THE HOLLANDERS OF IOWA
JACOB VAN DER ZEE
Submitted by Gayle Harper
Home - Table of Contents - Appendix A
COMMUNITY LIFE AMONG THE HOLLANDERS IN IOWA
THE Dutch nation has always been an easy subject for "the panegyrical and eulogistic historian". The indomitable traits of the Dutch national character, revealed by the annals of Holland's Golden Age which are among the most interesting in the world's history, have endured until this day, though Holland's splendor and glory as a first-rate power of Europe have long since declined. Despite national decay every intelligent Hollander, whether he is thrown among strangers or remains at home, retains a strong feeling of national pride. He honors the memory of his ancestors for their deeds of heroism and bravery, even when he comes to live among the inhabitants of successful Dutch communities in Iowa.
Impelled by a love of religious liberty and a hope of finding for themselves and their children larger opportunities to live, hundreds of Hollanders removed to America in 1846 and 1847, some to dwell in the unpeopled forests of western Michigan and others to occupy the frontier farms of central Iowa. Though religion has ceased to be a cause of emigration, much the same type - the Hollander of old fashioned ways and sturdy puritanical mien -continues to arrive in Iowa. Those who were once heralded as "an interesting and valuable class of foreigners" have undergone the process of Americanization for several decades. More recent immigrants - although some to be sure have left Holland for their country's good - are in general no less valuable as an acquisition to America's conglomerate of nationalities.
Although the Hollanders have occupied territory in Marion County and vicinity for nearly sixty-five years, they have not yet become amalgamated with the American people of Anglo-Saxon origin. They still form a distinctively Dutch community, as do their kinsmen and fellow-countrymen of northwestern Iowa. For perpetuating this peculiar aloofness perhaps no other single agency has been so responsible as the church. In the local social life of the Dutch the churches are undoubtedly the strongest factor: they have kept the Hollanders isolated from close and intimate relations with their English-speaking and German neighbors.
Naturally Dutch immigrants also show an inclination to look upon the people of other nationalities with a somewhat supercilious air - a feeling which has accordingly retarded intermarriage. For years sons of well-to-do Hollanders have married daughters of other well-to-do Hollanders, oftentimes brothers of one family choosing sisters of another, and usually all belong to the same church denomination, a stereotyped rule which loses some of its force with each succeeding generation.
Whenever from choice or from force of circumstances the Dutch immigrant makes his home among Americans he shows that he possesses the imitative faculty to a high degree: he is quick to adopt the habits and methods of his American neighbors, and experiences no particular difficulty in casting off much of his old Dutch sturdiness. But when he prefers to throw in his lot with a community of his fellow-countrymen, he conforms to a well-preserved social order based on Dutch stability and stolidity. He finds that his Dutch neighbors have lived and worked within the confines of their settlement, whether in town or in the country; that nearly all are engaged and interested in the same occupations; and that their whole life is centred about their churches.
And so with the retention of old Dutch national traits intensified by constant accessions of fresh blood from The Netherlands, despite their patriotism and partial adoption of the English language, American inventions, and a few American ways, the Hollanders of Iowa form a lump which can not truthfully be said to have entered the American "melting pot". They are still for the most part an unassimilated, clannish, though not entirely isolated, mass of foreigners who have necessarily acquired an American veneer from the environment created by the political and social ideas of America.
Town life among the Hollanders of Iowa does not appear to be unlike that of the ordinary American community, and yet upon close observation many points of difference suggest themselves. Pella, despite its age and its large American element, is still the typical Dutch town of Iowa. Like other towns where Hollanders live in numbers, Pella covers an immense area of country, a very natural result when people purchase large plots of land for their houses, barns, and gardens. Old-fashioned Hollanders are not easily satisfied with a mere city lot: they want room for a potato patch and for various kinds of vegetables of which they may eat in season and store a surplus for the winter, and they take a keen delight in exercising their knowledge of gardening.(295) The younger generation, however, tends to pull away from the soil, and to apply spare moments to the care of lawns and flower beds. But generally speaking, Hollanders show more interest in ordinary gardening than their American neighbors; and except when their houses occupy conspicuous places, they manifest less consideration for lawns and lawn-mowers. Day-laborers pay least attention to these matters: few can spare the time and many take no pride in premises which they do not own.
Arboriculture, and more especially landscape gardening by means of grades and terraces, seem to be classed by most Dutch towns-people among the frills and luxuries of life and are, therefore, not deemed worthy of much serious attention. Orchards are comparatively few in town or country, and where they do exist they are in most cases allowed to grow up wild. Indeed, Hollanders in Iowa do not seem to appreciate fully the value and beauty of fruit trees: Sioux County ranks ninety-sixth in the State of Iowa, only three counties having a smaller acreage in orchards! Ornamental trees and shrubbery are only occasionally seen. Retired farmers, a numerous class in most Dutch towns, have more time for such pursuits as flower culture, lawn-mowing, and gardening; and they usually have yards that are models of cleanliness and rustic simplicity. Dutch tulip and hyacinth bulbs have been imported every year into at least one town.
Good substantial hardwood trees seem never to have appealed strongly to the Hollanders of Iowa. They cut down nearly all of the fine hardwood timber of Marion County for their pioneer dwellings. There as in Sioux County Dutch farmers and townspeople have had an eye for quick results rather than for permanent beauty, for in their impatience to enjoy shade in summer and protection from cold blasts in winter they planted cheap softwood trees. Box-elders, cottonwoods, and soft maples are seldom objects of comeliness in yards or upon city streets, least of all when they begin to display dead branches and decayed wood: they give towns an appearance of premature age and suggest a lack of local civic pride. Elms, oaks, hard maples, and hickories may be better adapted to a gravel soil and running water, but they flourish wherever they have been planted in Sioux County towns, though the enjoyment of shade was postponed for several years.
Picket and woven wire fences still exist to a large extent in the towns, but hedges not at all.. For the sake of simplicity and economy the Hollander upon the farm prefers barbed wire, and usually builds no fence along the country road, an arrangement which enables him to cultivate a considerable strip of the public highway. The Hollander in town, believing in privacy as well as orderliness, surrounds his premises with a fence of some sort, but studiously avoids cutting off his view of the street he wants to be able to see passersby.
Houses in Pella and other Dutch towns are in general plain frame buildings of various shapes and sizes, standing at irregular distances from the street. Owing to lack of uniformity in this respect town streets present an appearance by no means attractive. At Pella one-story frame and brick cottages, many with green and yellow shutters modelled after the cottages of Holland, stand here and there as reminders of the early years. As in American towns, there are, of course, many houses of modern architecture, reflecting various degrees of personal taste, but generally exteriors as well as interiors affect severe simplicity with all the proverbial evidences of Dutch cleanliness. This plainness tends to give way as wealth increases and the desire for display enters the minds of the younger people. The piano has found its way into the parlors of Dutch communities, rather as an object of decoration than as an indication of culture, refinement, or musical talent, for the music-teacher has received but scant encouragement. Hollanders show more fondness for vocal than for instrumental music.
As in most other respects, in dress the Hollanders, men and women and children, maintain the same strict simplicity. Certainly gaudiness and the latest styles from the world's fashion centers are not paraded where the Dutch live, for society makes few demands upon them. Social intercourse can not 'be said to reign or even to exist in private life except among people who happen to be more or less associated in business, although considerable fellowship is bound up with church life. The genuine, hard-working Hollander is more often a man of domestic tastes, closely attached to his home with its simple comforts and a housewife's excellent cooking: such a place affords him the best retreat.
Dutch dishes of well-cooked, wholesome foods of the heavier sort still predominate among the Hollanders of Iowa; but of course some American dishes have been adopted. Edam cheese, smoked beef, rye bread, rusks, currant bread, Sint Nicolaas cookies, and other national delicacies have survived the journey across the Atlantic and are just as popular among the Dutch in America as in Holland. Needless to say the Dutch eat heartily.
A visitor to the home of a Hollander of average means is greeted with frank hospitality and unreserved courtesy. If he comes in the morning at about ten o'clock, he will be treated to coffee and something to eat with it. In the same way will he be welcomed at mid-afternoon, a custom which prevails especially upon the farms where the men have their refreshments regularly mornings and afternoons. Good manners are generally the mark of the foreign-born Hollander who has had some experience of social ranks, but they are not infrequently missing in Dutch children reared in the American atmosphere of hurry and money-making.
Hollanders who have sprung from the middle class of townspeople in The Netherlands have retained intact in America most of the traits characteristic of genteel people everywhere. Culture, however, in the broad sense of the word, is conspicuously absent in the life of most Hollanders in Iowa. With the exception of ministers, teachers, and other people of more than ordinary education, the Hollanders, it is to be feared, have sadly neglected even the most accessible forms of culture, such as reading, for in a majority of homes the visitor will find but a scant supply of good newspapers, magazines, and books.(296) To stimulate interest in reading, a Dutch woman, Miss Sieberke Viersen, donated land and money for the Carnegie-Viersen Library at Pella. Other Dutch communities are as yet without such modern opportunities.
The following quotation with reference to the first Dutch immigrants to Iowa does not apply to the great mass of Hollanders who arrived later:
It is true, however, that among the pioneers there prevailed greater simplicity of taste and a wider community of interest than exists among their successors to-day. In all the towns where Hollanders live one may find unmistakable signs of undemocratic ways: some citizens put on airs, not marked, but none the less noticeable. At the same time there exists a fairly even distribution of wealth, and one notes neither extreme wealth nor extreme poverty; while as far as descent is concerned the Hollanders of Iowa are for the most part sprung from the common people of Holland: hence there is at least an equality of birth, even if the people are not equally wealthy, intelligent, and cultured. A tendency to establish ranks on the basis of wealth has sprung up; but despite airs of superiority, real or imagined, Hollanders in America address each other familiarly in Dutch, a thing which they did not and could not do in monarchical Holland where class distinctions and special forms of address abound.
Business men of the towns naturally assume the initiative in matters of civic concern, for if such affairs were left to retired farmers, artisans, and laboring men, no great amount of public spirit would be shown. Much has already been accomplished in the way of municipal improvements in such towns as Pella, Orange City, Alton, and Sioux Center. Pella has electric light and water conveyed from the Des Moines River, about four miles distant, and lights some of its streets with electroliers. Orange City also has electricity, while the other towns own gas plants. All ,have telephones and miles upon miles of good cement walks and crossings.
Public parks in the two older towns do not seem to inspire much civic pride, are little enjoyed, and less attended to. Band-stands also have stood for many years, but there is not the sustained enthusiasm which is necessary to maintain bands year after year. And yet when such organizations as brass-bands and base-ball teams are called into existence, they are liberally supported by the business men and citizens. Young men outgrow their period of play and early direct their efforts to the achievement of financial success - whereupon they have no time to sacrifice in purely congenial pursuits.
Public school buildings in the Dutch communities compare favorably with those of American towns. Jails might just as well not exist, for lawlessness is almost unknown. The saloons of two or three years ago have been plucked out of Pella, Orange City, and some other towns, and though a visit to their railroad stations reveals a brisk traffic in liquor, Hollanders are pretty evenly divided between temperance and total abstinence.
Neat stores and good shop windows add much to the appearance of most of the towns. When high market prices induce farmers to go to town with their loads of hogs or grain, and when Saturdays come, town streets and stores lose their deserted look and business becomes paramount. Then town and country people throng the shops - the former to buy goods for cash, and the latter to trade their butter and eggs for the next week's supplies. Then one hears a Babel of dialects from nearly all the provinces of Holland.
There are people who speak the dialects peculiar to the fertile sea-clay and marshy fen lands of South and North Holland; there are natives from the archipelago of Zeeland, from the beautiful woodland and meadows of Utrecht, and others come from the sand-hills of Gelderland. Still others hail from the meadows and moors of Overysel, from the desolate wastes of fen-land and heather-covered moorland of Drenthe; and many speak the droll dialect of the agricultural province of Groningen or the language of Friesland. Pure Dutch, when it is heard, is a welcome relief in the midst of such a jargon of tongues. Furthermore, in conversation and in business transactions people adopt Americanisms of common usage, and oftentimes they alternate between English and Dutch. Indeed, there is no better time than Saturday afternoons to observe that the Dutch language can not withstand the persistent inroads of the English. (See Appendix C.)
One still occasionally meets with old immigrants who wear plain band earrings of silver or gold. While wooden-shoes are not worn in public, they are manufactured for home use in every Dutch community: they are a convenient accessory by the use of which every good housewife is relieved of the constant application of mop or broom, for either in town or country they may be stepped into as one leaves the house, worn upon wet lawns or muddy yards, and left at the door upon returning. They help to keep the house "netjes" (neat).
Hollanders take very little interest in the forms of recreation and amusement so popular in American towns and cities: they are such poor patrons of "shows" of every kind that traveling companies habitually pass them by as unprofitable. Halls are sometimes used for political gatherings, band concerts, and lecture courses - for which townspeople are with some difficulty induced to subscribe. Skating-rinks, moving-picture shows, and dances attract the younger folks, but dancing is rarely indulged in because it shocks and antagonizes older, people. Fourth of July celebrations among the Hollanders do not differ from the boisterous exhibitions so peculiar to America, but in Sioux County hundreds of people spend the day together in a quiet Christian way. Street fairs, too, and carnivals, and agricultural and stock shows are becoming more popular and surely more easily accessible since automobiles have come along to annihilate time and space; but the devil-may-care spirit of the Dutch "kermis" or annual fair in Holland is not to be met with in Iowa.
Generally speaking, the old-fashioned Hollanders of Iowa do not assemble in large numbers except for religious or church purposes. As the years pass, however, the young people tend more and more in their everyday life to adopt the ways of the American public and to break with the orthodox views of their elders, and thus exert a softening influence on the hard tone of community life; but parents continue to hope and pray that their children will retain the traditional hardihood, industry, frugality, thrift, morality, and religion for which the Hollanders are famous as a people.
The following are the words of an American pioneer woman who saw the Pella Hollanders on the road to their lands in Marion County and who knew them as neighbors for nearly sixty years.(298) What she said is true of the great mass of Dutch immigrants to Iowa: since their first harvest in the autumn of 1848, when they took pride in the fact that they kept their farms neater than Americans did, their chief contribution to the progress and wealth of the State has been in the domain of agriculture: (299)
As an element in the rural population of Iowa the immigrant farmers from Holland have found that the soil of Iowa, unlike that of their native land, lends itself easily to cultivation on account of its looseness and lightness, and that by reason of its fertility it yields rich crops for a long series of years almost entirely without' the aid of fertilizing materials. In Holland, as peasant laborers and peasant farmers, they were compelled to subject the soil to much careful and laborious attention; with fewer acres to cultivate they made their little farms bear two or three crops each season. In the fatherland theirs was the unending toil of men, but in Iowa where they gather only one crop annually labor is less grinding, for from large farms they reap wheat, oats, and barley which ripen with great rapidity, and Indian corn which shoots beyond the need of man's work in a few weeks' time.
In Holland where they had steady work in the fields, laborers were so plentiful and so cheap that nearly all the work was done by hand. In America the Hollander prefers to attend to his own business rather than another's and consequently farm servants as a class are scarce. He finds that Yankee ingenuity and inventiveness have come to the rescue of the American farmer: gangplows, wide harrows, pulverizers, seeders, mowers, hay-rakes, binders, and threshing-machines, and all the other agricultural conveniences supply the place of human hands. But at the same time many a Dutch woman reared on Iowa soil has helped her father or husband do general farm work during a busy season.
The Hollander farms on a big scale even if he is not always thorough. Accustomed to neatness and economy in Holland he at first shudders with horror at the economy of weeds and waste upon American farms; but he is soon hardened, if not reconciled, to such surroundings, because he discovers that they are attendant upon American farm methods. If he is fortunate enough to have a large family of sons, the Dutch farmer plays havoc with weeds and endeavors to eradicate all traces of them from his sight; while in the matter of wastefulness he is, perhaps, not so guilty as his American neighbors.(300)
Intrenched upon some of the most fruitful land, unsurpassed for richness of soil, the Hollanders of Marion County and of Sioux County later have looked upon agriculture as their chief source of livelihood, for success has consistently attended their efforts. That the Dutch are among the best farmers in the State of Iowa and therefore in the United States can be gathered from many years of agricultural history. In Sioux County where 1440 farmers are foreign-born and 1275 are native-born (Sioux County's northern neighbor, Lyon County, is the only other Iowa county where foreign-born outnumber native-born), the farmers of Dutch birth and ancestry form a majority.(301) Statistics of 1910 for Sioux County, the most typical and most prosperous Dutch farming community in America, reveal no less the character of Dutch farmers in other counties of Iowa.
Sioux County has farm property including land, buildings, implements and machinery, domestic animals, poultry and bees, valued at nearly $65,000,000, and in this matter bows only to Pottawattamie County which has an area one hundred square miles larger. Next to Kossuth, Plymouth, and Pottawattamie counties, each of which covers an area one-eighth larger, Sioux County contains the largest number of acres of improved land.
The farmers of Sioux County rank fourth in acres planted in corn and tie for second place in the number of bushels raised; fifth in acres of oats and third in bushels raised; and first in acres planted in barley and in bushels raised. They sow almost no winter wheat and rank fourth for spring wheat. Sioux County stands sixth in the number of horses, sixth in the number of cattle, eighteenth in the number of milk-cows, third in number of hogs, and thirty-eighth in poultry.
As compared with other counties of larger area, Sioux County shows a wonderful record in agriculture and stock-raising. Naturally well-drained, farms there require no help from man; indeed, tile-laying is more of an industry among the Hollanders of Marion County. In recent years Dutch farmers have learned that taking the same crop from the same land without rest or interruption is an exhaustive and unwise policy to pursue. Of fertilizing their fields they formerly had little thought, but in 1908 Sioux County farmers, and the Hollanders especially, did more to improve the fertility of their soil than the farmers of any other county in Iowa. And although the average value of land per acre in Sioux County is from $100 to $125, land values among the Hollanders hover around the $150 and $200 marks. As a matter of fact there is not much land on the market, and rents are climbing higher and higher.(302)
There was a time also when the Hollanders cared very little about improving the breed of horses, cattle, and hogs: "scrubs" were good enough. But as prosperity increased and as their knowledge of American farm life grew, especially from visits to county agricultural fairs, there was awakened in them a desire to have only blooded stock. To-day they think better of raising horses, cattle, and hogs related to the best strain of imported and registered breeds. Fine herds of Durham, Hereford, Holstein, Friesian, Shorthorn, and other breeds of cattle are not numerous, but are at least aspired after. Poland China, Duroc Jersey, and Berkshire hogs are one of the main sources of revenue. The pride of the Dutch farmer is fine draft horses sired by the best imported Percheron, Norman, and Clydesdale stallions, which are usually bought and owned by associations of farmers.(303)
As in Holland, Dutch farmers in Iowa show a tendency to work on old-fashioned principles and to neglect or even laugh at scientific farming: they are inclined to be skeptical about modern improved methods, and either have a low opinion or none at all of the doctrines propounded by agricultural theorists who occasionally lecture among them. On the other hand, they make up for that handicap by being thoroughly hard-working and thrifty. Their wives and daughters are none the less energetic, often working in the fields; while, generally speaking, they have few of the wants which so often accompany the life of Yankee farmers.
And though there may be lack of education among many of the Hollanders, they are by no means ignorant men. Neighbors are on the best of terms and help one another in the busy season. When a progressive Hollander or American has successfully experimented with some new idea, his neighbors soon wake up to the fact and are glad to learn a practical lesson. They are slow but sure: the value of the automobile to the farmer has recently been demonstrated to them, not without result. It remains to be seen whether Dutch farmers will invest in silos, the latest farm novelty. Sioux County could boast of sixteen in 1908 and Marion County had but one. They had thirty-nine and fourteen, respectively, in 1910.(304)
Hollanders on the farms of Iowa have not been much given to reading: they have shown a lamentable backwardness in this respect, perhaps because they work from early in the morning till late at night. But whether they lacked the time or the inclination in past years, they have begun to feel the need of such weeklies as The Homestead, Wallace's Farmer, The Farmer's Tribune, and The Stock-breeder's Journal, as well as of daily newspapers for the latest market reports. All of these innovations, besides rural telephones and rural mail deliveries in both Sioux and Marion counties, have brought the Hollanders into closer touch with the world. Slowly but surely they are installing the latest conveniences in their houses and the most practical mechanical appliances upon their farms, but they never lose sight of their motto to buy land, keep it, and treat it well.
The Hollander can not be said to belong to that class of people who live beyond their means, but he is, on the contrary, an extremely conservative spender and investor. As his wealth accumulates he becomes more willing to incur occasional expense for this or that luxury, but the element of speculation for the sake of increased returns does not lure him to adopt all the up-to-date methods of his wide-awake progressive American neighbors. At the end of the year, however, the Dutch farmer can point to a comfortable margin in his favor, even if he has not enjoyed all the comforts of his Yankee brothers. Such is the thrift of Hollanders that ninety-five per cent of the chattel mortgages in Marion County cover property owned by farmers south of the Des Moines River where comparatively few Hollanders live. Such is their honesty that the banks of Pella have more unsecured notes than any other banks in Iowa.(305)
Judging from their past and present enthusiasm for agriculture the Hollanders of Iowa will. not soon desert their farms. Immigrants from Holland are willing to work harder in America because they can find financial contentment sooner, while the sons of immigrants are convinced that farming is on the whole a very satisfactory occupation, even if, not always pleasant. Like the Scandinavians and the Germans of Iowa, the Hollanders are sons of the soil with inexhaustible patience and a willingness to take pains; and as perhaps no other foreigners in the United States they exemplify the truth of the assertion that northern Europeans will be able to take care of America's farms in the future: they are workers, plodders, savers; and they know how to make farms pay.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(295) The gardeners of Orange City were once famous for their culture of celery. Some years ago it was said that they probably ranked second to the growers of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and that their product was shipped all over the States of Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. They cleared from $300 to $400 per acre. -- See Agricultural Report (Iowa), 1889, p. 542.
(296) This complaint was made by a writer in The Banner (Grand Rapids, Michigan), Vol. 46, p. 101. "Some culture," he asserts, "is obtained in church., in catechetical and Sunday-school classes, in young men's societies, in the meetings of consistories, classes and synods, in lecture courses, in meetings of school-boards and conventions."
(297) Phillips' Mahaska County, p. 243; and van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, p. 66.
(298) Phillips' Mahaska County, pp. 240-242.
(299) Scholte's Tweede Stem uit Pella, p. 5.
(300) Van't Lindenhout wrote in his Zes
Wkeen tusschen de Wielen: "Straw is simply burned because it
isn't worth transportation. If a factory were fitted up here for the
manufacture of straw-paper and for the working of flax which is much sown
here and off which only the seed is saved, a good business enterprise
would certainly result."
(301) United States Census, 1910, Bulletin of Statistics on Agriculture in Iowa. Lyon County had 894 foreign-born farmers and 775 native-born. Of the Sioux County farms, 701 were operated by foreign-born owners and 736 by foreign-born tenants - only Pottawattamie County had more farms operated by foreign-born owners, and Lyon and Plymouth counties came next to Sioux County with 424 and 391. foreign-born tenants, respectively.
(302) United States Census, 1910,
Bulletin of Statistics on Agriculture in Iowa.
(303) Agricultural Report (Iowa ), 1888, p. 536; 1889, p. 541; and 1895, p. 428.
(304) Agricultural Report (Iowa), 1909, pp, 91, 92; and 1910, pp. 81., 82.
(305) The Pella National Bank has wisely
hit upon the plan of giving its patrons subscriptions to The Homestead in
place of calendars at Christmas time. Such means are destined to stimulate
among Dutch farmers a much-needed interest in farm journals.
Copyright 2003. These electronic pages are posted for the benefit of individuals only who are researching their family histories. These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit or presentation by any other organization or persons. Persons or organizations desiring to use this material, must obtain the written consent of the contributor, or the legal representative of the submitter, and contact the Sioux County Coordinator with proof of this consent.