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TULIPS AMID THE BLUEBONNETS:
THE CENTENNIAL OF NEDERLAND, TEXAS

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 9, 1980, p. 11-B.
Sources: For detailed accounts and footnotes, many of them translations of 90-year-old Dutch documents, see W. T. Block, "Tulip Transplants to East Texas: The Dutch Migration to Nederland, Port Arthur, and Winnie, Texas, 1895-1915," EAST TEXAS HISTORICAL JOURNAL, XIII, No. 2 (Fall, 1975), 36-50, which won for the writer the East Texas Historical Association's First "C. K. Chamberlain Award" for 1976; also, W. T. Block, "The Growth of The Jefferson County, Texas, Rice Industry, 1849-1910," TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, XXIII (Nov., 1987), 41-73.

This article was copyrighted by Beaumont Enterprise on Nov. 9, 1980. Although 1998 will be the official centennial year, Nederland's first settler, Jan Gatze (George) Rienstra, first parked his wagon beside the Kansas City Southern railroad track in Nederland in the summer of 1897. A grandson and great grandson, also named Jan Rienstra, still reside in Nederland.

If one can envision a few tulip sprouts gasping for breath among a vast bed of Texas bluebonnets, then he or she can grasp the dilemma created by two opposing cultures when 1,000 Hollanders were abruptly wrenched from the snug comforts of their homeland and transplanted on a raw Texas prairie in 1898. While this might appear to be a crude and hypothetical comparison, it was indeed quite real for those newcomers who spoke no English and who questioned their ability to compete and survive in a strange land, climate, and environment where "furriners" were not always welcomed.

The location of Nederland, Texas, was cattle country and always had been. The earliest pioneers could see that -- a treeless expanse where miles of windswept prairie grasses waltzed in rhythm with the crisp southerly breezes -- and shunned the site for others where navigable water and timber abounded. Even the first geographical term for the place --the "Cowpens" -- bespoke its significance to the pioneers of the county. During the 1850s, the 9,000 steers and 1,000 horses of the Hillebrandt Ranch to the west grazed across its confines. By 1860, the ranching headquarters of three of the Hillebrandt children, whose thousands of cattle roamed both sides of the Neches River, were located at Port Neches, and all of the families utilized "The Cowpens" for shipping cattle.

The huge Joseph Hebert ranch headquarters was located on present-day West Port Arthur Road. Even Confederate soldiers camped out there in 1862. By 1895, the headquarters of the vast McFaddin Ranch, or "Mashed-O" spread, located on present-day Dupont Road, four miles north of Nederland, controlled a cattle domain of 20,000 head of cattle and 100,000 acres of land, or the upper 25 miles of the Texas coast. Soon after that Dutch settlers arrived, the cowhands of the McFaddin Ranch and the Spindletop oil drillers were common sights on the streets of Nederland.

Soon there came other newcomers to the range, however, when in 1895 the locomotives on the newly-laid trackage of the Kansas City Southern Railroad disturbed the serenity of the cattle herds and, in a sense, gave birth to Nederland. The brain child of a rail entrepreneur, Arthur Stilwell of Kansas City foresaw the need to populate the railroad's barren spaces, altogether 50,000 acres of bald prairie land south of Spindletop, and it was settlers, not cattle, that the railroad sorely needed to buy land for their homes, begin planting rice, and stimulate the railroad's growth.

And as Stilwell made note of in his book, I HAD A HUNCH, he owed a debt of gratitude to the Dutch bankers of Amsterdam, who had put up about $10 million to extend Stilwell's rail line south from Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

Ten miles to the north lay the small sawmill city of Beaumont, which could supply cheap lumber for houses and a market for a farmer's produce. A like distance to the south stood a newly-constructed seaport and the rail line's southern terminus. Fast growing Port Arthur, where a ship channel was dug to bring the sea to the rails, was the culmination of another of Stilwell's famed "hunches." Because of its rapid growth, however, the sixty Dutch families who settled at Port Arthur as tradesmen, seafarers, and railroad employees were less visible then the 120 or more Dutch rice farmers who first settled at Nederland during that city's infancy.

Contemporary with the railroad's coming was a rice-farming craze that, because of cheap and level prairie lands available at modest prices of $5 an acre, invaded Southeast Texas from Louisiana in 1892. Fresh water for irrigation flowed abundantly in the nearby Neches River and several bayous. Rice farming also meant rice mills, freight, and growth for the railroad, and in turn as Nederland was built, more freight to supply the budding young Dutch colony.

In effect, although the founding of Nederland (which means Netherlands in the Dutch language) was a repayment for financial services rendered by the Amsterdam bankers, the resettlement of West Europeans had one massive drawback. Although the Dutch were known as extremely capable and industrious farmers, the word "rice" was largely a foreign term in their vocabulary or a cereal grain encountered only at the breakfast table.

Another factor was soon to bring the Hollanders into cultural conflict with their new environment. Founded on the eve and edge of Spindletop Hill, located seven miles to the north, Nederland's colonists awoke one morning in January, 1901, to hear the hissing sound common only to oil gushers, breathe the acrid fumes of escaping methane gas, and witness the dawning of the fuel age.

The Spindletop oil bonanza, Texas' first and most significant, un-leased a torrent of traders and entrepreneurs, boomers and laborers, gamblers and hangers-on of every hue who soon filled the small city of Beaumont to capacity and overflowed into the Dutch colony. Roughnecks soon occupied the Orange Hotel to capacity. Catering to cowhands, drillers, and rice field laborers, three saloons soon opened in what is now the 1100 block of Boston, and the riffraff they attracted accounted for brawls, cutting scrapes, and even murders, which threatened the stability of the Dutch settlement.

Stilwell not only planned prudently for his colonization attempt, but also stood to gain the most for his labor, both from freight revenue and the profits of land sales. Owning no less than 37,000 surplus acres, bought at $6.75 an acre, he offered land to colonists and native-born farmers at prices ranging from $20 to $50 an acre. He started a 200-acre experimental farm at Pear Ridge (Port Arthur) and imported horticulturalists to determine which strains of plants, fruit and livestock thrived best in the county's soil and climate. Three of the earliest employees of the farm were native Hollanders who spoke English and could instruct their countrymen in their native tongue about the methods of growing rice in Texas. G. W. J. Kilsdonk, Bartle J. Dijksma, and Albert Kuipers would also make trips to Holland to accompany the first contingents of immigrants bound for Texas, and Kilsdonk was also destined to become Nederland's first merchant.

Stilwell also founded the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company, headquartered two miles south of Nederland, and he built a huge pumping plant on the nearby Neches River and fifteen miles of rice canals, sufficient to irrigate 13,000 acres. In December, 1897, Stilwell's land agent surveyed the first town site of Nederland, bounded on the east and west by 9th and 15th Streets and on the north and south by Detroit and Nederland Avenue. Stillwell also built store buildings, reserved two park sites on Boston Street, and began the 33-room Orange Hotel, named for the ruling house of Holland and intended to house the immigrants at modest prices until they could buy lands and build houses of their own.

The first settler at Nederland was Jan Gatze (George) Rienstra, who drove his wagon to his new home in May, 1897. The sight of endless miles of prairie land did not discourage him or any other Hollander, for the prospect of buying large tracts of land at modest prices had been denied to the landless peasantry of Europe for centuries. A recent immigrant to Texas who formerly resided in Iowa, Rienstra unloaded his stove, plows, and personal effects beside the railroad and drove his wagon on to Port Arthur to buy lumber and supplies for a home.

On May 17, 1897, George Rienstra wrote a letter to Jan DeGeoijen (anglicized to DeQueen), Stilwell's financial and emigration agent in Amsterdam, praising Jefferson County's climate, the experimental farm, and Port Arthur's new Sabine Hotel and pleasure pier, noting that his fellow Dutch immigrants in Port Arthur were prospering. An industrious farmer, Rienstra needed only his own hands and resourcefulness to make his future secure, and until his death in 1938, he remained one of Nederland's most prosperous citizens.

In November, the first contingent, some 46 Dutch immigrants, arrived and all of them were housed at the new Orange Hotel until they could buy land and build houses. The Galveston "News" was lavish with praise for the new immigrants who had just arrived aboard the liner "Olinda," calling them "the finest lot of people that have been brought here by any vessel recently."

The Port Arthur Land Company established its recruiting headquarters in Amsterdam and sent its agents throughout the Dutch provinces of Friesland, North Holland, Gelderland and Groningen to entice only the sturdiest and most capable of the Dutch farmers for emigration to Texas. To stabilize the social and economic requirements of the infant rice village, tradesmen, mechanics and teachers were recruited as well, and for months and years afterward, the arrival of new contingents of Dutch immigrants at Nederland became commonplace.

By April, 1898, about 100 new colonists had arrived in Nederland. A partial list of the earliest arrivals would also include: Dan J. Rienstra, Cornelius Doornbos, Jacob Doornbos, J. C. Van Heiningen, P. J. Van Heiningen, Sebe R. and Peter Carter (who were descended from Dutch Pilgrims who never left Leyden, Holland for Plymouth), John Koelemay, Peter Koelemay, Klaas Koelamay, Lawrence Koelemay, Martin Koelemay, Baucus Westerterp, Dirk Ballast, Carollus Bruinsma, Gerret Terwey, Peter Terwey, George Vanderweg, Christian Rauwerda, A. J. Ellings, and many others. A few such as Ellings arrived with their families, but many others left their fiancées in Holland and returned later to marry.

The Orange Hotel soon became the center of social life in the young community and was managed by the A. J. Ellings family. By 1899 the Maarten Koelemay family were the resident hosts at the hotel. A library of 1,000 Dutch-language volumes filled one room of it, and at night the corridors and galleries echoed from the refrains of violins and zithers and the swift swirl of skirts and dancers. The writer's father, Will Block of Port Neches, met his first wife there in 1898, Dora Koelemay Block being an accomplished autoharpist (zither player), whose chords guided the toes of the polka dancers. And their marriage in 1899 was the first for any member of Nederland's original Dutch colony.

On Sundays, the earliest Dutchmen worshipped there at services led by a lay minister, Dirk Ballast, of the Dutched Reformed Church. Soon afterward, they organized a parish and built a Dutch Reformed church on Boston Street. The Dutch children received their first English instruction in an outbuilding attached to the hotel.

Some immigrants arrived penniless and had to work as day laborers for the railroad or elsewhere until they could save enough to buy land and equipment. A few, displeased with the harshness and unfamiliarity of their new environment, soon returned to Holland. But most of them stuck it out, at least for a few years, enduring the mosquitoes and back-break drudgery of rice field labor, for they had liquidated all of their assets in Holland and had nothing there to return to.

For those willing to work long hours, the economic prospects in 1899 were quite bright. The demand for rice far exceeded supply at first, and until 1905, a single crop of rice paid for the land in one year and still left a tidy sum of money to live on.

The early Hollanders of Nederland found it mutually advantageous to organize for their protection. A definite language barrier existed, and there were few people who could translate adequately in the complex legal and technical terminology needed to solve many problems. On July 1, 1898, twenty Dutch rice farmers, plus some laborers and skilled craftsmen, organized the Dutch Colonists' Union, with W. F. Lans as president and J. C. Van Heiningen as secretary, to solve the legal, production, and marketing problems.

In a Dutch-language article published in "Neerlandia," a magazine for Dutch emigrants overseas, Van Heiningen commented on some of the costs that a prospective colonist might encounter. A team of mules cost $150. Jersey milk cows sold at $70 each, and rice seed sold for $5 a barrel. William Beukers of Holland visited his countrymen in Nederland in 1898, and in the same article, he outlined the advantages and disadvantages of resettlement in Texas. He advised no one to emigrate to Nederland without sufficient money to survive for one year. Because of the cultural habitat that Holland represented, he concluded that "pretty good in the old country is better than very good in Texas."

By 1903, newspapers were lauding the rice economy of Nederland. In a span of just three years, the town had grown to 500 people, three-quarters of whom were Hollanders. From the beginning, Stilwell had not limited the colony to Dutch settlers, and many native-born rice growers came as well to wager their futures in the young Dutch settlement. In 1902, a Beaumont "Journal" article noted: "Nederland is truly a rice center...  Nederland farmers have the appearance now of millionaires. The cereal is now rolling in in wagons from every direction, ...and there is none who looks happier or more prosperous than the Nederland rice farmer."

The rice harvest there mushroomed from 700 acres in 1898, to 1,500 acres in 1900, and 13,000 acres in 1904.

The defunct First National Bank of Nederland was born in a rice field. In 1899, Ed Rockhill and Jesse B. Peek settled at Nederland as penniless rice field laborers working for the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company. They were thrifty, however, and within a few months, each had saved about $160 from his earnings. With that and money borrowed from friends, they put in two crops of their own in 1900 and 1901, from which they realized a $10,000 profit. One day as they were loading bagged rice into a wagon, Rockhill turned to Peek and confided:

"Jess, my whole ambition in life is to engage in the banking business. Let's make enough money rice farming to go somewhere and start a national bank of our own. It's not hard to do, you know."

Peek agreed, but he dismissed the idea momentarily from his mind. Later, the partners bought into a mercantile business in Nederland together, and finally became aware that while their own financial stature was skyrocketing at a rapid pace, the same could be said for Nederland at large. Their dreams reached fruition in October, 1902, when they and other business men subscribed to a capital stock of $25,000, with Peek as vice-president and Rockhill as cashier of the First National Bank.

Also in 1902, a weekly newspaper, the Nederland "News," was founded. There were three principal retail houses, Cammack Brothers, King Mercantile Company (of which the writer's father was half-owner), and Nederland Supply Company, and each was described as "doing a handsome grocery, feed, hardware, and farm implement business." Nederland Pharmacy, a restaurant, and a livery stable lined the principal thoroughfare, and elsewhere on Boston Street, someone with a thirst for whiskey might find comfort at either Freeman's Saloon, Steiner's Saloon, or Peek's Saloon.

In 1904, the merchants and farmers organized the $55,000 Nederland Rice Milling Company and elevator, which was built at the intersection of Nederland Avenue with the railroad tracks, and was intended to end the "sacking system" in Nederland. Prior to 1904, all rice had to be sacked in the field and stored in warehouses besides the railroad track prior to rail shipment elsewhere for milling (the Setzer Supply building is the only one of those warehouses remaining today.)

For the twelve years before 1904, the Texas and Louisiana rice farmers' search for prosperity had triggered a grand march to the rice fields all over coastal Texas. No thought was given to market demand, the planters falsely assuming that new sources of demand would arise automatically to consume the ever-increasing production. But that panorama of prosperity was soon to be altered, and the bumper crop of 1905 quickly pierced that economic bubble. Market prices fell that year to $1.75 a sack, fifty cents less than production costs, and the Texas rice farmers lost $2,000,000 in 1905.

For two years, the new bank had been financing rice crops and land and implement purchases with reckless abandon. Its vaults filled with worthless paper, the First National Bank of Nederland soon closed its doors. The newspaper and three merchants soon failed. The rice mill went broke, and after foreclosure, the lien holders reopened it as the Jefferson County Rice Milling Company. In 1906, the Nederland rice crop plummeted in one year from 13,000 to 6,000 acres. Dutch immigrants began to desert the colony in droves in search of better economic opportunity elsewhere. Within five years, three-fourths of the Hollanders move away, some of them either to Port Arthur or Winnie, Texas, but about half of them resettled at distant points in the north or west.

Nevertheless, Nederland's rice economy did not die overnight, limping along at a greatly slackened pace for many years, its final demise deferred until 1915. The impetus of the Spindletop oil boom played out about 1907, eventually forcing the closing of the Orange Hotel due to a lack of boarders. A national recession deflated wages and prices in 1906. The irrigation company became less dependable due to disrepair of its facilities, and the Neches River became increasingly brackish and saline due to channel deepening. In 1913, the canal company made one "last ditch" effort to stave off bankruptcy by borrowing money, importing canal experts from Holland, and hiring mechanics from New Orleans to repairs the pumping facilities. It was a task of futility, however, and two years later, with income far less than its expenses, the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company entered receivership as well, leaving its abandoned pumping plant and 20 miles of weed-studded canal levees as mute evidence of those days when rice was king of Nederland's economy.

By 1920, no more than 20 or 30 Dutch families remained, being principally those who had acquired sizeable land holdings and other assets, and most of them turned to truck farming, dairying, or ranching for an alternative livelihood. It was they and an equal number of native-born families who would endure the economic uncertainties of later decades, particularly the 10-year-long "Great Depression," and help the erstwhile Dutch community regain its "place in the sun."

A lion's share of credit for the town's recovery must go to the Lucas gusher at Spindletop, for it was that discovery that spawned the numerous petroleum industries that now nurture Nederland's economy. And although the original colonists have all passed from the local scene (most of whom the writer knew personally), many of their children are still in town to furnish the community with some its present-day civic and economic leadership.

Most of the Dutch immigrants fared well economically and educated their children accordingly, for idleness and criminality are vices which are virtually unheard-of among Hollanders. Whatever the heritage left by them, Nederland is justifiably proud of its origins as its towering memorial daily asserts. The broad-sailed Windmill Museum testifies in silence each day as a tribute to that little band of Hollanders who, almost a century ago, braved the unknown quantities of the American climate, culture, and economy in search of a better way of life.

Copyright © 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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