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Holland History: From Ruth's Perspective

 

"History is the study of past human affairs. It is a record of how people learned, hoped, though and felt. History teaches us by example how to understand the present and its problems and to deal with them more effectively than we would if we died not knowing how similar problems had been dealt with in the past. It also teaches how we must each our children in order that the future may be more perfect than the past has been."

-Ruth Keppel, July 29, 1929 Student Paper

 

Ruth Keppel was not an academic historian. She studied some music history during her college years, but her training was violin performance, not historical research. This is not to say that Ruth's work is not worthy of study or analysis. In fact, Ruth's version of Holland history is almost purely based on oral history; thus, from her perspective, we can understand the ordinary person's version of the community's history. More specifically, Ruth's version is that of her father and grandfather, making it a genealogical, heritage study.

Trees to Tulips

Published in 1947, "Trees to Tulips" provides a brief overview of the early pioneer days of Holland. Beginning with the arrival of the Dutch immigrants in 1847, Ruth interweaves the story of her grandfather Teunis' arrival with that of the early Hollanders. She focuses particularly on the hardships of the settlers. "It was only their faith in God that caused the Dutch to endure to the end the hardships that came their way," she wrote. Through the first chapter, entitled 'The Arrival,' we learn of the conditions of the early days, as well as the disappointments. Ruth noted,"Some of the newcomers, expecting to find Holland, Michigan a thriving city, were much disappointed."

Though she focuses mostly on the arrival and growth of the colony in the first years, Ruth also includes sections on pioneer women and transportation. She notes that many are apt to forget the women's place in making the colony habitable. They often cooked on open coal fires, did laundry in washtubs, and sewed all the family clothes. Without modern conveniences, the women had to work very hard. As for transportation, the settlers traveled by foot or wagon, as the first railroad did not appear until 1870. They often used the Indian trails to get around West Michigan.

Her last chapters tell of the later pioneer years, as well as profile the pioneers themselves. Within these chapters, Ruth weaves in anecdotes that undoubtedly come from her grandfather. For example, when writing of wild cat banking, Ruth mentions a story of how Teunis was cheated out of $10 due to faulty bank notes. She also spends a great deal of time profiling her grandfather, calling him "Van Raalte's right hand man." She writes of Teunis:

"Teunis Keppel was one of the leading citizens in Holland in pioneer days. He was a man of unswerving honesty, which he demonstrated in all his business dealings. He had strong religious convictions. He was a devout Christian, attending church four times on Sunday and a mid-week prayer meeting. He had a natural talent for public speaking; having a beautiful voice…He was an extremely ambitious man always arising at four in the morning and retiring at eleven since life was too short to sleep it away."

 

Other Essays

None of Ruth's other work covers the scope of "Trees to Tulips." Her other essays detail other civic dignitaries and family members. She wrote a great deal about her father, telling of his childhood, his parenting techniques, his hobbies, his work. In addition to writing about Holland history, she also wrote about great musicians like Chopin, Bach, Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Wagner. There is also evidence that she presented papers on Dutch music on several occasions.

Holland dignitaries she wrote about include:

  • Teunis Keppel
  • Van Raalte
  • Christine Val Raalte Gilmore
  • Hobert Keppel
  • Isaac Cappon
  • Mary Lokker Tappan
  • Jacob Vander Veen

Other subjects include:

  • Queen Julianna of the Netherlands
  • Annie Sims Perkins
  • Christmas in Early Holland
  • The Albert Keppel School Forest Preserve
  • The Baker Museum of Holland, Michigan
  • Early Plantings in America
  • High School Orchestras

Ruth wrote very little about herself compared to her historical writings; however, a hand full of essays regarding her life exist. They were written during the 1980s. In these, Ruth writes of the best moments of her life, which include being recognized for her work as a historian and music teacher. She writes:

"One of the greatest moments of my life was when on June 1, 1982 I was the honored guest at the Holland Public Schools Spring Orchestra Finale. The orchestra director introduced me and said, ' Ruth Keppel is the most distinguished alumnus of the Holland Public School Orchestra. If I never have another honor, this is enough."

-"My High School Orchestras"

 


 
   
  Contact: Madalyn Muncy

Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities, Hope College

Madalyn Muncy, 2012