Feature: ‘Dutch’ Paterson, New Jersey

Article by Gerald van Wilgen
In downtown Paterson a fading sign for a furniture company is one of few tangible reminders of a once vibrant Dutch community (Photo: Gerald van Wilgen)

In downtown Paterson a fading sign for a furniture company is one of few tangible reminders of a once vibrant Dutch community (Photo: Gerald van Wilgen)

If you are homesick and you are an Italian living in Philadelphia, you can go to the Italian Market to get a fix. There’s Greektown in Baltimore, Koreatown in Los Angeles, and if you are Chinese, you can visit a Chinatown in most major cities. For the Dutch there was once Paterson, New Jersey, the county seat of Passaic County, where, until recently Dutch was still spoken in certain pockets of town. On a sunny weekend in September, I decided to take a drive out to Paterson to see what was left. Before I left, I decided to contact two former Paterson residents who have both studied and written about Dutch emigration to the United States.

James de Waal Malefyt is a biologist for the State of New York and has written a book called Dutch Immigrants of Northern New Jersey. According to him, the Dutch community was still very much alive in Prospect Park, a Paterson suburb, when he grew up. “My mother would take us on a drive on Saturdays and we bought bread at a Dutch bakery, meat at a Dutch butcher’s shop and gas at a Dutch owned gas station,” De Waal Malefyt told me from his home in Albany. His ancestors arrived during the second emigration wave of 1850 to 1920.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is an assistant-professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He was born in Paterson and has written extensively about Dutch emigration to the United States. He confirms that in the 1950s and ‘60s there was still a vibrant Dutch community in Paterson. But although many of the elderly would speak Dutch with each other, the language wasn’t used in the Reformed churches anymore. Before World War II there still were a few churches with Dutch services, but because Dutch sounded similar – at least to English speakers, to German, the Dutch stopped using their language abruptly when the Germans became the enemy. The new immigrants who arrived in the 1950s and ‘60s seemed determined to assimilate in their new homeland, and wanted to speak English. Therefore, the generation born after 1945 did not learn the language.

But the history of the Dutch in the area goes back much further. In 1688 the Dutch opened a trading post in an area called Acquackanonk, which covered parts of present day Paterson. Dutch settlers started farming the area. Even though New Jersey became English, the area kept drawing Dutch migrants, because of the churches founded by the original settlers and the existing Dutch networks in the area.

In the late 1700s the falls of the Passaic River at Paterson were harnessed by Alexander Hamilton and used to power silk mills. The town’s economy took off and the area became the second biggest silk fabric producer after China.

Only gravestones

The first Dutch settlers, dating back to New Netherland colony of the 17th century, are considered the first wave of Dutch immigration. The second wave started around 1850 and lasted until the 1920s, and the third wave started to arrive just after World War II. Both Schoone-Jongen and De Waal-Malefyt directed me to the remaining Reformed church buildings when I asked them if there was anything Dutch to see in Paterson, and its suburbs. There weren’t any Dutch architectural gems, they told me, nor was there a Dutch museum or monument, only gravestones. In the book Exploring Historic Dutch New York by Gajus Scheltema, former Consul-General in New York, there is no mention of the area, with the exception of one Reformed church in Wyckoff, which is close to Paterson but just across the county line in Bergen County. Since I am Dutch, and do not necessarily take what I am told at face value, I had to find out for myself and headed to Paterson.

The first stop I made was at the Passaic Historical Society at Lambert Castle. Lambert Castle is a museum dedicated to its previous owners, the Lambert family, silk magnates, not surprisingly. From the premises of the museum the view over Manhattan and Staten Island is spectacular. Inside, in the library, I asked librarian Carol Murphy Natoli if there is anything Dutch in the museum. She thought for a moment and pointed to a couple of shelves stocked with red binders. “That’s the Jack Quackenbush collection,” she said. The backs of the binders carry familiar names of Dutch families, Van Winkle, Voorhees, Bogert, Van Buren, Vreeland, Wannamaker… She explained that the library is visited by many people who are working on their genealogy and family history. I was duly impressed by this hand-written collection, the result of a lifelong effort by Mr. Quackenbush. But I didn’t feel a connection with the people whose vital statistics were recorded in these binders. I probably share more of my genetic make-up with them than with my current neighbors, but they seemed distant. Even the realization that these early settlers who had left from Amsterdam, must have run into at least one of my ancestors, who worked as a gatekeeper at one of the city gates, did not make me feel closer to them.

After I left the cold data in the museum I did get a warmer feeling later that day in a neighboring town called Fair Lawn. It’s a small town, known for a cemetery with Dutch gravestones. I was hoping to find a little touch of Dutch at the ‘Historic Dutch House Tavern’ that I discovered there. I figured that the ‘historic’ restaurant should have a Dutch item on the menu, because ever since the Acquackanonk trading post, there has always been a Dutch presence in the area. The interior certainly looked old. If there had been carpets on the tables it could have passed for a ‘bruin café’ (a dark Dutch pub). I ordered a beer and asked what Dutch food they had on the menu. I didn’t even get an answer, just a look of disbelief, as if I was asking for a free coffee refill in a restaurant in Holland. The bartender handed me the menu, which offered a ‘Dutch Burger’. Since that was the only ‘Dutch’ item on the menu, I decided to order it, upon which the waitress asked, “what kind of cheese?” I answered with a broad grin: “Dutch”. ‘You-gotta-be-kidding me’, she must have thought. “American or Swiss?” “Hey, you guys are presenting yourselves as a Dutch restaurant,” I argued. “Aah… the Dutch,” a burly, tipsy, red-faced man next to me blurted out, as he raised his glass. “They once settled this area”. It sounded like he was talking about a group that had disappeared for good.

In downtown Paterson I saw a fading sign on a wall: van Dijk Furniture. I imagined a whole series of Dutch owned stores and offices. Now Paterson is as diverse as a United Nations meeting and has as many chain stores as any other city. I was sure that behind the plaster and plastic of the modern facades there was more evidence of formerly Dutch stores.

Community and compassion

In Prospect Park I found the Christian Reformed Church that James de Waal Malefyt once attended. It was still in use as a church, but there weren’t any Dutch markers or cornerstones cemented in the outside walls. From Prospect Park I drove north to Wyckoff, a town that at least has a Dutch name. There I found the gorgeous neo-classical Reformed Church with complementary graveyard, described in Scheltema’s Exploring Historic Dutch New York.

Midland Park, just east of Wyckoff, like Paterson and Prospect Park, was built on top of a hill overlooking Manhattan. One of the largest (formerly Dutch) Christian Reformed congregations in the state can be found here. The church building is interesting, because the towers are lower than the roof. I thought the lower towers had an architectural significance, but when I asked Schoone-Jongen he laughed. “They were probably too cheap,” he said.

A collection of handwritten papers, a faded sign, some gravestones and an aloof waitress at a ‘Dutch’ Tavern, weren’t quite what I had hoped to find. Wasn’t there anything the Dutch had left behind? Both Schoone-Jongen and De Waal Malefyt told me that the social network the Dutch had created was their most important accomplishment. Driven by their Christian faith the people looked out for each other. They founded Christian Schools, the Christian Health Center, and the Holland Christian Home, a seniors’ center. It was the Dutch who opened the first mental health facility in all of New Jersey in 1911.

The Holland Christian Home still exists. It was founded in 1895 and moved to its current site in a quiet neighborhood in the borough of North Haledon, just north of Paterson, in 1960. I had called the director, Carol Moore, to ask her if there were any people there who still speak Dutch. She said she would find out.

Hey jochie, hoe gaat het!?” (Hey buddy, how are you!?) A friendly, elderly gentleman with glistening eyes and a heartwarming smile extends his hand. Next to him on the wooden table lies his copy of the Statenbijbel. “Ask him how old he is,” said Irene Groenewal-Venema, who is originally from Haren, with a broad smile. He turned towards me and said with the joy of a thousand grandchildren: “I was born in 1910”. Simon Hartog has never been to The Netherlands. He is one of the proverbial ‘Last of the Mohicans’. His father immigrated from Amsterdam in the late 1800s to start a new life in America, his mother was born on Goeree-Overflakkee. He grew up speaking Dutch and honoring the obligatory traditions of celebrating Sinterklaas and eating oliebollen on New Year’s Eve. The other Dutch-speaking residents present are Janet (Jantje) Sytsma who was born in Tzummarum in North-West Friesland, and Dina Breen-Wildervanck from the city of Groningen.

The conversation switched easily from Dutch to English and back. I asked them if being Dutch made them feel different. “We are all Americans,” Hartog answered. “Everybody comes from somewhere and we all want to fit in”. Groenewal-Venema spoke on behalf of the other two women when she said that it was hard in the beginning because they weren’t able to speak English when they arrived.

They don’t seem to miss the old days that much, and for their convenience there is a Dutch ‘snoepwinkel’ (candy store) in the Christian Health Care Center. When they yearn for ‘krentenbollen’ (currant buns) the Holland Christian Home organizes trips to the Holland American Bakery in Sussex County, approximately a half hour drive westward. When I asked why there weren’t any Dutch restaurants, they all started reminiscing about the different kinds of ‘stamppot’ (mashed potato based dishes) they liked, but couldn’t imagine that people would pay for that kind of food. “The Dutch are known for many things,” Breen-Wildervanck said, “but not for their cuisine”.

I went to Paterson to get my Dutch fix. As an unwitting visitor I assumed that I could find ‘Dutch’ restaurants, monuments or museums. I guess I learned that what the Dutch have left behind in and around Paterson is a solid system of both healthcare and education.

On my way back, while driving on the illustrious New Jersey Turnpike, I realized that the value of a building or a monument shrinks in comparison to the value of community and compassion

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Posted by on Dec 27 2012. Filed under History, North America, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Feature: ‘Dutch’ Paterson, New Jersey”

  1. RC

    There is a beautiful Flemish Revival post office adjacent to the Passaic County Courthouse in Downtown Paterson. It’s quite striking, especially cheek-by-jowl with the equally pretty courthouse. My understanding is it was specifically designed as it was to honor the integral role of the Dutch populace in Greater Paterson on the early 20th Century. I’m sure pictures of it may be easily found online. It would certainly rank as a Dutch architectural landmark in NJ and I’d even assert that outside of South Africa, I can’t think of a place where one would find such a significant building in Dutch style in an area where they immigrated, though I’m not familiar with what may stand in the larger western Michigan Dutch immigration region.

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