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Excerpts from the dedication to
Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders
in the Windy City

by Robert P. Swierenga

For great grandfather Jan Hendriks Swierenga (1847-1899)
grandfather Bouwko (Robert) Swierenga (1887-1949)
father John R. Swierenga (1911-1999)
uncles Ralph Swierenga (1919-1987)
Henry R. Swierenga (1924-2000)
Paul Tuitman (1908- )
and all the Groninger teamsters on Chicago's West Side

Over the centuries Swierengas worked as farm laborers, farm operators, and, in the last three generations in the nineteenth century, as canal bargemen and grain brokers. These last hauled wheat and other grains to market in the city of Groningen and set prices for the various grades at the national board of trade in the city.

The wheat-producing region of Groningen and Friesland suffered a severe depression in the 1880s, due to falling prices in world markets caused by the glut of new production on the rich American and Canadian prairies. The agricultural crisis forced Dutch farmers to mechanize and consolidate land holdings in order to compete with North American growers. Farm laborers and small farmers were cast off by the tens of thousands, and emigration to America offered the best long-term prospects.

Jan Swierenga owned a canal barge and tow horse and transported grain from a windmill, known as Olle Widde (“Old White”), which stood among fertile grain fields beside his rented red brick home on the outskirts of a small village in the north of the country. Across the road was the canal, the Damsterdiep, which ran directly to the national grain market in the city of Groningen. The precipitating event in Jan's decision to emigrate to Chicago was a financial blow caused by a canal shipping accident.

While hauling a full load of wheat to the Groningen grain market, Jan had to pass through a sluis (“lock”) on the canal. He followed the usual procedure of tying his barge to the side of the sluis but failed to allow enough slack line. When the water level in the lock dropped suddenly and unexpectedly, the rope became taut and caused the boat to tip, and the entire load, about twenty tons, was soaked and ruined. This disaster drained Jan financially. He decided to start over in Chicago, where his older brother had settled on the West Side eleven years earlier, having followed a paternal uncle who immigrated shortly after the Civil War. It was a typical "chain migration," in which members of an extended family follow and assist one another over time.

Jan and his wife and eight children arrived amidst the great Columbian Exposition. Like most immigrants, they had left a pinched existence for the promise of a better future in an expansive new land. Chicago was a burgeoning metropolis, dubbed the "lightning city" because of the unbelievable pace of growth that came with its strategic location as the gateway to the West. Jan again took up transport work, buying a horse and wagon to haul limestone and commodities of all kinds. But 1893 was not a good year to arrive in the United States. One of the periodic business panics struck that year and set off a depression second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Swierenga family suffered greatly, living in a damp basement and lacking adequate food. Before the economic crisis had run its course, Jan's wife Katrijn had died in 1897 of "consumption," and Jan had succumbed two years later to tuberculosis; both were diseases of poverty. The parents left seven orphans, three boys and four girls, since the oldest daughter had married. Jan and Katrijn emigrated and sacrificed their lives for the sake of their children, all of whom married Dutch Reformed spouses and prospered. The oldest son farmed in South Dakota, and the other two sons together operated a wholesale produce house at Chicago's Randolph Street market. The food business provided a solid middle-class living for their families and launched several of the children on the road to even greater success in the trucking business in Chicago. They lived out the promise of America, and in their memory I dedicate this book.