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Demise of De Volksvriend ended era in Dutch American community

Orange City weekly ceased publication 50 years ago

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

ORANGE CITY, Iowa - The Dutch-language press in the United States which particularly thrived in the latter part of the 19th century and significantly influenced the development of many local Dutch-American communities, suffered a great loss when De Volksvriend (People’s Friend or Friend of the People) ceased publication now fifty years ago. The final issue of the weekly rolled off its presses on December 27, 1951.

With the exception of De Wachter (1868), a paper of the Christian Reformed Church which was published for over a century, De Volksvriend with its 77 years appeared longer than any other commercial paper in the Dutch language. Other papers noted for their longevity were De Grondwet (Holland, 1860) and Pella’s Weekblad (1861).

Dutch colonist, notary public and realtor Henry Hospers started De Volksvriend four years after he and a group of Dutch Americans in 1870 founded Orange City, then by the Dutch in Iowa simply referred to as ‘de Nieuwe Kolonie’. Hospers, who had been co-owner of Pella’s Weekblad, saw the paper, among others, as a tool to promote Orange City by attracting new settlers and by defending the interests of the colony’s 500 inhabitants.

Although Hospers soon turned the paper over to his son John, he successfully took on corruption and fraud in Sioux County government which then was controlled by non-Dutch settlers. He also convinced numerous immigrants to bypass Pella and settle in Northwestern Iowa where plenty of land was available at affordable prices (in Pella the price of an acre of land had risen to $40-$60 in 1870 from $2.50-$5.00 in 1847, making it very difficult to start farming there). All this was achieved with a small circulation, in its first year De Volksvriend only registered 120 subscribers. By 1881, this number had increased to 400. Ten years later it was 1,000 and in 1895, to 2,000. At its peak of circulation, this number reached 6,000.

Survival in frugal environment

Dutch American weeklies particularly covered local news such as county and town council news, in De Volksvriend’s case that of Sioux County and Orange City. Henry Hospers translated such information into Dutch, to ensure everyone knew what transpired at the county seat and got his readers involved to a degree that they secured solid representation in county government. The paper also published limited national news from the Netherlands but it should be noted that local papers from back home enjoyed significant circulation in the U.S.A. (Leeuwarder Nieuwsblad in the 1920s apparently topped them all with over 1,000). 

Other ‘news’ by dozens of local correspondents from across the country increasingly had a ‘gossipy’ character, who had holidays where, who visited whom, who shipped cattle, moved where, or suffered ailments, mostly reported about in a peculiar rural, small town American style. 

Advertisement content often was a mixture of local businesses, national mail-order peddlers of health remedies (as in Haarlemmerolie), passenger ship line agents along with family announcements and realtors and land agents promising farming opportunities away from home. In general, the newspapers, De Volksvriend included, are thought to only have been marginally viable and often had difficulty surviving in the very frugal and tightfisted Dutch American subculture. 

The Dutch American press, including De Volksvriend, played a key role in promoting new settlements in various parts of the U.S.A. Migrants looking for opportunities in California, the Dakotas (North, Westfield; South, New Holland), Montana (Gallatin Valley), Minnesota (Hollandale, Prinsburg), Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington State (Oak Harbor, Yakima, and Lynden) attracted others with glowing reports about life in their newfound places. 

While the Orange City settlement was a very well planned and executed endeavour (it soon was well-established), many others were attempted by small groups who after failed crops and other problems just moved on to supposedly greener pastures. Notably Whatcom County in the far northwest corner of Washington State became a destination for numerous such Dutch American migrants. The trickle increased in the 1920s when many communities in, for example the Dakotas, experienced drought and crop failures.

During its 77-year history, De Volksvriend had several owners and many editors-in-chief. The father and son team Dr. H.P. (a teacher at a local academy) and John Oggel served the paper longest (1891-1928) and likely remain record-holders in the Dutch North American press to this day. In 1928, when Dutch historian J. Van Hinte wrote his classic Nederlanders in America, he listed a total of nineteen papers and magazines that published all or partially in the Dutch language, a number down from about 25 during World War I. Of these only Protestant Reformed Church-affiliated the Standard Bearer (1924) made the switch to English and continues to publish (from Grand Rapids).

Since the late 1940s, when a new wave of immigrants from the Netherlands arrived on U.S.A. shores, several new publications circulated for a while. In Orange City, the Capital (1901, through a merger with The Democrat, 1879, now the Sioux County Capital-Democrat) noted in its ‘obituary’ of De Volksvriend that it would continue - in English - the news columns from far-away. However, it has not carried such columns ‘from far-away’ for decades now nor do weekly newspapers published in other Dutch American communities founded in the 1800s. The demise of De Volksvriend effectively ended an era in these communities. Its peculiar style of reporting apparently was no longer filled a void.

The book Dutch Immigrant Memoirs and Related Writings, selected and arranged by Dutch American historian Henry S. Lucas included a number of articles published in De Volksvriend and competitors in its monumental 1125-pages. The 1996 revised edition still is in print, as are the ‘companion’ books Dutch American Voices and Write Back Soon, both by Herbert Brinks. These and other books on the subject of the Dutch American experience are listed in the Online Dutch Heritage Catalogue or the actual Dutch Heritage Pages catalogue, which can be mailed to you from Vanderheide Publishing Co. Ltd.