story began in Beverwyk, Netherlands in 1910 when Frederick Nelis asked his son Harry, who was 17 at the time, to travel to America and search for some rich farm land. World War I was just over the horizon and times were tough all over Europe. The Nelis family was hoping to make a new start in the "land of opportunity."
Young Harry departed on the S.S. Noordam in October of 1910 and three weeks later arrived at Ellis Island. Following his father's instructions, he traveled to Missouri, purchased land, and began to grow vegetables. In September of 1911, the rest of the Nelis family, which included 11 siblings ranging in age from 6 months to 16 years, joined him. Growing vegetables proved to be unprofitable, so the family moved to Chicago in search of more opportunities. After working at various jobs for a few years, they heard about a settlement in Holland, Michigan and decided to visit the young Dutch community. Upon arriving, they were impressed with the beauty of the area and decided to purchase 80 acres just north of the town.
In the early years, the Nelis family grew vegetables to sell locally and also made frequent trips to the Chicago produce markets. During the depression the family decided to switch from growing vegetables to the nursery business. A cousin in the Netherlands asked the family to plant daffodils since he had run out of planting space in the "old country." That arrangement dramatically changed life for the Nelis family. They grew daffodils for a few years, but soon added crops of tulips. By the late 1930s, the family's tulip farm had become a "hot spot" for tourists flocking to Holland for the new Tulip Time Festival. As time passed the tulip farm became increasingly popular and a large windmill and souvenir shop were added. Soon Holland souvenirs were as popular as the tulip bulbs.
Video of the original Nelis Tulip Farm in 1958
Video courtesy of Mark & Gwen Upton
The present location of Nelis' Dutch Village was purchased in 1952 and began as a retail outlet for bulbs and souvenirs. The 40 acres purchased were on a small two-lane road which would later become US 31. At this time, Harry Sr.'s two sons, Fred and Harry Jr. became involved in the family business. Harry Jr., who had just returned from Naval duty in 1958 at the age of 24, and his older brother Fred built the first building in what would become Nelis' Dutch Village. The first year that they were open, many visitors traveling north stopped at their new Dutch Market. The next year they added a cafe so visitors could enjoy Dutch specialty foods while they shopped. Every winter after that they added either a new building or attraction. In the 1970s a wholesale division was added and imported Dutch goods began to be marketed nationwide. In the 1990s the Internet mail order department was created making it possible to sell Dutch goods internationally. Currently there are 30 structures in the Dutch Village, with architecture representing different provinces in the Netherlands. Costumed klompen dancers, street organs, a carousel, carillon bells, heirloom quality gifts, souvenirs, and many other Dutch treats await our guests.
Harry Jr. directed all business operations until 1999 when he retired. The third generation of Nelis' has now taken over the operation of Nelis' Dutch Village and is continuing to preserve the history and culture of the Netherlands for generations to come. All five of Harry's children have worked in the family business after graduating from college. They include: Harry III, Suzanne Bladek, Steve, Joe, and Julie Steggerda.