During the first week of May, 300,000 tulips in beds lining streets and filling parks of Pella, IA, usually bloom. Whatever the condition of blossoms, local people celebrate their Dutch heritage with an extravaganza of colorful parades, folk dancing, interesting exhibits, and delicious food. Copious amounts of food. Visitors can feed their inner child with funnel cakes, cotton candy, and sno-cones. Ethnic foods range from walking tacos to egg rolls. But highlights for those who graze their way through the three days are distinctly Dutch delights like poffertjies (tiny custardy pancakes), stroopwafels (small round waffles with syrup layered between), and vet bollen (deep-fried dough balls filled with raisins and covered with sugar). Pella bologna can be purchased in many forms, including on a stick. And tourists wait in long bakery lines to buy pastries, especially almond-filled Dutch letters, shaped like an S.
Each year, over 100,000 people flock to Pella’s Tulip Festival to eat the food and see the sights. A successful festival depends in large part on thousands of local volunteers who do everything from donning authentic costumes and scrubbing streets to pushing their babies through the parade in antique buggies. Generations of families carry on such activities as treasured traditions.
Many participants descend from Dutch grandparents or great-grandparents who settled in the area. A few trace their lineage to Dominie Scholte, the minister who led about 800 immigrants to America in 1847 to escape famine and religious oppression in the Netherlands. The colonists determined to name their New World settlement Pella, based on the Decapolis city where Christians found sustenance and refuge when fleeing from Jerusalem in the first century.
Most of the Holland Colony camped outside St. Louis, while Scholte and two other men scouted for a suitable site in Iowa. The three selected a spot on the fertile prairie between the Skunk and Des Moines Rivers and purchased 18,000 acres at about $1.25 per acre (land in the area now can sell for $6,000-8,000/acre).
Many of the families initially lived together in a large shed constructed for shelter. Some stayed in sod houses for two winters, until they could afford to build more permanent homes. A few, like the Scholtes, moved into cabins purchased from previous inhabitants.
Scholte’s wife, Mareah, may have been the most reluctant settler. Accustomed to a more genteel life, she found it difficult to adjust to pioneer living. Although an accomplished woman, she is remembered for crying over broken china. Only a few items of her prized blue and white Delft survived the voyage. The remaining pieces paved a path from the family’s original cabin to the two-story house Scholte built to assuage his wife’s longing for her old home.
Although the Scholtes are often idealized, they were flawed people. But the biblical record repeatedly shows how God uses broken people for His purpose. We are jars of clay—often cracked—through which the light of Christ shines by His grace (2 Corinthians 4:6–7).
Not every settler agreed with Scholte’s theological convictions. Some refrained from joining his church, believing that it did not follow the church order adopted at Dort. Later immigrants of similar beliefs joined with earlier settlers in establishing the True Dutch Reformed Church in 1866. The first congregation of its denomination west of the Mississippi River, this church became the First Christian Reformed Church, which still exists, and from which Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) and many other local and far-flung Reformed congregations sprang.
Nearly half of Pella’s almost 30 Christian churches remain Reformed in theological perspective. They embrace doctrines of grace often summarized by the TULIP acronym: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance (or better, Preservation) of the saints. When it comes to the Reformed faith, you could say tulips bloom year around in Pella.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 18 & 19 of the June 15, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.