Dr. Robert Swierenga of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute at Hope College explores a topic especially close to home in his latest book, a history of the Dutch in greater Chicagoland.
Swierenga has spent decades writing about the Dutch in America, but had never explored the 150-year history of the Dutch in the Chicago area in-depth, even though he grew up in a Dutch neighborhood on Chicago's west side.
In the course of his scholarly work, he found it a story little known, even by the immigrants' descendants.
"From my view, the Dutch of Chicago have been invisible in terms of the world of scholars and the general public," said Swierenga, who is a senior research fellow with the A.C. Van Raalte Institute and an adjunct professor of history at Hope.
During one visit to the library of the Chicago Historical Society, he found, "there was nothing. They didn't even have an entry in the card catalog for 'Dutch in Chicago.'"
His book "Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City," published in the first part of November by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. of Grand Rapids, has changed all that. At more than 900 pages, the volume is a detailed account of Chicagoland's ethnic Dutch, now some 250,000 strong.
"This book's going to be an instrument, I think, for creating an ethnic identity for the Chicago Dutch," Swierenga said. "It certainly will create an ethnic history. They didn't have an ethnic history, and now they will."
"I think that this book is going to be a nostalgia trip for the old timers," he said. "But for the children and grandchildren, and to some extent for parents, this will create a memory."
At a ceremony on Tuesday, Nov. 12, the Chicago Historical Society hosted a reception during which Swierenga presented a copy of the book to Peter Huizenga of Oak Brook, Ill., who represented the Chicago Dutch today.
The book was made possible through the support of Huizenga, whose family was among the early Dutch immigrants to Chicago. A 1960 Hope graduate and member of the college's Board of Trustees, Huizenga has supported awareness of and scholarship in Dutch- American history in a variety of ways. He and his late mother Elizabeth also donated the funds to establish the A.C. Van Raalte Institute, and he funded the creation of the statue of the Rev. A.C. Van Raalte that was installed in Holland's Centennial Park in 1997 in conjunction with the city's sesquicentennial celebration.
Also during the reception, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke presented Swierenga with a resolution by the City Council of Chicago and Mayor Richard Daly.
One reason the Chicago Dutch lived "below the radar screen," Swierenga noted, was that the population, while sizeable, was never as large as other ethnic groups better known in Chicago history. "At the high point of ethnic identity in 1930, the Dutch ranked only 10th among foreign-born residents," Swierenga said.
In addition, he said, the Reformed Dutch in particular tended to stay together, limiting their visibility. "Culturally, religiously, educationally they lived in tight-knit neighborhoods," he said, reflecting the maxim "in isolation is our strength."
The history, Swierenga said, goes back to the 1840s, the same period of migration that saw communities like Holland settled by Dutch immigrants. However, while Holland's Dutch heritage has often been preserved, he said, Chicago's has vanished. The first Dutch Reformed Church is gone, its site forgotten near the Dan Ryan Expressway. The second is also gone, now a part of the University of Illinois campus. Holland's Pillar Church, conversely, is a prominent local landmark.
Swierenga approached the topic with a sense of urgency because yet another heritage, living memory, was also vanishing.
"The timing was desperate," he said. "It had to be done now because the generation that knows the history of the 20th century is dying off."
"I could talk with my father and many other people who covered the first half of the 20th century -- their memories," Swierenga said.
Swierenga's family became a part of the Chicago story in 1893, when his paternal great-grandfather emigrated from the province of Groningen. A canal bargeman in the Netherlands, he bought a horse and wagon and became a teamster in the U.S.
Swierenga admits that the volume is something of a family history -- not of his own family specifically, but of all of the families who have been part of the story generally.
"It's very much a book for insiders," he said. "I wrote it for the people now living and their children and grandchildren."
"The book tells the story in great detail, warts and all, but I'm hoping it will create an appreciation for the heritage," he said.
The hardcover "Dutch Chicago" presents a comprehensive history of the Dutch churches, schools and communities of greater Chicagoland since the 1840s. The volume includes 250 photographs and illustrations, and detailed appendices.
"Dutch Chicago" retails for $49. Copies are available in the college's Hope- Geneva Bookstore.
Swierenga has conducted research concerning Dutch immigration and related topics since the 1960s. He has written or edited 16 books, and has written numerous journal articles and lectured widely on issues related to the Dutch in America.
In June of 2000, he was named by Queen Beatrix a "Knight 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.
Swierenga has been at Hope since 1996. He had previously been a member of the history faculty at Kent State University, where he served from 1968 until retiring in 1996.
Swierenga 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 his doctorate from the University of Iowa.