The first Tulip Time in 1935 was planned in just two weeks following Pella High School’s very successful performance of an operetta called “Tulip Time in Pella.” Prompted by local businessman Lon Wormhoudt and Central College President Irwin Lubbers, the Chamber of Commerce discussed holding an annual Tulip Day or festival to promote and commemorate Pella’s Dutch heritage. Six committees were formed and they immediately went to work. Pete Kuyper, founder of the Rollscreen Company, now Pella Corporation, was a firm believer in and backer of such a festival. Vermeer Manufacturing had not yet been established.
That first festival lacked tulips, so George Heeren, a local cabinet-maker, made 125 four-foot-tall wooden tulips which were placed in flagpole holes around the square, and a tulip committee was formed to make sure 85,000 tulips were planted that fall. Holland antiques were showcased in merchants’ windows. Some wore heirloom clothing or makeshift costumes. The one-day festival program began with a Town Crier and Burgemeester, a Maypole drill, Dutch songs and psalms, and speeches. The evening program reenacted the operetta.The event was so successful even without parades, food vendors, and real tulips that planning for the next was begun immediately (a practice still in effect).
The 1936 Tulip Time consisted of five themed days reflecting the values the community wished to honor – History Day, Church Day, Neighbor Day, Central College Day, and Pella Day. Later festivals were shortened to three days, but the 1936 Tulip Time set the basic pattern for what you see this year. The Pella Historical Society revived and officially opened its museum. Central College began serving Dutch meals to Tulip Time guests. Lenora Gaass, great granddaughter of the town’s founder, was named the first Tulip Queen, elected by popular vote in a contest seeking a girl from age 16 to 21, of “good reputation and thoroughly typical of the Holland influence.” (By1939 the girls had to be 17-25 and live with the Pella city limits. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the top 12 finalists were judged for beauty, poise, personality, and speaking ability in a beauty-pageant format, and that costumes went from formals to authentic province costumes researched and created by local seamstresses. Attendants wear weekday costumes; the queen wears her Sunday best.) The festival included crowning the queen, inspection of the streets by the Burgemeester and City Council, Dutch dancing (The dances you see today began in the late 1940s/early 1950s. They are authentic Dutch folk dances which tell stories.), the first organized street scrubbing, the first real parade (no floats, just local bands, lots of tractors), thousands of tulips and thousands of visitors.
Tulip Time was initially financed entirely through donations by local merchants in a door-to-door solicitation by one of the Tulip Time committees, which included 87-year-old local (510 Franklin Street, one of the original Pella houses)Tulip Time veteran Bob Klein. “We had a huge budget in the late 1930s – $4500!” he says.
By 1937 there were twenty-seven committees working on Tulip Time. The third Tulip Time included a flower show (sponsored by the Pella Garden Club since 1963) and Tulip Town Park (Sunken Gardens). The fourth added the Baby Parade, marching children, and the”Dutch Orphans,” a Miniature Dutch Village created by Heeren (now displayed in the Interpretive Center at the Historical Village) and annual trips to visit the governor and legislature in Des Moines. There were 225,000 tulips planted with another 100,000 planned. Most of those bulbs came from the Netherlands bulb fields of John Res.
The first Tulip Toren was built in 1940. Made of wood, it became a stage for community functions, but deteriorated after just three years and after Princess Julianna of the Netherlands visited in 1942. Prior to its construction, and following its removal until 1968, Tulip Time stage shows took place in West Market Park. The present reinforced concrete Tulip Tower mirrors the lines and elements of the original wooden tower.
During the outbreak of World War II, Tulip Time plans were made with grave concern for Netherlands relatives but thankfulness for American freedoms. The pageant was “Defending the Flag.” In 1943 and 1944 the theme was “We Carry On,” and the evening program was “The Four Freedoms.” Many other events were dropped during war years so money could be used to purchase war bonds. No queen was chosen in 1945 and 1946. The 1945 Tulip Time festival was held at the airbase in Ottumwa with the 2500 Navy personnel stationed there. Instead of a 1946 festival, a community auction raised $100,000 for the people of Holland.
Regular Tulip Time festivities resumed in 1947 (postponed a week waiting for tulips to bloom), Pella’s centennial year, with a pageant called “City of Refuge” that included more than 600 people. Holland sent 1000 wooden shoes in time for the festival, and the following year sent tulip bulbs to Pella in thanks for war aid. Bleacher seating was added in the early 1950s. A Central College student arranged for the first tour wagons – farm wagons with wooden chairs borrowed from a local church.
The lighted Volks Parade began in the mid-1960s, as did the Dutch Fronts architecture program which helped restore and enhance store-fronts to resemble typical tall, narrow Dutch buildings in the downtown area. In 1966 the Historical Society bought the Wyatt Earp house, and grew the Historical Village around it with the addition of the Beason-Blommer Gristmill, an original log cabin, the Van Spankeren Store, and the Sterrenberg Library in the next few years.
When Pella celebrated America’s bicentennial year in 1976, donations were given to add an east wing on the Historical Village, to included pioneer farmhouse, a century Dutch house, the Viersen House and the Scholte Church. The Village also has one large and one small Belgium street organ. Scholte House was given to the Historical Society in 1978 by Dominie Scholte’s descendants. Heritage Hall was added in 1985, and downtown, the Klokkenspel with its animated Dutch figures was dedicated. In 1990 the Pella Opera House was restored far beyond its original glory and dedicated to the town. During Tulip Time it holds a quilt show in the Great Hall and recitals in the auditorium.
As a memorial for Pella’s founding sesquicentennial in 1997, two bronze sculptures were commissioned for Scholte Gardens and dedicated by Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. 2000 saw the completion of the Molengracht with its winding canal, brick walks, Dutch drawbridge, and buildings of Dutch architecture. 2002 saw the completion of the Historical Society’s most ambitious project, the Vermeer Windmill and Interpretive Center, the tallest working windmill in North America.
Bob Klein has seen it all. His favorite part of early Tulip Time celebrations was the gathering of Pella people on Wednesday night “like a Saturday night crowd. There were musicians and singers, we all got together and just had a good time getting ready for Tulip Time.”Now he thinks the parades are the most outstanding feature of the festival. As for tours, “Those early tours didn’t have much to show,”he said. “There weren’t any tulips, just the town. The best part was riding down Franklin Street by West Market Park and looking at all the little Dutch houses. There was Central College and Sunken Gardens, and that’s about all. There weren’t any food vendors. We served lunches out of the Tulip Time headquarters, which was also the Chamber office, on the west side of the square where Pella Products(Klein’s family company) is currently located.”
The key to the success of Tulip Time, then and now, whether Dutch or Dutch for a day, is that this is a local celebration, put on by hundreds of determined and dedicated volunteers committed to showcasing their community and their heritage.