Nature’s Space into Ethnic Place

The train hugged the Hudson River before crossing the bridge over Spuyten Duyvil onto Manhattan Island as my friend asked in a tone I’d become accustomed to, bemused Big-City incredulity: “I hear you’re moving to Idaho?” Actually, I explained, we were headed for Iowa. “Oh. Well,” he waved his hand in dismissal, as if he’d been close and I was quibbling over minor details: “One of those vowel states.” I was trading my commute from Westchester County into Greenwich Village, and our family was trading urban diversity and suburban sprawl for life in a town of 5,000 in the rural Midwest: Orange City, Iowa.

In 1990, we moved to a community that was mostly tall and blond, obviously and predominantly Dutch and that proudly claimed to be “90 percent churched.” We could have used at that point the 2014 edition of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America: Orange City,” by Doug Anderson, Tim Schlak, Greta Grond and Sarah Kaltenbach. This pictorial celebration of the community provides context that begins with the complexities of church life in the Old Country. The introduction traces journeys of Dutch colonists to North America, beginning in 1624 with the Dutch-sponsored expedition of Henry Hudson. The Dutch came to the New World determined to remain “set apart” as they worshipped faithfully, farmed the fertile land and built model cities and fine schools, from Mannahata Eyland, New York, to Holland, Michigan, to Pella, Iowa, and, finally, to Orange City.

My Norwegian family teased that I should not be parading about in outfits that were decidedly Dutch.
Founded as the social center for an agricultural colony, Orange City still felt the dominance of farmers in both community and church when we arrived there. In this breadbasket for the whole world, we joined in prayers for rain when the crops were dry and heard a great deal about corn and soybeans, running dairy farms and raising hogs.

For transplants from the outskirts of New York City, where most every religion was practiced and many people proudly proclaimed they had “no religion at all,” we were amazed to be in a community so thoroughly churched. We celebrated the chance to join the American Reformed Church, and my husband taught at Northwestern College. But we were puzzled by those who described the union of a Reformed Church in America bride and a Christian Reformed Church groom as a “mixed marriage” or asked why we were building “on the CRC side of town?” Even more confusing was concern that we had been seen at the “CRC gas station.”

The diligence of the town’s first families remained a community standard, and our neighbors loved images of a woman in wooden shoes furiously chasing dirt. Our search of area real estate revealed that chasing dirt wasn’t simply art but a deeply embraced standard. Diligence seemed to be passed down through the generations, too. My husband helped lead a middle school youth group on a mission trip to Des Moines, and the service task was sorting donated, sometimes old and musty clothing for a rescue mission. Ministry leaders were amazed: “Your youth are remarkably hard-working! If we’d known we’d get a group from Northwest Iowa, we’d have planned more to do.”

“Images of America: Orange City” describes the commitment to promote faith in the public schools among early RCA leaders. By 1990, expressions of faith were still prominent, and our older daughter described daily devotions and lunchtime prayers in her (public) kindergarten class. Years later, high school band field-show themes included “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God!” When our family spent a sabbatical year on the West Coast, our children noted that “kids are surprised and ask ‘So, you actually go to church?’ In Orange City, kids ask ‘Which youth group do you belong to?’”

Windmills, prominent reminders of the homeland among early settlers, were still featured in Orange City, from a historic re-creation of one used for grinding grain to a bank in a windmill to the town’s Windmill Park to even a phone booth inside a tiny replica. Tulips, in every garden and featured on lace and wall art, were prominent, and we’ve got albums filled with photos of our family, in Dutch dress, surrounded by symbols of the Netherlands.

“If you ain’t Dutch ….” While there were jokes that perhaps our name should be Van Carlsonsma, we were welcomed to both community and church. But on Grandparents Day, while many children were encircled by four grandparents, our children sat alone. After school while their parents worked, playmates went to one of several aunts’ homes, all within walking distance. Sunday afternoons featured traditional family dinners at Grandma’s and strong notions of keeping Sabbath. So we established traditions and created a sense of family with other transplants.

Orange City established its first Tulip Festival in 1936, clearly thriving despite the setbacks of that era, despite the local impact of the Great Depression. The community was remarkably prosperous when we arrived, too, with amazing celebrations of culture and heritage. After a career in public relations and marketing nonprofits in New York, I was impressed by the spirit of volunteerism: A thousand people volunteered at the annual Tulip Festival, donning authentic Dutch dress and presenting three days of dancing, marching and cooking delicious ethnic treats. Despite our Scandinavian heritage, we were, for those days, Dutch.

As an immigrant born in Alesund, a town in Norway spread over a series of islands on the very edge of the North Sea, and raised in Seattle, I recognized the strong sense of ethnic community I found in Orange City. The town’s annual celebration of tulips and all things Dutch reminded me of Norway’s high holy days celebrating independence on 17 Mai. I’d celebrated the event in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood as a child. My Norwegian family teased that I should not be parading about in outfits that were decidedly Dutch.

My husband and I had lived in Colorado, Illinois and New York and had learned to create family along the way in diverse communities filled with other transients like us. Orange City, in a region our New York neighbors described as the “flyover zone,” was unique, the core of community firmly planted, interconnected across multiple generations, securely grounded in their rural landscape. These Iowans celebrated a sea of grass and golden fields with the rich textures of grain ready for harvest.

I did learn to see beauty in this landscape. But I longed to hear the waves crash as I stood at the ocean’s shore on the very edge of the continent facing west, longed to see snow-capped mountains to the east. Most of my Orange City neighbors were content to stay put, celebrating the place they had always known, surrounded by grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles. We were travelers, transplanting our family for a season, always hearing a call from a landscape that was carved on our hearts. But Orange City’s fertile landscape that so richly nurtured the natives also nurtured the four of us for a season. I am grateful.


Grete Helstad Carlson is a freelance writer and fundraiser. She and her husband, Doug Carlson, recently retired to Lummi Island, Washington, where the waves crash along the shore of the Salish Sea to the west, and Mount Baker and the Cascade Mountains are prominent to the east.

Photo by WindRanch/Flickr; used under Creative Commons License.