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Hope College scholar creates first comprehensive history of Holland | Arts & Culture

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Hope College scholar creates first comprehensive history of Holland
Hope College scholar creates first comprehensive history of Holland

HOLLAND, Mich. – Described by one reviewer as a “magnum opus,” the first comprehensive history of the community of Holland, written by Dr. Robert P. Swierenga of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute at Hope College, more than deserves the title.

“Holland Michigan:  From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City” chronicles the entire sweep of the city’s history since 1847, when the initial band of Dutch settlers founded the community.  The book is a three-volume set totaling more than 2,600 pages with nearly 900 photographs.  Swierenga spent more than 10 years conducting research for and writing the history.  The index alone, some 200 pages long, required several months to create.

The book has been published by the Van Raalte Press at Hope and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. of Grand Rapids/Cambridge.  It is part of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America.

The three-volume set will be presented to the Holland City Council during the council’s meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m. at Holland City Hall.  Making the presentation will be Swierenga; Dr. Donald J. Bruggink, who is a senior research fellow with the Van Raalte Institute and the founding general editor of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America; and Dr. Jacob E. Nyenhuis, who is director of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute and editor-in-chief/publisher for the Van Raalte Press as well as provost emeritus and professor emeritus of Classics at Hope

A historian by training and the author or editor of more than two dozen books, several focused on aspects of the Dutch-American experience, Swierenga set out to write a scholarly treatment that would be enjoyable for a general audience.  Michigan historian Larry Massie has described the book as not only a “magnum opus” but also “encyclopedic in scope,” adding that “these three volumes tell the story of Holland’s colorful heritage in a format that will appeal to academics and the general public alike.”

Dr. Harry S. Stout, who is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University, noted, “The research is stunning in its depth and inclusiveness, and the writing is always engaging.”

“Whether the subject is economic change, religious evolution, population trends, or voting patterns, the Midwest town of Holland comes alive in a way seldom seen in town and community studies,” Stout said.  “This is a brilliant book that opens wholly new scholarly terrain in local history and links this to the larger patterns of American history more successfully than any previous work.”

Swierenga, who has served as the Albertus C. Van Raalte Research Professor at the Van Raalte Institute since 1996, didn’t plan to write 2,600 pages.  In the end, however, he found that his subject demanded it.

“You’re covering 167 years in any subject that you take,” he said.  “For example, it took me 100 pages just to tell the story of Holland Public Schools, a topic that could become a book in itself.”

Swierenga begins with the Native Americans and Old Wing Mission that preceded the Dutch settlers, and continues the story through 34 chapters focused on topics such as the founding of the community; religion; education; transportation; industry and retail businesses; national events including the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression; politics; public services; the arts; social services; the press; downtown renewal; and the community “After the Dutch.”  Nearly 100 pages of appendices provide population statistics and lists of churches, schools, businesses, city and township officials, and police and fire chiefs from the beginning through 2012.

Swierenga scanned some 2,500 photographs before choosing the 900 included in the book.  They’re drawn from a mix of formal archives, private collections and other published sources, and range from an image of one of the 1847 log cabins and an 1879 “Market Day” with cattle lined up on Eighth Street for auction, to the now-defunct Szekely Airfield at 136th and Riley and the dedication of Evergreen Commons.  Maps developed for the book include the city’s voting wards, derived from city charters.

The history of writing about Holland—or seeking to write about Holland—even has a place in the book.  For example, local resident Dingman Versteeg wrote a history in conjunction with the city’s 50th anniversary in 1897 but it was never published.  Newspaper editor Gerrit Van Schelven collected recollections from surviving pioneers for the city’s 60th anniversary in 1907 and planned to write a history as well, but never completed the work.  And the list goes on.

Helpfully, the work done by Versteeg, Van Schelven and others was preserved in manuscript and raw-research form, providing resources for Swierenga.  His original research included spending hours with sources such as local newspapers running back to the first one in 1850 (including some in Dutch), City Council minutes, oral histories, and myriad others.

Although “Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City” is unique in scale, Swierenga is quick to point out that he’s by no means the first to write published books about Holland.  As he notes in the introduction:

“Larry B. Massie, Donald van Reken, Randall Vande Water, Mike Lozon, Paul Den Uyl, Elton Bruins, Michael DeVries and Harry Boonstra, among others, have written histories of the city and region, or particular aspects of it—Albertus C. Van Raalte, Pillar Church, major companies, business leaders, railroads, Lake Michigan resorts, the fire department, Holland Christian Schools, and the like.  These are the broad shoulders on which I was able to stand while writing this book.”

Swierenga has conducted research and written concerning Dutch immigration and related topics since the 1960s.  In addition to the more than two dozen books he has written or edited, he has written nearly 150 journal articles and lectured widely on issues related to the Dutch in America.

In June 2000, he was knighted by Queen Beatrix in the “Order of the Netherlands Lion” for his many contributions to Dutch-American scholarship.  The knighthood was conferred during an all-day Dutch-American history conference held at Hope in his honor.

He holds his bachelor’s degree from Calvin College, where he was an assistant professor from 1965 to 1968, and his master’s from Northwestern University and doctorate from the University of Iowa.

He joined the Van Raalte Institute in 1996 after retiring from the history faculty at Kent State, where he had taught since 1968.  He noted that the Van Raalte Institute, which is celebrating its 20th year, was essential in making the book possible.

“It couldn’t have been done without the Van Raalte Institute,” Swierenga said.  “Without institutional support, this book could not be written.”

“Every professor dreams of having a post-teaching career in a place like the Van Raalte Institute where you can do the research that you enjoy, have superb colleagues to go to for advice, and be supported so you can bring it to completion,” he said.

The production of “Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City” was additionally supported financially by several donors.  They are recognized on a page featuring the book’s first photograph, showing Pillar Church, and celebrated, in a nod to the building’s architecture, as “Pillars of the Community.”

Established in 1994, the institute is located in the Theil Research Center at 9 E. 10th St. and specializes in scholarly research and writing on immigration and the contributions of the Dutch and their descendants in the United States.  The institute is also dedicated to the study of the history of all the people who have comprised the community of Holland throughout its history.

Copies of Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City” are available for $150 at the college’s Hope-Geneva Bookstore, which is located on the ground level of the DeWitt Center, 141 E. 12th St., and can be called at 800-946-4673 or (616) 395-7833.  Additional ordering information may be obtained by e-mailing the Hope-Geneva Bookstore at bookstore@hope.edu.