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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.