Newly published but written 80-some years ago, the memoir “Village Talk” provides insight into everyday life as experienced by an area resident as he journeyed through time from the Saugatuck of the 1880s to the Holland of the 1940s.
Titled “Village Talk: A Country Merchant’s Memoir and Folk History,” the book chronicles hardware store owner Ray Nies’s encounters with the people, places and changes across some seven decades as he grew up in Saugatuck and then spent the rest of his days in Holland, first working in and then running the family business. Privately published and available on Amazon, the book has been edited by Dr. Michael J. Douma, a 2004 Hope graduate who is on the faculty of Georgetown University, and Dr. Robert Swierenga, who is the A.C. Van Raalte Research Professor at Hope College’s A.C. Van Raalte Institute.
Nies lived from 1877 to 1950. His recollections and reflections range from listening to Civil War veterans share stories during winter evenings at his father’s store, to seeing his first automobile on Holland’s Eighth Street, to local characters like the unscrupulous “Professor Baily — World Famous Swimming Teacher” who once accepted a commission to teach a woman’s dog to swim.
As Douma and Swierenga write in their introduction, “The memoir bridges the years from the legendary Dutch pioneers to the modern era, with stories from both the days of rickety horse-drawn buggies to those of chrome-plated automobiles. This is not a history of events or local political, spiritual and economic elites. Rather, it is a montage of unique personalities and cultural and social life in an ethnic community. It is personal, intelligent, honest, and more than a little comedic.”
They continue, “The book is valuable as history, particularly because it enriches our understanding of the diversity of ways that common citizens went about their lives and understood their world in West Michigan from the 1880s to the 1940s. Parts of this book also qualify as ethnic folklore, akin in style and quality to tales by Washington Irving or even Mark Twain.”
In addition to providing context through their introductory chapter, Douma and Swierenga have included numerous footnotes that offer additional background and an index of topics, events, individuals and locations that Nies discusses.
Douma is a 2004 Hope graduate who was a student assistant in the Joint Archives of Holland and conducted research on area history after graduation. He discovered the manuscript in the Holland Museum archives sometime in 2004 or 2005 and keyed it into a computer and created a digitized version. He and Swierenga felt that the primary source on the history of the city was too important to leave unpublished.
While “Village Talk” marks the first time that Nies’s memoir is appearing in its entirety, excerpts have been in other historical works. Douma cited it in his book “How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch: An Historical Perspective on Ethnic Identities” (Amsterdam University Press, 2014). Sweirenga quotes the memoir 10 times in his three-volume history “Holland, Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014). The late Holland historian Randall Vande Water also cited the Nies memoir in his four-volume compilation, “Holland Happenings.”
Douma majored in history, philosophy and Dutch studies at Hope, and went on to complete his doctorate at Florida State University. He is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. His publications focused on Holland-area history include the book “Veneklasen Brick: A Family, a Company, and a Unique 19th Century Architectural Movement in Michigan” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).
Swierenga has conducted research and written concerning Dutch immigration and related topics since the 1960s. In addition to writing or editing more than three dozen books, he has written 150 journal articles and lectured widely on issues related to the Dutch in America. His book “Holland, Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City,” for which he spent more than 10 years conducting research and writing, received a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan in 2014. He has been with Hope’s A.C. Van Raalte Institute since 1996, when he retired from the faculty of Kent State University. He previously taught at Calvin University (1961-62, 1965-68) and Pella (Iowa) Christian High School (1958-61).
Copies of “Village Talk: A Country Merchant’s Memoir” are available through Amazon for $32.32.