far below Germans (32 percent), Irish (11.5 percent), Swedes, and Poles (9 percent each). In 1893, after fifty years and a dozen Dutch Reformed churches, the Reverend Peter Moerdyke of Trinity Reformed Church in Chicago could lament in his weekly column in the Christian Intelligencer, the denominational weekly, that the Dutch "unhappily remain unknown in this metropolis."[1]

     The Chicago Dutch were a polyglot population from all social strata, regions, and religions of the Netherlands. Three-quarters were Calvinists; the remainder included Catholics, Lutherans, Unitarians, Socialists, Jews, and the nominally churched. By all expectations, the Dutch should have Americanized rapidly, intermarried, and disappeared as an ethnic group. Indeed, this happened to Protestants who preferred American denominations such as the Presbyterians, and to Dutch Jews and Catholics who joined German congregations. A Holland Presbyterian and a Holland Unitarian church also served the westsiders briefly, but both collapsed. Only one Catholic parish of some two hundred families, St. Willibrord in Roseland-Kensington, which was formed in the 1890s, preserved a Dutch Catholic identity in the twentieth century.

     The Dutch Reformed were concentrated in four enclaves until the 1920s: the Old West Side, Englewood on the near South Side, and Roseland and South Holland on the far South Side. From these "nests" eventually came many other Dutch settlements in greater Chicago. Of the four core areas, the Old West Side was "in almost every respect the most interesting of them all," according to Amry Vandenbosch in his book, The Dutch Communities of Chicago.

     The West Side was the quintessential working-class district. It was always the most congested and ethnically mixed, with the highest proportion of immigrants, the least attractive housing, and the slowest and least developed public transportation. The development of the west division lagged that of the rest of the city. Such neighborhoods are always in flux and pass through a natural cycle of growth, maturity, deterioration, and out-migration. The West Side Dutch community fits this classic pattern; it began near the city center and then relocated five times toward the suburbs, due to the encroachment of noisome factories and ethnic groups it considered uncouth and threatening. The westsiders relocated almost every generation, and in each cycle of "Dutch flight," they bought or built new churches, homes, schools, stores, and shops. By contrast, Englewood was stable for seventy-five years, and the Roseland and South Holland colonies remained intact for more than one hundred years.

     The Reformed Dutch survived against all odds in the metropolis of Chicago primarily because of their religious institutions. They experienced the full force of Americanization on their families and institutions, but they coped and even flourished by ghettoizing themselves as a cognitive minority (to use sociologist Peter Berger's phrase). This strategy worked for four generations and more, but since the 1950s many young adults have left the ethnic community behind for other climes or succumbed to the city's allure. Today, all of the Reformed congregations in greater Chicago count only twenty-three thousand members, or 10 percent of the city's quarter million Dutch.

     A major focus of this book is the emergence of the Groninger Hoek on the West Side in the years after the Civil War, but the Englewood and Roseland communities also share the story. Out of cultural diversity came unity, out of spiritual indifference came Calvinist orthodoxy and intense loyalty to the Reformed churches, and out of poverty came middle-class respectability. General

prosperity took two or three generations. Less than one in seven Dutch families in Chicago owned their own homes in 1900. Economic competency for most did not come until after the First World War, but it was the Second World War and its aftermath that brought real prosperity and even great wealth for some. Today the Dutch live comfortably in the far suburbs and worship in imposing churches. They enjoy the fruits of the sacrifices of their immigrant forebears, who gave up everything for freedom and opportunity in America.

This is the story I have recounted here in all its splendid detail. Those with roots in the Dutch sub-cultures of Chicago, especially the Reformed communities, will find their history rescued from near oblivion. Without history there can be no memory, and without memory there is no self-understanding. Above the entrance to the National Archives is inscribed the words, "Past is Prologue." Knowing the past enables one to understand the present and chart the future. For parents and grandparents this book offers a feast of recognition and nostalgia; it will jog their memories and kindle reminiscences about the "old days" among themselves and especially with their children and grandchildren. These conversations, hopefully, will create in the next generation a collective memory of families, churches, schools, and communities that has vanished. Such memories may help them avoid past failings and face the future with greater confidence.

     In short, this is a memory book for "insiders," although others are invited to look in. It tells the story, warts and all. Ethnicity and religion is a powerful adhesive, but it can also divide and exclude. I have described those divisions and setbacks, and also noted the triumphs and accomplishments. But I have not attempted to balance the strengths and weaknesses, or analyze the complicated interaction between faith and folk. Neither have I compared the Chicago Dutch to their compatriots elsewhere in the United States, or placed them in the midst of other ethnic groups in the city. Is there a Chicago Dutch character that sets them apart from Hollanders in Grand Rapids, Michigan? How do they differ from Chicago's other northern European immigrant groups, such as Germans and Swedes? Such analytic questions are worthy of study and readers are invited to use this detailed narrative account to build larger generalizations and conclusions.

                   Preface Notes

[1]. Peter Moerdyke, "Chicago Letter," Christian Intelligencer, 17 May 1893, p. 11; Cornelius Bratt, "Our Churches in Grand Rapids," ibid., 9 July 1890, p. 11; Robert P. Swierenga, comp., "Dutch in Chicago and Cook County 1900 Federal Census" (1992); William Harms, "Dutch settlers share heritage with the suburbs," Chicago Tribune (Daily Suburban edition), Apr. 26, 1983, p. 5; Chicago Department of Development and Planning, The People of Chicago: Who We Are and Who We Have Been (Chicago, 1976), 12-45.