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Run, Don't Walk To Your Nearest Historical Fair

Visiting historical sites and fairs teaches you much about the people you are researching.


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Pella, Iowa has only 12,000 inhabitants. But for one weekend each year, the town hosts 100,000 to 200,000 visitors at their Tulip Time Festival. This year the tulips bloomed early, but the warm weather was followed by cold. So when we arrived, brilliantly colored tulips still lined the streets.

As we drove through town, we noted the very Dutch names on the business signs: VanDenover, VanderBeek, Jaarsma, de Pelikaan, VanderPloeg, etc. The Tulip Queen and her court bore similar names: Van Soelen, Bruns, Van Vark, Roorda, Steenhoek, Van Ee. Pella was settled in 1847 by a group of 800 Dutch who left the Netherlands to find freedom of religion and freedom from want. The Tulip Time Festival, held for seventy years, celebrates that heritage.

The Grandstand show included traditional Dutch dances and the cleaning of the streets. All ages and sizes put on their Dutch costumes, grabbed their brooms and scrubbed. The Burgemeester made jokes about certain Dutch traits: their stubbornness and their penny pinching. "How did copper wire get invented?" he asked. "Two Dutch men grabbed a penny from the road at the same time. And neither would let go." Exaggerating cultural traits such as cleanliness, stubbornness and pecuniary rigidity releases tension and increases understanding, at least it did for me.

During the lighted parade, in-between excellent bands and Dutch-themed floats, folks in costume pushed carts carrying typical Dutch goods: cheese, klompen, chocolate, hand-made baskets, lace. One float carried a bevy of ladies dressed in authentic costumes from various states of the Netherlands, wearing fabulous hats, starched to flair around the women's faces, or pill-boxes made of striped cloth and lace. Very few were what we Americans think of as typically Dutch.

At Pella's Historical Village which is open year round, we visited the museums and watched the workmen. I have klompen (wooden shoes) myself but had never seen them made. We saw a sod house built of layers of topsoil laid on top of each other. When Henrik Pieter Scholte arranged for the Dutch to buy land around Pella in 1847, he also contracted for houses to be built. But when the immigrants arrived, they had nothing but piles of lumber. So they built sod houses.

This was important to me because I've read of sod houses, thought I knew what they looked like. But the real thing was grim. The houses were primarily built into hill-sides, so they had dirt floors and walls. The rest of the walls were made from strips of sod piled on top of each other with sticks and branches on top for the roof. Sod houses were magnets for snakes and rodents, any creatures wanting to be warm in winter and cool in summer. When I write about sod houses, this information will give verisimilitude to the history.

We ate authentic Dutch snacks, visited a Dutch church, home and farm house. We watched a blacksmith and potter at work. Then we climbed the stairs of the tallest working windmill in the United States, an authentic 1850 Dutch grain windmill. On the way down we walked through the miniature Dutch village.

In addition to Dutch historical activities, broader history was represented. The highlight of the antique car show was the 1930s black motorcycle, oozing power. The Mustang club showed off their fabulous cars. One red 1966 Mustang brought back happy memories.

But the biggest surprise to me was the tractor rodeo. It was, in a sense Dutch as well, if you consider the surnames of the participants. Not a cowboy hat in the bunch - just baseball caps and Dutch caps. The antique Tractors - Farmalls, Internationals, Allice-Chalmers, Fords, John Deers - were certainly as spiffed up as the antique cars and Mustangs. The rodeo consisted of three events, balancing the tractor on a teeter-toter trailer, a race to see which tractor could go the slowest, and a blindfolded obstacle course where the wife told the husband-driver how to navigate.

The Tulip Time newspaper insists "We don't just touch you, we make every attempt to immerse you in Dutch culture." They are successful. I've been to the Netherlands, seen the tulip fields stretch for miles in bright colors. I've worn klompen - only a few minutes at a time because they hurt. I've seen the tiny village in Amsterdam, eaten the cheese and chocolate. But I've never had so much Dutchness surrounding me at one time. Even the costumed people in Pella remind me of the dear Dutch people I know, often a little taller than average and always a little more beautiful.

Stop your family history research for a minute. Get out from behind the computer for a day or two. Go to your local festival, fair or historical site. See how your ancestors lived. Get down and dirty - for just a moment - with their lives. Even as I say that, you probably couldn't have paid me enough to touch that sod house, let alone climb down into it. But seeing it and knowing some of my ancestors felt lucky to have such houses, changes my view of their lives.

E-mail, call or write your state's tourism department to find nearby historical events. Several genealogy magazines announce them. Even the most recent issue of American Cowboy lists "101 can't miss western events" including Kanab, Utah's Western Legends Roundup in August (which I really enjoyed last year); Abilene's Western Heritage Festival also in August. This article also lists events in places as "unwest" as South Carolina and New York.

The Tulip Time Festival in Pella, Iowa was not only well-planned and beautifully done, it brought me peace about a certain Dutchman, opened my vision about my own Dutch ancestors and certainly made me proud of my Dutch descendants' heritage. In addition it added "color" to future writing. Maybe your local historical fairs will do the same for you.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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