Vermont’s Abenaki and French heritage is being celebrated during the Vermont Lake Champlain Quadricentennial, which will also highlight the recent influx of immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Balkans. But little attention is being paid to a still-distinctive community of Dutch-descended farmers that has influenced the culture and politics of Addison County for the past 60 years.
The collective story of these 100 or so families is unfamiliar to state historians such as Michael Sherman and Kevin Graffagnino, the former president and director, respectively, of the Vermont Historical Society. It also doesn’t jibe with the state’s navy blue political complexion or with its increasingly secular character.
Many of the Dutch settled in towns around Vergennes following World War II, with a wave of domestic transplants arriving in the 1960s. The earlier immigrants left their farms in a country that had been impoverished by the Nazi occupation. Those who followed 20 years later were also seeking opportunity in rural Vermont, but many of these newcomers were fleeing suburban development in parts of New York and New Jersey where they had been farming since emigrating from the Netherlands.
Farm land was still cheap in Addison County 40 years ago, and even back then a lot of dairy operations were going bust. John DeVos, now 91, moved to Ferrisburgh in 1967 because he could no longer afford the property taxes on his farm in Monroe, N.Y. He had first come to the United States in 1948 in order to escape “the socialist system in Holland.” DeVos says there was “no way to get ahead” as a farmer in the old country. “The government controlled everything. You were allowed to have only so many cows, so many pigs.”
Herman Boesman, who immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in the late ’40s, bought a 225-acre dairy farm and house in Addison for $29,000 in 1968. His father, Kornelius Boesman, had moved to the Ozarks from the Netherlands — not for economic reasons but to avoid Soviet communism. “He thought that what happened to the Jews during the war would happen to Christians when the Russians took over,” Herman Boesman relates.
Even though dairying was an iffy proposition financially, Vermont bankers were willing to lend to Dutch farmers because of their reputation as tireless workers, says Tom Albaugh, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Vergennes. Indeed, herds that would otherwise have been dispersed were kept productive in Addison County through the sweat of Dutch families. Boesman, for example, dropped out of school at age 15 — later earning a GED, he points out — in order to help on the farm.
DeVos embodied the same ethic. “It’s going to be hard to make it in this country,” he remembers thinking in the 1940s. “I knew I had to take off my jacket and go to work.”
That willingness to labor long hours under punishing circumstances has been passed on to a younger generation of Dutch farmers. Derrick Dykstra, 27, says he’s going to keep milking his 225 cows in New Haven despite the dairying crisis that recently bankrupted his brother’s nearby farm. “What can I do?” Dykstra asks rhetorically. “Just keep a smile on my face and work hard every day.”
Farming is encoded in the Dutch families’ genes. “One of the first words kids learn after ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is ‘farm,’” Boesman says.
But other aspects of the Dutch tradition are being abandoned by Dykstra’s generation. The culture “gets weaker and weaker over time,” Pastor Albaugh observes. “You get to the third generation and the commitment starts to break down.”
The language is being lost, for one thing. DeVos and Boesman both speak Dutch — though only rarely these days — while Dykstra knows just a few words. He has also stopped attending the Reformed Church on a regular basis after being prohibited from taking part in some of its rituals. “I’m living in sin,” Dykstra says with a smile. His nonmarital cohabitation with a woman is seen as “offensive to the old-school ways of the Dutch,” he explains.
In the 1960s, when the Christian Reformed Church was established in Vergennes, “there wasn’t as much counseling as now in regard to divorce and single-parenting,” Albaugh notes. American culture has proved “enticing and tempting” to the children of the Dutch immigrants, adds Jeremy Velman, pastor of the New Haven United Reform Church, which broke away about 10 years ago from the congregation that Albaugh now heads.
Dutch families in Addison County, while still generally living in accordance with Calvinist principles, are actually less isolated from today’s liberal Vermont than they were from what was a staunchly Republican state 50 years ago, Albaugh suggests. “A lot of them say, ‘We’re Americans now and have to be more open to who our neighbors are,’” he remarks.
“I don’t feel Dutch,” Boesman, 67, declared at his farmhouse kitchen table last week. “We’re very grateful to be in America,” added his wife, Greta.
To neighboring outsiders, however, the Dutch farmers still comprise a cohesive, distinctive community. “They’re a major reason why there’s still farms here,” says Charlie Langworthy, a member of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society. “Their kids are also more apt to go into farming than are others. They also tend to be pretty conservative,” Langworthy adds, suggesting that local voters of Dutch descent may account in part for why Addison County’s lone Republican state legislator represents the towns of Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham.
Some of the Dutch themselves also affirm a unique identity. Joan DeGraaf, co-owner of a Panton farm supply store, says it’s reflected mainly through the two Reformed churches and the Christian school they jointly run.
About a third of Dutch families send their children to that religious school, while the rest either educate their kids at home or enroll them in local public schools, Albaugh estimates. As one indication of the Christian school’s enduring role, its supporters raised $2 million for a new building a couple of years ago. “It’s so important to us to educate our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord,” Pastor Velman notes.
The K-12 school’s roughly 70 students are mostly from Dutch families who attend either the Christian Reformed Church or the United Reformed Church. A significant and growing minority of pupils have parents who are members of other Christian denominations.
The churches themselves are also no longer uniformly Dutch in their memberships. Greta Boesman figures about one-quarter of the New Haven church’s congregants are of other heritages. “We don’t want to be known as a Dutch church,” Pastor Velman declares. That may seem a somewhat paradoxical ambition, however, since his church adheres more strictly to Calvinist doctrine than does the older church in Vergennes.
Velman’s United Reformed Church broke off from Albaugh’s Christian Reformed Church mainly over the issue of ordaining women to ministerial posts. The New Haven congregation had opposed that move, as well as the Christian Reformed Church’s distancing from a literal interpretation of the bit in the Book of Genesis where God is said to have created the Earth in six days. “The authority of the Bible wasn’t being upheld the way it used to be,” Velman says, adding, however, that the two churches bear no animosity toward one another.
DeVos, the 91-year-old retired farmer who lives most of the year in Florida, suspects that the Vergennes congregation may also be tolerant of gays. “I don’t think homosexuals should be allowed to go to church,” DeVos suggested recently on the back porch of his grandson’s farm house. “They’re all controlled by Satan.”
Younger generations clearly don’t hold the same attitudes, even though Dutch families in Addison County “remain very closely knit,” Albaugh observes. One way Dutch identity gets reinforced is through the visits that many of the families make to the mother country. DeGraaf, for example, says she and her husband Bob took four of their five adult children to the Netherlands about 10 years ago. It was an eye-opening experience, she recalls. The DeGraafs’ children, all born in the U.S., had become thoroughly Americanized, but after a couple of weeks of visiting relatives in Friesland province in the northern Netherlands, “They felt very much at home there,” DeGraaf says.