NEDERLAND DURING THE PAST CENTURY
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, November 9, 1980, p. 11b.
People have often asked me when I moved to Nederland, and that is a difficult question for me to answer. Technically, I would have to say in October, 1935, because I have a Port Neches class ring and a Nederland High School diploma. But Nederland was my mother's home, she having moved here in 1906. And Nederland was my father's first wife's (Dora Koelemay) home, she having moved here from Holland in 1898. Three of my father's brothers and sisters lived in Nederland from 1900 on. All of my mother's brothers and sisters lived here, and my father's Dutch sister and brothers-in-law, including Nederland's first settler, George Rienstra, lived here. So from the first day I was born in 1920, I spent about as much time in Nederland as I did in Port Neches. At age six, my grandfather, Albert Block, came to Port Neches with his parents in 1846, 150 years ago, and for a time, they were the only family living there. Grandpa Block and three of his brothers were also Confederate cannoneers at Sabine Pass, but not in Dick Dowling's company.
The original townsite of Nederland in 1897 was very small, being only those few blocks bounded on the east and west by 9th and 15th Streets and on the north and south by Nederland Ave. and Detroit Street. The Kansas City Southern Railroad built from Beaumont through Nederland to Port Arthur in 1895, except that there was no Nederland and no Port Arthur as of that year, only 53,000 acres of open prairie land extending from Beaumont to Sabine Lake. The railroad was built with $10,000,000 supplied by the bankers of Amsterdam, and it was also the railroad's plan to build this town and populate it with Dutch immigrant rice farmers and name it Nederland, which means Netherlands or Holland in the Dutch language.
Up until 1900, the site where Nederland now stands had always been cattle ranch country. West of here a few miles is a place called Hillebrant Bayou, where in 1858 Christian Hillibrant owned 9,000 heads of steers and 1,000 horses. Also west of us, where Beauxart Gardens Road intersects West Port Arthur Road, was the headquarters of the Joseph Hebert Ranch, which also owned thousands of cattle during Civil War days. North of Nederland in 1900, where Dupont Chemical plant is located, was the headquarters of McFaddin Ranch, which also owned 20,000 heads of steers, and the McFaddin rice canal system. The McFaddin or Mashed-O Ranch extended along the beach almost to High Island.
One reason that the railroad wanted to build Nederland was to create a small colony of rice farmers, each of whom would own a farm of from 50 to 100 acres. In 1892 a rice farming mania or explosion arrived from Louisiana and for many years land sales and rice-farming profits were large. Such small towns were needed all along the railroad because they would use the railroad to buy and ship supplies and also to ship their rice in sacks to the nearest rice mill. In 1900, the railroad sent two passenger trains daily between Beaumont and Port Arthur because at that time there were no automobiles and nothing but dirt roads in Jefferson County.
Between 1906 and 1915, my mother often road a buggy or wagon to Beaumont. But what is now Twin City Highway was only a dirt road that passed through people's private farms and cow pastures. It took 2 1/2 hours to get to Beaumont by wagon, and between the towns, there were a half-dozen barbed wire finces and gates that had to be opened and closed. One had to continually dismount, open and close the gates, because there was no other way except sail up the Neches River in a boat. I have stories from the Beaumont Enterprise of 1906 that reported the first car ever seen passing through Nederland. And an article of 1908 reported that on some Sunday afternoons as many as six or eight automobiles could be seen passing through this town.
For about 10 years, Nederland was the rice capitol of Southeast Texas, much like Winnie is today. Out where Unocal refinery is, the railroad built the Port Arthur Irrigation pumping plant to pump water through 25 miles of rice canals, most of which were built in Nederland, to each rice farmer's fields. And by the time the Dutch immigrants began arriving in 1898, they found that the canal system was being constructed everywhere. By 1905, there were 13,000 acres planted in rice along that system. And that original canal system had much to do with the direction Nederland's streets run today. Gage and Hardy Streets reach Nederland Avenue at an odd angle because a rice canal once bordered each street. If you ever attended Highland Park School, the deep ditch across the street from it was once a rice canal. Up until 1945, the north side of Avenue H bordered an abandoned rice canal, and no houses could be built there until the canal levees were leveled with a bull dozer and the canal was filled in.
Between 1900 and 1930, all the business houses in Nederland were built in the 1100 block of Boston, then known as Main Street. In 1948, all the street names and house numbers in Nederland were changed to their present names. Nederland was still very small in 1935, extending only from 9th to 15th streets, and you could almost throw a rock across town. What is now South 12th, 13th, 14t, 15th and 17th Streets all dead-ended up against a rice canal fence, and each street was only 4 blocks long. In 1905, Nederland looked very much like the little towns you see in Western movies, and there were then 3 saloons in the 1100 block of Boston, in which a man could walk up to the bar and order a drink of whiskey. Boston Avenue was a dirt road for many years, and in wet weather, wagon wheels turned in into big mud puddles.
My mother and uncles used to tell a story from the year 1906, the year that they moved to Nederland. Customers in the saloons were either cowboys from the outlying ranches or drillers from the new Spindletop oil field. The deputy sheriff in Nederland was a tall man named Smokie, who wore two pearl-handled guns tied down at the knees. There were sidewalks along Boston Ave. even then, made out of boards, and when old Smokie walked by, his spurs jingled and jangled. One day, a cowboy from the McFaddin Ranch came into Steiner's Saloon, wearing a gun, which was forbidden in Nederland. Smokie, who was the Law West of the Neches, walked into the saloon and asked the cowboy to turn in his gun to him until he left town. The cowboy replied that he would not give up his gun, but he would gladly meet Smokie out in front on Boston, where they could shoot it out. Now to poor old Smokie, guns were mostly just for looks; he hardly even knew which end the bullets came out of. So to save face, Smokie told the McFaddin cowboy that he would meet him the next day at high noon at the "Double Bridges," and they would shoot it out.
In 1906, Helena Street was a dirt road, then called Koelemay Road, and as it still does, it crossed the railroad tracks, turned sharp to the left, and ended at a dirt road, now paved and called Highway 366. At that place, two wooden bridges crossed two rice canals, and the location was known as the Double Bridges. The next day at 11:00 AM, there was a steady procession of riders on horseback, wagons and buggies, each headed for the Double Bridges to see the big shootout. About 11:45, the cowboy arrived, dismounted, opened the cylinder ot his six-shooter to count the bullets, and he asked where Smokie was. Even though the crowd waited over an hour, Smokie never did show up. He checked in his badge and guns at the sheriff's office the next day, and no one in Nederland ever saw Smokie again.
Now let me tell you something about the best known places in Nederland. Nederland Pharmacy has been in business in Nederland for about 93 years. It started out in 1902 in a little wooden building about where Minaldi's Shoe Shop is, but by 1906 or 1907, it moved to its present location, which until about 1965 was only where the lunch counter is today. If you ever go into Nederland Pharmacy, pay particular attention to the unusual tile floor and the marble fountain and lunch counter, because you won't see that anywhere else in Jefferson county. During the middle 1930s, particularly on hot days, people used to drive here from Beaumont or Port Arthur just to stay cool in the pharmacy and drink a malt or milkshake. All of Nederland's teenagers hung out there, because I was one of them. Also in 1936, I was a "car hop" there, and we used to serve people, placing window trays on their cars if they did not want to come inside. One thing happened there to me that I will never forget. One day the owner gave me 6 live fryers and told me to go out in back and "ring their necks." And like Smokie, I was no hand to kill anything--I didn't even know how to ring a chicken's neck although I had seen my mother do it. Anyway, I swung each one of them around until it choked to death, and ended up having to cut the heads off with a hatchett.
Immediately across Twin City in front of Nederland Pharmacy, the Nederland train depot stood for about 65 years between 1898 and 1963. I once got off the train there when I returned from World War II in 1946. Across Boston Avenue from the old depot site is Setzer Supply Co., located in probably today the oldest building in town with a very special history. The building was built in 1898 to store sacked rice until it could be shipped to a rice mill. Then in 1904, the large Nederland Rice Milling Company was built on a corner of Weingartin Shopping Center parking lot, between Weiners and the Colorizer Paint store across the street. The rice mill did not last long, going bankrupt two or three times. Its polishing machinery was finally moved out about 1915, but the 80 feet tall rice elevator remained there until after I moved to Nederland in 1935.
Even the Colorizer Paint building has a unique history. Gulf States Utilities Company built it as their first office in Nederland about 1930. In those days, Gulf States, now Entergy, made and sold ice as well. They built a railroad spur line that ran across 11th Street to the back door of their building, which had a cold storage room. And each morning during the 1930s, a box car loaded with ice arrived in Nederland to be unloaded and stored in the back room of that building. The ice was then distributed by truck throughout Nederland, Port Neches, and Groves, because many stores still had no electric refrigeration boxes before 1935.
All of you know where Nations Bank is located down near the post office. In November, 1897, the railroad built the 33-room Orange Hotel on that corner, and all the earliest Dutch families lived there for a few weeks while they were building their homes. In fact, my father's mother and father-in-law ran the hotel for a couple of years and lived there. My father met, danced with, and fell in love with his first wife there in 1898, even though she spoke no English and my Dad spoke no Dutch. The Orange Hotel was the center of Nederland community life for several years, and even had a library with 1,000 Dutch-language books in it. The style of Dutch dancing in 1900 was very lively tunes called polkas, and long before Dad married his first wife, she played the polka music for most of those dances on a stringed instrument called a zither or auto-harp. After she died in 1917, her zither was never played again, and when we moved to Nederland in 1935, we left it in our old farm house in Port Neches. I later heard it had been burned up.
On the site where Nederland Jewelry now is, the Nederland post office was once located in an old wooden building, and around 1930, you had to kick the pigs and chickens off the post office steps before you could get your mail. On the vacant lot next door, there is still a concrete foundation covering most of the lot, where once two separate movie theaters were built, but not at the same time. During the 1920s the old Star Theater was located there until it went bankrupt about 1930. About 1938, a new Reo Theatre was built there which became a haven for big, long rats. Once while I was home during World War II, I went to a movie there, and because the rats were running across my feet, I got up and left. A high school kid could take his date there around 1938, that is, if she didn't mind a few rats, and spend only 30 cents - the price of two tickets and two bags of pop corn. After the movie, the young couple could visit Nederland Pharmacy, and for 30 cents more, could enjoy two hamburgers and two fountain cokes. If you should visit Henson Library, there are five books there that I wrote, Vols. I through V of "The Chronicles of The Early Families of Nederland, Texas," each in hard binding and black and gold colors. Vol. II has a history of Nederland Pharmacy in it.
At 1205 Boston, where one store of Rienstra Furniture Company is now located, there once stood a 2-story brick building in 1902, the first brick building in Nederland, where First National Bank was located until it went bankrupt in 1906. In that year, the Nederland rice industry suffered terribly for two reasons, a national depression that wiped out the rice market and salt water in the Neches River. My father lost a lot of money that year too, first in his bank account and stock that he owned in the bankrupt bank. He also owned a retail store, King Mercantile Store on Boston, that went bankrupt, and as if that were not enough, he couldn't sell his 200 acre rice crop.
After the old Orange Hotel was abandoned and torn down, the smaller Oakley Hotel was built at 1204 Boston about 1920. About 1940, that building was moved next door to 1210 Boston and it became the Dale Hotel. A remodeled house still standing on 10th Street was for many years Nederland's first public school building. In 1911, the original Langham brick school house was built on what is now the playground area in the 600 block of 12th St. That school was abandoned and torn down about 1940. I graduated in a high school building that was once located on South 12th St., and all that is left of it today is the present YMCA gymnasium.
There is a remodeled house at 1007 Boston that was once the old Dutch Reformed Church from 1898 until about 1905. That building was shared with Nederland's Methodist congregation until that denomination built its first sanctuary at 115 13th, across the street from the present sanctuary. The first Baptist sanctuary was built on the vacant lot across the side street from Nations Bank. Let me tell you something else. The block where Nations Bank now is and the block across the street were set aside at first as public land known as King's Park. On Sept. 6, 1898, the railroad gave a whingding block party for the homesick Dutch farmers in Nederland, with bands, beer, and games all day and dancing all night at the Orange Hotel. The next day they planted an orange tree across from the Orange Hotel and with it, they also buried a very large bottle that contained newspapers from Holland, letters signed by the first settlers in Nederland, a Dutch flag and other mementoes. Now, that entire area is Nations drive-in bank, and the land is covered with concrete which will keep the bottle from ever being found.
The 900 block of Boston was also a public park that still belongs to the city of Nederland. On a corner lot across the side street from the old Dutch church, there is a small building now used by a radio club. That building was Nederland's first public library, built by the Lions Club about 1934.
After the rice market collapse in 1906, the Dutch families began deserting Nederland rapidly, seeking better conditions elsewhere. At the peak around 1904, I estimate that about 100 Dutch families, or about 500 people, lived in Nederland, but by 1910, no more than about 20 Dutch families were left. And generally they were the families who had bought up large tracts of land, and they soon switched from rice farming to dairying or truck farming. Beginning about 1900, a moderate number of people began moving into Nederland, who were of Anglo or non-Dutch descent. I recall my mother telling me that in 1906, almost nothing but Dutch was spoken on the streets of Nederland. I remember her also saying that often they visited other families, not because they were close friends, fellow church members, or shared mutual interests, but because they just wanted to visit people to whom they could speak English.
I am sure you have noticed that a set of high-voltage power lines pass through Nederland between 15th and 16th Streets, and they cross Boston Avenue near the Windmill Museum. From 1912 until 1932, there was also a set of railroad tracks built along that route. A two-car electric trolley, known as the Interurban, passed over those rails every hour, one in each direction, bound for either Beaumont or Port Arthur. One trolley had to side-track in Nederland so that the other could pass. And you know the stretch of street in front of the Chamber of Commerce and Nederland Heritage Pavilion? Well, that was where Boston Avenue ended, at the Interurban depot in front of the Windmill. A two-story house was located at Boston and 15th St., and that house had to be torn down many years ago before Boston could be extended to this school. The Interurban trolley belonged to East Texas Electric Company, which about 1925 became Gulf States Utilities Company, now Entergy, which still supplies electricity to your home. In 1932, buses began to run between Beaumont and Port Arthur, and the Interurban was discontinued and the rails were taken up. Before 1920, Nederland schools taught only through the 9th grade, and early Nederland students had to ride the trolley cars to South Park High School in order to graduate.
In 1903, Texaco built an asphalt refinery in Port Neches, next door to the present rubber plant, and many early Nederland residents worked there. Others rode the trolley to Port Arthur to work in refineries in that city, because as late as 1917, there were still very few automobiles and no paved roads in Jefferson County. In 1922, Pure Oil Company, now Unocal, built the refinery north of Nederland which is now shut down, but once employed over 1,000 people. Those two plants became the economic mainstay of Mid-Jefferson County, except during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many hundreds of employees were laid off and had no work at all until World War II began.
After 1910, farmers around Nederland began to raise cotton, corn, potatoes and vegetables. My father even raised sugar cane, and we had a sugar mill, where the cemetery is in Port Neches, that could cook 200 gallons of cane syrup daily as well as make sugar. In 1930 there were also two sugar mills in Nederland. In the 1930s, there were also 36 dairymen in Nederland. Two of those dairies were very large, milking more than 100 cows daily, and each delivered milk door to door in Beaumont. In the 1930s, grocery stores drove to your house in the morning to pick up grocery lists, and they would delivery the sacks of groceries to you in the afternoon. When my family moved to Nederland in 1935, we brought six cows with us from Port Neches. Early each morning, we milked our cows before daylight, filled each quart bottle with whole milk, my younger brother and I, using containers on our bicycles that would hold 12 quart bottles, delivered milk bottles door to door in Nederland until it was time to go to school at 8:00. And having no time to change clothes, we wore the same overalls to school that we had delivered milk in.
I have one more story you might enjoy hearing. One of the ingredients we mixed into our cow feed was cottonseed meal, which was ground much finer than any flour, and which would get into your clothes, especially the back pockets of overalls. One day, my younger brother was misbehaving in some manner, and his teacher called him up to her desk for a paddling. Well, she hit the seat of his overalls one hard lick; the cottonseed meal began rising in clouds from his back pockets, soon filling the entire room. Pretty soon, both my brother and the teacher began coughing, rubbing their eyes, and then crying, and soon all the other students as well. They had to continue that class in vacant room elsewhere, and thereafter, we decided to change our overalls, no matter what time it was, before leaving for school.
I suppose life was much harder for those of us who grew up on the farm before World War II. Farm kids were then called "clodhoppers" by the other students, and I still remember how much it hurt to hear that. No one seemed to understand that it was us that raised the food they ate. There were no radios to listen around here until the late 1920s, and I suppose television still hadn't been invented. Today we are used to 30 or more color channels. In 1952 there was only one black and white station in Houston and you had to put up a huge antenna to receive it. Reception was still so bad that often, there was usually snow, that is, white dots on the screen. But still it was so different from radio, and I think we enjoyed that one station more than most people enjoy 30 channels today. For my part, I hardly ever look at television anymore because I spend all my time writing - just like I spent all last night writing this speech and putting it into my computer.
What do I write about? Everything - including pirates, Indians, buried treasure, Civil War stories, short stories, long stories, and several history books. Why do I do it? I don't know - I have three degrees in English and History and I just love to write. I suppose I like it most when some one thinks enough of my writing to pay me for it or offers to publish my books at no cost to me. I hope there is something I've said to you that you may have enjoyed and that I haven't talked too long. Please know that it will always be a joy to me to speak to sixth graders like you and anyone else who cares to listen. I thank you and will answer any questions I can.