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Little Bit of Holland Is Mostly Memories

Times Staff Writer

Bales of hay stacked three stories high tower over Cor Van Dam as he strolls through one of the corrals on his dairy farm in La Mirada.

The sound of cows and tractors drowns out the constant hum of traffic coming from the shopping centers, industrial buildings and fast-food restaurants that surround his 25 acres. But Van Dam--a remnant of the hundreds of Dutch dairy farmers who settled in southeast Los Angeles County more than 50 years ago--is all too aware of the changes that have taken place around him.

With more than 1,000 cows, Van Dam--whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were dairymen in Holland--runs the largest of the three remaining dairies in the Southeast area.

Van Dam, 69, is a sturdy man with a ruddy complexion and a robust laugh. He remembers when the Dutch dairymen--whose farmhouses, cows and windmills stretched across what is now La Mirada, Cerritos, Norwalk, Bellflower, Artesia, and Paramount--formed a tight group of friends.

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‘Lots of Dutch Neighbors’

“There were feed stores, supply stores, dairies for miles, and lots of Dutch neighbors,” Van Dam recalled. “You couldn’t go any place without hearing people speaking Dutch.”

At that time, the Southeast area was the largest milk-producing region in the state and the hub of Dutch life in Southern California.

The farmers have since gone to Chino or have retired after selling their valuable land for development. But they left behind the Dutch influence that can be seen in the tulip gardens and miniature windmills, the feed stores and the “drive-through dairies” where dairymen once sold their milk, and the smattering of businesses with names like Rylaarsdam Realty, the Dutch Dry Cleaners, Dutch’s Country Kitchen and a florist whose sign boasts, “Flowers with a Dutch Touch.”

They also left churches and schools established to serve the Dutch families and stores like the Holland-American Market & Import Co. in Bellflower, which stocks everything from frozen herring to wooden shoes, and the Artesia Bakery in Artesia, which is run by a sixth-generation of Dutch bakers.

There are the social clubs started by the original settlers, like the Holland Soccer Club and the Neerlandia Club in Paramount, Club Avio in Anaheim and Club Ahoi in Buena Park.

For many of the longstanding Dutch families, these clubs are the last links to their Dutch past.

Those eager for news from their homeland can read the Bellflower-based Holland News--the only Dutch-language newspaper published in this country.

Began Emigrating in 1920s

Drawn by the mild climate, the Dutch started leaving their farms in Holland during the 1920s and continued migrating to Southern California during the next 40 years. The biggest influx came in 1948 and 1949, according to a spokesman for the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington.

At that time, hundreds of Dutch left economically depressed Europe and settled in the Southeast part of the county, which they saw as ripe with both opportunity and cheap land. They were followed by immigrants who left Dutch Indonesia when it won its independence from Holland.

At its peak during the 1950s, the Dutch community in Southern California numbered about 100,000; it dwindled as the Dutch moved to other parts of the state. There are now about 50,000 Dutch in Southern California--making it one of the largest concentrations of Dutch immigrants in the nation. The largest number of Dutch-Americans live in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“There are little pockets of old Dutch communities all over the country in Iowa, upstate New York, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the South Side of Chicago,” said Robert Haslach, spokesman for the Royal Netherlands Embassy, adding that the bulk of the recent arrivals from the Netherlands are migrating to Los Angeles.

Back in the 1950s when Paramount was called Hynes-Clearwater and what is now Cerritos was incorporated in 1956 as Dairy Valley, there were about 400 dairies and more than 100,000 cows in the Southeast area.

“The dairy people were in control around here,” said Cerritos City Councilman Barry A. Rabbit, who was the first non-dairyman elected to the council. That was in 1967, the same year the city changed its name to Cerritos.

Pete Van Leeuwen, 81, one of the last dairymen in Bellflower to sell his farm, remembers the city he moved to in 1926.

“I would climb on top of a haystack, and I could count 20 little dairies along Woodruff, Palo Verde and South Street,” said Van Leeuwen, who sold his dairy in 1972 but still lives in Bellflower.

When Southeast-area cities began incorporating in the 1950s, zoning changes adopted to accommodate development forced the farmers out to Chino, parts of Riverside County and farther north where they settled around Bakersfield, Modesto and Chico. Most settled in Chino, where there are about 200 dairy farms.

Club Membership Dwindles

With the exodus of the dairy farmers, the memberships in the social clubs dwindled. In 1981, the 10 remaining groups were forced to band together and form the Federation of the Netherlands Organizations.

“These clubs are dying of old age,” said Arend Mathyssen, director of the 40-member Dutch Choir in Long Beach. “Unfortunately our children are not Dutch anymore; they are American through and through. There is no one left to carry on our traditions, so for us this is it.”

It’s not that the Dutch have not tried to get their children involved, Mathyssen said, it’s just that the youngsters are too involved in American life to carry on Dutch traditions.

Martin Zerstappe, 23, whose parents are members of the Cerritos-based Dutch Drama Group, finds that most of the youngsters are not interested in joining the clubs. Two years ago the Club Avio tried hosting a monthly teen dance. Only 10 people showed up for the first--and last--dance.

“It really is a shame that most people my age aren’t interested, but there really is nothing for us to do at these clubs,” Zerstappe said.

In February, the federation celebrated its anniversary at La Mirada hotel. There, about 200 people danced to traditional Dutch music and dined on Dutch dishes like croquetten-- spicy meatballs that are breaded then deep-fried--and uitsmjter-- hot ham and roast beef on a slice of bread topped with two fried eggs.

Except for two teen-age girls, most of the party-goers were elderly. But that did not damper the Dutch enthusiasm for a good sing-along and lots of dancing.

A train of dancers--led by a small, energetic man blowing a trumpet and waving at everyone to join in--snaked around the banquet tables as the dancers sang and clapped to the music.

Rein Vermuillen and his band have become a legend in the Dutch community. Since arriving in the United States in 1962, the 55-year-old Buena Park resident has played at Dutch weddings, birthday parties, anniversaries and almost every Dutch national celebration.

‘Pretty Homesick’

“When I got here, everyone was more or less pretty homesick, and I was the only one who could play the kind of music that could keep them cool,” he said, as he took off his derby and dabbed his sweaty face with a cocktail napkin.

Now, Vermuillen said, it’s nostalgia that keeps people listening.

Ava Van Putten agreed. Her father started the choir in 1960 to help newly arrived Dutch overcome their homesickness.

“There is a longing to stay together, and there is a nostalgic feeling when you hear these familiar songs,” Van Putten said. “I remember when we used to go singing from farm to farm. Everyone really leaned on each other back then, and I don’t think that desire to help each other has changed. The Dutch stick together.”

There is little doubt that the remaining clusters of Dutch families and friends are a close-knit group who want to maintain traditions.

As one woman put it: “There is a word in Holland-- gezelligheid-- that means coziness, and that is something missing here.”

For John and Rita Zerstappe of Cerritos, that familiarity can be found among friends in the Dutch Drama Group, a 13-member acting troupe that performs plays in Dutch in cities throughout the Southeast area. The group, which usually performs twice a year, has been together since 1972.

“The main thing is to keep the Dutch language and heritage going,” said member Ans Steenmeyer. “This gives us a chance to speak in our native tongue and to pass on a little of our culture to others.”

Impact of Church

If there is one thing that has traditionally held the Dutch together, it is the church.

“After (the Dutch) migrated here, the church became a stronghold where they could return to their language and customs,” said the Rev. Cornie Van De Hoef, pastor of Bethel Reformed Church in Bellflower. “Those ties are still there.”

There are about 40 Christian Reformed and Reformed churches in the Southeast area, making it the largest concentration of churches with Dutch background in Southern California, Van De Hoef said. Many of these churches were started during the 1930s. Until the mid-1970s a few pastors still delivered sermons in Dutch, Van De Hoef said.

Once the Dutch dairymen established churches, the next step was to establish schools for their children.

In 1935, a minister and a group of dairymen founded the Bellflower Christian Elementary School in Cerritos.

The school started with 119 students. A high school and junior high school were added and enrollment at the three Bellflower Christian schools now totals 1,200, Supt. Bruce D. Keuning said.

Most of the Bellflower Christian School students live in Bellflower, Lakewood and Cerritos, but some travel from La Palma, Cypress and Huntington Beach, school officials said.

The student body and faculty are a mix of nationalities, Keuning said. A recent Valley Christian High School yearbook shows Dutch ancestry is still strong; surnames like Van Der Ark, Vandekamp and De Vries are scattered on almost every page.

The Schools’ Role

The schools “try to maintain links to the Dutch community,” Keuning said, with activities like sponsoring tours to the Chino dairies and traveling to Holland, Mich., for the May tulip festival.

Fred Troost, a retired Chino dairyman and former Dairy Valley councilman whose six children graduated from Valley Christian High School, said the church and schools continue to make the Southeast area the center of Dutch life in Southern California with alumni sometimes returning for school functions.

“It’s not like it used to be when the dairymen were around, but a lot of people still have ties here,” Troost said of the Southest area.

But finding two Dutchmen who share the same opinion is about as a rare as finding one who dislikes herring.

“This is no longer a hub of Dutch activity,” said John H. Wesserling, publisher of the Holland News, with characteristic Dutch bluntness. “Everyone is too spread out for that.”

Indeed, when the dairy farmers left so did most of feed and supply stores, the specialty shops and the bakeries that catered to them.

Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia used to be the downtown for the Dutch dairy farmers during the 1950s, but only a few of the Dutch merchants who catered to the farmers stayed behind. Those who did continue to run prosperous businesses.

Marius Lakeman, the owner the Artesia Bakery on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, is one of them. Lakeman, the sixth generation of a family of Dutch bakers, has been selling Dutch cookies and sweets to dairymen since 1952 and delivers to Dutch communities as far away as Bakersfield and San Diego.

“When the cows move, the Dutch move with them,” Lakeman said with a grin. “This street used to be full of Dutch stores, and for a long time this was the main shopping center for the farmers. Now there are only a few of us left.”

Purveyor of Wooden Shoes

Jack Van Willigan, the owner of the Holland-American Market & Importing Co. on Artesia Boulevard, has been catering to the Dutch since 1941 when he arrived from Rotterdam and started working in the grocery business. In 1969, he opened the market that Van Willigan said is one of the largest importers of Dutch foods and woodens shoes in the country.

Rows of hand-painted and plain wooden shoes of every size are stocked on shelves next to a bin of Dutch records, books and magazines.

There are bits of Dutch paraphernalia everywhere, like the blue-and-white bumper stickers that read, “Have You Hugged a Dutch Girl Today?”; ceramic windmills, and national flags from the Netherlands.

“People ask me how much money I spend on advertising, and I say practically zero,” Van Willigan said, as he stacked some Dutch cookies on a shelf. “It is all word of mouth from the Dutch community that brings customers here to Bellflower.”

Although many of their regular customers are in the Chino area, Lakeman and Van Willigan have no intention of moving. Said Van Willigan: “This area has been good to me so far. Why ruin a good thing?”

As Van Dam surveys his corrals, he points toward his house up the road and explains what keeps him dairy farming in the Southeast area.

“Family,” he said. “Tradition too. It’s something I want to pass on to my grandkids.”

Van Dam knows the days of weekly Dutch parties and running into fellow dairymen on the streets of Artesia are long gone, but, like Lakeman, he said he will stay to continue a family tradition.

“It gets kind of lonely sometimes,” Van Dam said as he offers some hay to several of his cows as they poke their heads through a fence. “We (dairy farmers) are an endangered species. I suppose our days here are numbered too, but I plan to keep on going as long as possible.”


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