Pella, If You Ain't Dutch...
The first weekend in May is just around the corner and that means it won’t be long before a small Iowa town will more than double in size.
Wait, no, add a zero to that number. It won’t be long before a small Iowa town grows more than 20 times, maybe even 25 times, its size.
Pella, population 10,554, is located in southeastern Iowa, less than an hour’s drive from the state capitol in Des Moines. The town was founded by Dutch immigrants and the unofficial slogan still today is, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
It’s annual Tulip Time festival celebrates all things Dutch. Festivities include street parades with residents dressed in traditional costumes from the homeland, Dutch foods and, of course, it wouldn’t be a tulip festival without tulips, more than 32,000 of them.
Don’t worry about recent cold weather and frost warnings spoiling the festivities, if the tulips are in danger of not blooming for the festival, or have bloomed too early, they will fly tulips in to insure they will always be plenty there to greet visitors.
Speaking of visitors, we’re talking busloads, literally chartered busloads, of visitors. Well over 200,000 of them will be in town during the three-day event. Some estimates are the numbers will top 250,000 this year.
As a teenager, I lived the next town over from Pella and made it to the festival two or three times. It was big even in those days and is unbelievable now.
If those numbers are more than you’re comfortable with, let me tell you a little secret, Pella is a great place to visit anytime of the year, especially during the warmer months. Sure, you’ll miss out on the fun of the street washing, entertainment and activities happening during Tulip Time, but you’ll still have plenty to see and experience.
Historical Village and Wyatt Earp Boyhood Home
Right about now you might be asking yourself, what does Wyatt Earp have to do with a Dutch Historical Village? Earp wasn’t Dutch.
Well, let me tell ya’ pardner, here’s the story:
Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois. (Coincidentally, that’s only an hour south of where I now live.) When he was about two years old, his father joined a large group of people planning to head to California to start a new life.
Earp’s sister became seriously ill along the way and the family only made it about 150 miles to Pella. They ended up buying land and settling there. Wyatt spent the next 14 years of his life in Pella before his father organized a wagon train and finally completed the family’s move to California.
The Earp home is part of the Historical Village and is the first stop any visitor to the community should make. The village is worth the visit even if the Earp home wasn’t there.
Visitors to the village walk back in time, learning about what early life was like for Pella’s settlers and about Dutch history and traditions. A bakery, blacksmith shop, church life, a museum with historical artifacts and even a Werkplaats, where wooden shoes are made, are just a few of the buildings and shops included inside.
Connected to the village is the 124-feet tall Vermeer Windmill. The windmill was designed and built in the Netherlands, disassembled and moved to Pella in 2002. Considering nearly 30,000 bricks were used in its construction, that was no small task.
If you time it right you can even take a tour. The schedule is available on the museum website.
Back to the Earp home. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the home is some small town museum with a few old display cases of pictures and artifacts lined along the walls. This is a very modern museum.
The Earp family actually only rented a section of the building but the entire structure has been turned into the story of his life, from his childhood through his death. Handheld speakers, controlled by the individual, provide audio descriptions of the many rooms and displays.
Pella is one of those quaint towns with a downtown surrounding a main square. The Historical Village is just a block from the square so it’s easy to just park your car and explore on foot.
Located between the village and square, on Franklin Street, is the Klokkenspel. The animated clock chimes five times daily, with figures appearing from behind closed curtains.
Unfortunately it was undergoing repairs when I visited, so I don’t have video, but it should be back up and running now. Here’s video from the historical museum.
By the way and by the by, one of my favorite bar stops is just a few steps down, so if you’re looking to quench your thirst check out the Cellar Peanut Pub. They have an extensive selection of craft brews on tap and their Bloody Mary has won national awards.
In the block to the south, behind the Klokkenspel, is Molengracht Plaza, built to replicate an authentic Dutch canal. Really, the plaza includes an actual canal, 5,720-square-feet in size and holding 100,000 gallons of water.
The town square itself features both a smaller windmill and the Tulip Toren (Tulip Tower). The toren is the center of all the Tulip Time stage presentations.
The original toren, constructed from wood in 1940, was expected to be a temporary structure. It became such a popular attraction it was replaced by a permanent toren in 1968.
The current version stands 65-feet tall and was paid for by Pete and Lucille Kuyper. The Kuypers owned a company called Rolscreen. You might recognize it today by its current name, Pella Windows.
A personal sidenote, my mother worked for Pella Windows for a number of years and many of us old timers still have a hard time not referring to it as Rolscreen.
Jaarsma Bakery and Ulrich Meat Market
Ok, if you do nothing else when travelling through Pella, you have to stop at Jaarsma Bakery. This place is a tradition going back more than a hundred years. It’s located on the square, right across from the toren.
When you do, the go-to purchase is the Dutch Letter, an eight-inch tall pastry filled with almond paste. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
For the meat eaters in the crowd, check out Ulrich Meat Market, also on the square, around the corner from Jaarsma. Like Jaarsma, it also has a more than century-old history.
More than once over the years, my late wife and I brought a cooler along on our trips back to that area just so we could pick up the ring bologna and bring it back home to my brother-in-law who swore it was the best you can find anywhere.
These are really just highlights of Pella attractions. There’s so much more to see and do in town, not to mention Iowa’s largest lake, Lake Red Rock, is just a handful of miles down the highway. Check out the visitor website to learn more.
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