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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: ‘City of Refuge’ becomes colorful city of tulips
Dutch families began popular Pella festival in 1935
The first “Tulip Time in Pella” festival was celebrated just one day in 1935, May 18.
The women’s clubs in the Marion County city in south-central Iowa decorated streets and store windows with giant wooden tulips they paid a cabinetmaker to craft.
The celebration, featuring novelty Dutch acts in the afternoon and an operetta, “Tulip Time,” presented by the high school in the evening, was a trial run. Pella residents hoped for it to become an annual event.
Shopkeepers that first year filled their windows with antiques, many of which had come with the 800 settlers who fled Holland when King William I placed their church under state control. To avoid religious persecution, families found their way to Iowa in 1847, led by their pastor, the Rev. Hendrik Pieter Scholte.
They settled in a place that they named “Pella,” or “City of Refuge,” after an ancient city in Jordan.
Scholte took on the additional responsibilities of lawyer, real estate agent, justice of the peace and editor of the Pella Gazette, which published for about five years from 1855 to 1860.
Scholte also began building a large frame house in 1848 that grew to 22 rooms as his family grew. The house stood across from the town square. His descendants lived in the home until 1987, when his great-granddaughter, Leonora Gaass, died. The house was given to the Pella Historical Society and is now operated as a museum.
The 1935 event went so well that Pella business owners ordered 150,000 tulip bulbs from Holland to plant around the city to beautify gardens and public places. When the bulbs arrived in October, the people of Pella spent two weeks planting them.
The 1936 festival was slated for five days, May 12 to 16. Leonora Gaass, the descendant of Pella’s founder, was voted the first Tulip Time Festival queen. Her attendants were Virginia Van Gorp, Betty Lankela, Martha Inveldt and Ruth Heerema.
To promote the celebration, 200 Pella residents dressed in Dutch costumes and, wearing klompen (wooden shoes), clattered into the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines to present Gov. Clyde Herring with a pair of the shoes and invite him to the festival.
The streets were ceremoniously scrubbed Tuesday before the festival queen was crowned in the afternoon. Other events included a mass choir Wednesday, concerts by bands and bugle corps Thursday, and a pageant, “Hansel and Gretel,” on Friday. The operetta, “Windmills of Holland,” closed the celebration Saturday.
The third annual festival saw tulips “line the curbing, cover the front yards, carpet the parks, glorifying the town,” a Gazette writer said after visiting the city of 3,000.
The festival was shortened from five days to three in 1938.
During the war
After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the 8th annual Tulip Time Festival focused on the fight in the East Indies by the Dutch, British and Americans. Proceeds from the festival bought an ambulance for the war effort.
In 1946, the festival was canceled “because of probable inability to get everything needed for a complete celebration,” officials said. Instead, a community auction of donated items raised money that was sent to Holland for war relief.
The next year, 1947, marked the 100th year since the Hollanders had arrived in America. The festival, originally scheduled for May 8 to 10, had to be delayed when weather delayed the tulips blooming. That gave the Pella Dutch more time to get used to the new wooden shoes that had arrived from the Netherlands.
In January 1947, festival organizers had reminded the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce that Pella had donated $100,000 to Netherlands relief during the war. That resulted in a special export license for a thousand pairs of wooden shoes to arrive in Pella on April 23, allowing time for residents to be fitted.
That year an additional 85,000 tulip bulbs were planted, bringing the city’s total to around a million.
More tulips, royalty
In the fall of 1957, 10,000 red, white and blue bulbs were planted in the shape of an American flag.
In 1997, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands and her husband, Pieter van Vollenhoven, visited Pella for its sesquicentennial, mingling with townspeople and students at Central College. They took part in the dedication of memorial sculptures commissioned for Scholte Gardens.
In 2006, more than 2,600 people danced in wooden shoes for more than six minutes to set a world record.
In 2019, the festival attracted nearly 200,000 visitors.
The festival was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, but it made some adaptations in 2021 — substituting floats for the traditional parade — to allow the festival to resume. The festival returned to normal in 2022. Weather dampened the crowd on opening day, but Saturday was packed.
This year’s Tulip Time Festival is May 4 to 6.