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In his later life, William B. Eerdmans Sr. often talked about his birthplace and family in the Netherlands. His favorite description of where he came from, often repeated, began with the expression "a nest of eleven." At the most literal level he was talking about his family, but he may well have had other nests in mind. There were eleven provinces in the Netherlands. There were eleven cities in the province of Friesland, where he was born. His parents, Bernardus Dirk Eerdmans (1844-1901) and Dirkje Pars (1848-1929), raised eleven children in the Frisian city of Bolsward. All these nests of eleven were somewhat tangled places in which to live.
For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Netherlands comprised eleven provinces. That was an accidental number: those governmental entities emerged haphazardly from medieval counties or duchies and joined together in a modern state only after the Napoleonic era. Before that, there had been seventeen united provinces in the Netherlands. The creation of Belgium and the religious wars of the sixteenth century altered the borders. So the number eleven took on a certain importance to Netherlanders. Like the original Thirteen Colonies in the United States, these provinces lay claim to an illustrious history. (A twelfth province, Flevoland, consisting mostly of polders reclaimed from the sea, was created in 1986, but it will need centuries to acquire the patina of historical grandeur accruing to the older eleven.)
Governments in Amsterdam and The Hague have long considered Friesland to be merely another province, one of eleven. Holland, the province in which both Amsterdam and The Hague reside, imagines itself to be the most important — the primus inter pares. After all, even the country is sometimes called Holland, the most populous province coming to symbolize the entire nation by a process of synecdoche.
Frisians, however, don't buy it. They often think of themselves as an independent nation. Never conquered by the Romans, who occupied territories just south of Friesland, they are proud of their fierce history. After Charlemagne granted the country independence in the eighth century, its laws insisted, in ringing poetry, that "all Frisians should be fully free, the born and the unborn, so long as the wind blows from the skies, so long as the child cries, so long as grass grows green and flowers bloom, so long as the sun rises and the world stands." They have a long tradition of independent — some would say fractious and wayward — behavior; a language that is distinct from Dutch; a rich literary tradition descended from, or at least related to, Nordic sagas; an immensely productive farming industry; hardy breeds of horses and cattle; and flat green fields crisscrossed by irrigation ditches and canals, swarming with sheep and other livestock.
Friesland also has a long history of international commerce. By the early fifteenth century, its capital, Leeuwarden, was a Hansa city, as were the nearby free cities of Stavoren, Dokkum, and others. In 1412, Bolsward became a member of the Hanseatic League as well. The merchants of Bolsward, in concert with other Frisian cities, hoped to circumvent the Dutch political and commercial centers of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague to the south, and to establish their own relationships with the wider world. By 1455, Bolsward obtained a city charter, and it soon took its place as one of the eleven cities of the Dutch province of Friesland. In addition to roads, the cities have long been connected by canals and waterways.
During the harsh winters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when roads were frozen and impassable, skilled ice skaters sometimes plied between the eleven cities on the network of canals. Such hardy wayfarers were celebrated in verse and story. In the early twentieth century roads and transport had been much improved, but the Frisians, in a spirit of romantic atavism, created a new competition, the elfstedentocht (eleven cities race). It has become one of the most popular Dutch sporting events, partly because it caters to an archaic national mythology, and partly because it is dauntingly sporadic. The ice in the canals must be certified safe, and in the warm winters of the twentieth century conditions have seldom been right. Since 1906, the year the modern race began, it has been held only fifteen times, most recently in 1997.
By the time William Bernard Eerdmans, the seventh of eleven children, was born in Bolsward in 1882, his family had achieved a rather prominent position in the city. His great-grandfather, Dirk Hendriks Eerdmans, had been mayor of the city in 1787, in what local historians call the "Patriotic Times." Mayor Eerdmans, along with other leading citizens of Bolsward, had mounted an uprising against the dominance of the House of Orange, which later became the Dutch royal family. He and his compatriots were able to wring trading concessions from The Hague, allowing Bolsward to continue its tradition of international commerce. The patriotism for which they are celebrated was, of course, loyalty to Friesland, not to the Netherlands.
Growing up, Willy (as his family called him) heard many stories about his illustrious clan. Family lore often provides more anecdotal drama than historical accuracy, and yet no family can understand itself without it. Even when they're not completely verifiable, these old stories weave a fabric that the family comes to accept as its own. The history becomes emotionally true even if some of the details may be fanciful. The Eerdmans family in Bolsward believed itself to have come from France, where in the seventeenth century the Edict of Nantes gave a wide range of civil rights to French Protestants, followers of John Calvin.
When Louis XIV revoked the Edict in 1685, the family fled France, along with an estimated 400,000 other Protestants. They were afraid that in the renewed spirit of intolerance there would be another series of ruinous religious wars in France, and they were determined to hold on to their religion, even if it meant the loss of their homeland. Many of these diaspora Calvinists were skilled craftsmen with a tradition of intellectual independence. They possessed the talents and economic means to pursue life in new surroundings. First, it seems, the Eerdmans family went into Germany, where they picked up a Germanic name. Then they traveled farther and farther north, finally settling in Dutch (rather than German) Friesland, whose culture had acquired a strong Calvinist cast. Early members of the family had been silversmiths, farmers, butchers, and traders, and they maintained some international contacts with fellow Huguenots and with coreligionists they had come to know and trust during their long flight from France.
Willy's father, Bernardus, owned a textile factory that had originally tanned hides from the area's slaughterhouses and processed wool from the extensive sheep farms. Both leather and wool had been important export products since at least the time of the medieval Hansa traders, who had taken them from the western end of Europe and exchanged them for timber and other goods more common in the east. The Eerdmans textielfabriek employed about fifty workers during Willy's childhood, selling its products throughout Europe, and acquiring an increasing amount of its raw materials from sources beyond the provincial borders.
By the time Willy was in his teens, several of his older siblings had decamped from Bolsward to the United States. His oldest brother, Dirk (1878-1946), moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1896 at the age of eighteen. There he established an import business that sold items such as Droste chocolates, Verkade biscuits, Haarlemmer oil, and other products from the Netherlands to the extensive community of Dutch immigrants in the area.
Some time later, Willy's sister Trijn came to New Jersey to visit, and she met Dirk's sometime business partner, Herman Hamstra, a Frisian immigrant living in Clifton, near Paterson. Before long she married Hamstra, and the couple remained in the United States, where her husband sold a line of imported products to immigrants and others in the greater New York City area.
In the very late 1890s, Dirk Eerdmans moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to continue his business within the large Dutch colony there. As part of his trade, he collaborated with his brother-in-law Hobbe Vander Laan, who was married to the family's oldest daughter, Catherine. The Vander Laans continued to live in Paterson; but as a partner of his east coast brother-in-law, Dirk sold Bibles and religious books in western Michigan, books that had been sent to Vander Laan by a publisher in Franeker, Friesland. For the community of committed Dutch Calvinists in America, religious books in their ancestral tongue held a strong appeal: they preserved a whiff of the homeland in the maelstrom of the New World.
Dirk Eerdmans wasn't the only bookseller in Grand Rapids at the turn of the century. As early as 1909, Louis Kregel had opened a store that sold religious books; and Brant Sevensma billed himself as a boekhandelaar en uitgever (bookseller and publisher) from his shop on East (later Eastern) Avenue. Indeed, there were dozens of ministers, students, and recent immigrants who found ways to sell new and used books to the intensely religious community in West Michigan.
By 1914, as it happened, Hobbe Vander Laan had saved enough money to retire. He later told a nephew that he'd amassed about 120,000 guilders in just under twenty years of bookselling. He returned to the Netherlands with his wife, Willy's sister Catherine, bought a patrician home in Driebergen, near Utrecht, and continued raising his eight children in the land of his birth. The prosperity he was able to generate in the book trade must have been of considerable interest to the youthful brother-in-law who would later become not only a bookseller but a publisher.
Another one of Willy's sisters, Petronella, lived in South Dakota with her husband, a man named Korperhoek. She would later divorce him, marry Louis Zondervan, and take up residence in the Grand Rapids area. Two of the Korperhoek sons, who took the surname Zondervan when they were adopted by their stepfather, were to play a significant role in their Uncle Willy's later life. Another sister, Froukje, married Jan Anema some years later, and moved to western Canada, where the couple lived in the small community of Neerlandia, Alberta.
With several of their siblings already in North America, apparently finding ways to thrive in their new surroundings, Willy and his slightly older brother, Johannes (called Jo), also nursed thoughts about emigration. Jo dropped out of school at the age of sixteen and petitioned his father for permission to join his older brother and sisters in the New World.
Bernardus would not hear of it. It may have seemed to him that his large family was orbiting too far from its Frisian roots, that his own failing health required more sons to work in the business; or he may simply have concluded that Johannes was not mature enough to embark on such a journey. In any case, he was vociferous in his opposition. Either Jo should go to school or he should continue working for his father to gain some maturity and experience. Then maybe they could talk about it again after a couple of years had passed. So Jo went to work alongside Willy, who was both a dutiful student and an employee of his father's firm.
And then came a family trauma — another departure, of a dramatically different kind. Every Thursday, Willy and Jo took the train to Rotterdam, where they would purchase a week's supply of skins for the family's tannery. For some reason, Willy, the younger son, routinely carried the cash needed for the purchase, some 300 guilders. His father had apparently placed a measure of trust in him despite his relative youth. In any event, on one of these trips to Rotterdam in 1898, Willy asked his brother Jo to take the list of needed inventory along with the money to purchase it.
Willy had met a girl on one of his previous trips to Rotterdam, and he wanted to see her again. It was to be something of a lark for him, a day of playing corporate hooky. He was sure his older brother could handle the purchases, which were to be a routine replacement for the leather they had processed and sold in the previous week. The brothers agreed to meet late in the afternoon at Central Station on the bank of the Delft River, under the big clock, to catch the train home. The skins would be shipped separately by the company's agent in Rotterdam.
Willy gave the cash to Jo and headed off to find his girlfriend. At the end of the afternoon he went to the station to wait for his brother. But Jo did not show up. The late afternoon faded into evening, and Willy became increasingly distraught. He ran to the shipping agent and found that no skins had been purchased. When he returned to the station there was still no sign of Jo. Willy finally caught a late train for what must have been a terrible ride home. He had neglected his duties, had split up with his brother, had spent the day with a girl, and now he was returning without his brother or the skins or the money — and with no idea of what had happened.
The police in Rotterdam got involved in the mystery, but their search turned up nothing. The family placed advertisements in newspapers, looked wherever they could imagine there might be a sign of Jo, and found nothing. It was a frantic, harrowing time for all of them, with emotions riding high and sinking low. And Willy, who had neglected to perform his duties in Rotterdam, must have felt a special burden of responsibility for this tragedy.
After a month or so the police and the family concluded that Johannes had likely been the victim of an accident — or of some kind of violence. He'd been carrying 300 guilders, a sizable amount of money. Rotterdam was a huge seaport, with ships and crews from all over the world crowding its docks. The port, like many others, sported a reputation for roughness, hard living, and occasional brawls. Jo, they imagined, might have been beaten by assailants, he might have been tossed into the harbor — almost anything might have happened to him. But since they could find no trace of him, it seemed clear that he had died.
The Eerdmans family went into mourning. Willy's mother and sisters wore black; the church held a funeral service; the community mourned the passing of one of its own. Willy's father struggled to contain his anger with the guilt-ridden son who had returned alive; at the same time he nursed his sadness for the son who was departed. Bernardus and his son Jo had not seen eye to eye. But their old arguments must have seemed petty in retrospect, now that he was gone. Willy, as a good Calvinist, carefully attuned to the theology of guilt, felt his father's anguish very deeply. He was in disgrace. And of course he, too, was in mourning.
Not so with Jo. He had taken the 300 guilders from Willy on a Thursday morning, and by noon he'd gone to the offices of the Holland-America Line, on an island in the middle of the lazily flowing Rhine River, where he booked a ticket to New York. That would have cost him about 50 guilders, though there is no way to be certain what he paid. The boat sailed on Friday morning. About two weeks later Jo was in New York City, nearly penniless, according to what he later told the family. He did not remember the address of his sister, who lived in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. Nor did he think to go to the thriving Dutch community just across the river and simply ask around, which might well have brought him to her house. On the other hand, it is quite possible that he had plenty of money left and wanted to lie low for a while, knowing what kind of trouble he was in.
Fortunately, he remembered the address in Michigan of his older brother Dirk. Jo later told the family that he spent the next two months selling newspapers and doing other odd jobs in New York to amass enough money for a train ticket to Grand Rapids. He finally went there, found his brother's house, sat on the front stoop, and waited for Dirk to come home from work. Initially pleased and surprised to see his little brother, Dirk exploded when he found out what had happened. Three months had gone by, and Jo had somehow not managed to send a note to his family explaining what he had done. They sent off a cable immediately, informing the family of Jo's whereabouts.
Excerpted from AN EERDMANS CENTURY by Larry ten Harmsel Reinder Van Til Copyright © 2011 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A Nest of Eleven 1
Coming to America 11
Becoming a Publisher 21
The Prosperous Twenties 34
Developing the List 44
Competition within the Community 50
Educating Bill 59
The War 64
Postwar Expansion 76
Years of Growth 88
Passing the Torch 107
Becoming a Controversial Publisher 131
Expanding the Vision 144
Onward and Outward 167
The Century Arrives 181
Coda, by Jon Pott 207
Appendix: Employees as of Summer 2011 213