Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City

by Robert P. Swierenga ’57


Summer 2014

Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City by Robert P. Swierenga

Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City by Robert P. Swierenga

In addition to a windmill, klompen dancers and a tulip festival, Holland, Mich., now can claim at least one other thing that is unique to a small town in America: a comprehensive written history.

At 2,618 pages, Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City is a three-volume set, including nearly 900 photographs and an index of more than 200 pages. The book encompasses the community’s history of religion, education, transportation, industry, politics, social services and the arts. It also details national events, including World War I and World War II and the Great Depression.

“It surprised me as it grew, too,” author Robert Swierenga said of the book’s girth, “but when you’re trying to tell the story of an entire community, you can’t avoid it.”

The book begins with the Native Americans who inhabited the land along Lake Michigan well before Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte and his colony of Dutch immigrants settled there in 1847. The book continues for 34 chapters detailing every aspect of Holland’s history, ending with a chapter titled “After the Dutch: A Changing Community,” focusing on the city’s shift to a more multicultural community.

Swierenga has served as the Albertus C. Van Raalte Research Professor at the Van Raalte Institute since 1996. The idea for the book came to Swierenga shortly after he had finished Dutch Chicago: A History of Hollanders in the Windy City in 2002.

“I was thinking about what my next project should be, and here I am with all of the city’s records within a block of me or directly under my feet,” said Swierenga, whose office is on the floor above the city’s archival materials and down the street from the city library and museum. “It seemed like a natural thing to do something on the local history.”

A historian with more than two dozen books to his credit, Swierenga began the task by researching local newspapers, including many in Dutch, archival records, previously recorded interviews and conducting personal interviews with longtime residents.

“It was like putting together a giant 5,000-piece puzzle,” said Swierenga, who worked on the project for 11 years.

While the book is written chronologically, it had to be broken down topically, Swierenga explained. “There were just too many things to integrate into one narrative,” he said. “For instance, the section on public education is more than 100 pages.”

Swierenga has conducted research and written on Dutch immigration and related topics since beginning his career as a history professor at Calvin in the 1960s and later at Kent State University. However, there were still a few outcomes of his research that surprised him.

“One thing I didn’t know was that Rev. Van Raalte ended up a millionaire,” said Swierenga. “He owned a lot of land, which increased in value. I never knew the scope of that.”

Also, Swierenga was impressed by the early Dutch settlers’ entrepreneurial spirit. “A million dollars’ worth of goods was shipped from Holland to Chicago very early on, which helped build the economic base,” he said. “They were making everything from wood and shipping it out.”

The book’s appendices document in table form population statistics; church, school and business histories; and the names of public officials, including police and fire marshals.

While the book is encyclopedic in scope, it is written as a narrative that can be read from cover to cover to bring the heritage of Holland, Mich., to life. It also serves to inform readers on early American history no matter where their geographical interest might be.

“Holland has won lots of awards,” said Swierenga. “It’s been recognized as a great place to live. Hopefully, this book helps tell the story of why Holland has been such a successful city.”