Orange City's Annual Tulip FestivalJul 01, 2022 11:06AM ● By Julius Fredrick
Photo by Sarah Lemke
“It is my pleasure to introduce one of the most important ambassador groups for our annual Tulip Festival…” sounded a loudspeaker over Central Avenue in Orange City, Iowa. Hushed murmurs and creaking lawn chairs gave way to the crisp, practiced staccato of klompen (wooden clogs) on pavement, “the 2022 festival queen…Naomi Mellema, and her lovely court!”
“We just like to have fun and interact with people,” Mellema said after the procession, she and her court’s appearance in Saturday afternoon’s Straatfest (street festival) marking the midpoint of her royal timetable. “Talking to tourists and citizens of Orange City throughout the day…I’m really glad I have this opportunity.”
A little over two hours from Omaha via I-29 North, Orange City, Iowa, exemplifies the charmed serenity afforded by a sequestered, tight-knit community just shy of 6,300 citizens. Named for Dutch revolutionary William of Orange, the town’s gambrel roofs and sinuous eaves thread a rich tapestry of Dutch Colonial architecture throughout the otherwise modest township.
Downtown’s Windmill Park—displaying six ornamental windmills, including a poldermolen (drainage mill), a stellingmolen (tower mill), and a wipmolen (hollow post mill)—offer glimpses of the Netherlands' vaulted ingenuity, the painstakingly detailed reconstructions a testament to this legacy in their own right.
Orange City’s Dutch pride comes into full bloom during the third week of May each year, 2022 marking the town’s 81st consecutive Tulip Festival to date—an occasion Mellema had been planning for since the coronation of 2021’s graduating class.
“So to become queen…Any [high school] senior girl in Orange City can put their name out for the court in early fall,” Mellema said, “and then after the five are announced they start preparing for a pageant in November—each of us had to prepare a skit informing people about different aspects of the festival, about our community and our Dutch heritage—tying it to our personal lives in a five-to-10-minute skit that we wrote and memorized.”
Mellema’s performance proved inspired enough to win over the judges, and with their glowing scores, the crown and its accompanying duties.
“I was able to speak to the House and the Senate,” Mellema said, recalling her diplomatic visit to the U.S Capitol, “it was a bit nerve-wracking, but an amazing opportunity…then we got to meet [Iowa] governor Kim Reynolds, and we actually taught her how to Dutch dance, which was really cool.”
While Mellema, resplendent in “plum-colored satin…a typical Sunday and special occasion dress of the 1800s…from the province of Drenthe in North Holland,” acts as the ambassador and face of the tulip festival—and by extension, Orange City—hundreds of volunteers work on and behind the scenes to maintain the multi-day celebration’s precise schedule and “low country” flare.
In decades past, few, if any, people of non-Dutch ancestry participated in Tulip Festivals—held not only in Orange City, but as far as Mount Vernon, Washington, and as near as Pella, Iowa. Today, visitors and volunteers alike are welcomed and encouraged to fully immerse themselves in tradition, regardless of ancestry.
“I actually do not,” replied 22-year-old volunteer Jonah Bader when asked if he had Dutch relatives. “I’m friends with someone else who volunteers here, and she’s just so passionate about it, it’s practically all she ever talks about, so excited, always happy when the Tulip Festival comes around…I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go for it, I’ll try it out,’ and it’s been awesome.”
Whether by youthful exuberance or a special quality all his own, Bader’s “I’ll try it out” translated to “I’m going all in.”
“I was part of the Dutch dancing in the streets, I was biking in the parade with the Dutch Heritage Booster Group, and I’m about to start my shift as a pedicab driver,” Bader said.
“We’ve been practicing once a week for the past two months,” he continued, referencing himself and a troupe of street dancers who have mastered complex, at times harrowing, steps—two sets of three dances—in time for the Straatfest. The “Smiet eu Wife” or “Throw the Woman” dance, for example, is particularly demanding of finesse, the requisite footwear besides.
“I got some wooden shoes on that I’m borrowing from a friend in town here…” Bader said, braving a smirk. “I’ve got a few pairs of socks on, need frequent breaks…otherwise, you get used to them after a little while!”
These wooden shoes are called “klompen” in Dutch, and Orange City has managed to retain their old-world craftsmanship through a series of Dutch-school trained artisans, beginning with Jacob Van’t Hoff through 1944, Wilhelm Jansen until 1983, and carried on today by their apprentices.
“Klompen-making” demonstrations are among the Tulip Festival’s biggest draws, the freely shared techniques behind such arcane, skill-intensive cultural artifacts presenting a rare opportunity for most Americans, Dutch or otherwise. However, as noted by Orange City Promotion Chair Jennie Droog, developing a space where tradition and broad appeal coexist is key to attracting new and return visitors.
“It’s preserving that history, right? We see the ladies who make our beautiful costumes, those who know how to carve wooden shoes, those who know how to speak Dutch..and as the generations go on, we want to keep this thriving,” Droog explained, “but we’re also thinking, what are those things that might just interest that one person who has never thought about the Tulip Festival before?”
Droog cites the festival’s ArtBurst (a free, juried fine art fair spanning two days), the craft show, and the carnival rides as attractions that cultivate a “family-friendly event, where there is something for people of all ages.”
“So you have little kids all the way up to your elderly people,” Droog said.“Maybe they won’t go to all the things the festival has to offer, but they’re each finding their own thing that they enjoy.”
Other highlights include a fully functional Dutch street organ built in 1909, horse-drawn trolley tours, ‘Dutch Dozen’ musical productions, authentic Dutch cuisine, and the sale of over 30 varieties of imported bulbs from the Tulip Town Bulb Company, and more.
Perhaps the Tulip Festival’s greatest cultural contribution to its visitors, however, is the clear, genuinely unbidden joy and excitement the volunteers, vendors, and the community at large exude over the course of the six-day spectacle—Orange City reveling in the celebration just as much as the people they spent months diligently preparing to educate and entertain.
“You know, we obviously took the year off because of the pandemic, which is harder to do than actually run the festival,” noted Orange City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Hofman, “and then we came back last year, one of the first spring festivals, or even events, that’s happened in two years, and we had probably the largest crowd we’ve ever had.”
He concluded, “I think that’s a real testament to the people that run it, that jump right on board every single year.”
Visit orangecityiowa.com for more information.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.