Christmas Market Tour 2015: Pella, Iowa

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Author’s Note: This stop was taken last year during the tour through the United States. Due to illness on the part of the author upon his return to Germany, the decision was made to include it into this year’s tour.  Sincere apologies for the inconvenience. 

The next stop on the Christmas tour in the US is Pella, in south central Iowa. Located 45 miles southeast of Des Moines, the city with 10,400 inhabitants was established in 1847, when 800 settlers, led by dominee Henry Scholte moved to the area to make a living. The name Pella was derived from the village Perea, where Christians found refuge during the Roman-Jewish War of 70 A.D.  Today, Pella maintains its Dutch heritage in many ways than one. One can see that with the architecture, when driving past the town square and its Dutch-style facade and its double-leaf bascule bridge spanning an artificial canal. The Vermeer Mill is the largest Dutch-style windmill in North America. The Dutch “S”, a pastry with marzipan filling that is typical in the Netherlands, can be found at the Vander Ploeg Bakery, along with other Dutch-style pastries. And when visiting the city’s two meat markets (Ulrich and Veld), one can find imported cheese and meat products from the Benelux Region (Benelux consists of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg).

And while the city is located north of Red Rock Lake, an artificial lake created in 1969 that is laden with recreational activities all year round, Pella has two important holidays that the people celerbate: Tulip Days in May and Christmas. Tulip Festival is a typical Dutch festival where tens of thousands convene for a weekend of celebrations and the crowning of the Tulip Queen.  Christmas in a Dutch setting, like Pella, on the other hand, is typically American- Christmas lights display in the city center as well as the countryside, as well as a display of Christmas trees in one house. There’s no Sinterklaas coming into the harbor by ship- how could they if the ship meets the Red Rock Dam and he has to take a truck up the road past Wal-mart and into the city? Even with his Black Peters as his helpers? 😉  A look at how Sinterklaas is celebrated (naturally on the day before St. Nicholas Day in Germany) can be found via link (here) and in the video below:

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But just because the Christmas season is more or less Americanized and makes Pella un-Dutch, does not mean a person should stay away from the city because it is not European enough nor has some European flair in the holiday season. There are many reasons to spend a few hours in this Dutch community which is anchored by three different Dutch institutes- Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella Windows and Central College, along with other Dutch-style stores. The Files has the top five places to visit during the holiday season that are worth visiting:

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  1. Vermeer Mill: Built by the Vermeer Corporation in 2002, the Vermeer Mill is the largest functioning flour mill in North America. Tours of the mill and demonstrations on how the mill works are available, but this place is a keeper for one can see how the mill works. Furthermore, as you can see in the picture above, the mill has a viewing platform where you can see all of Pella’s city center, including its famous Market Square. The Mill is part of the Museum Complex, which also features a miniature display of towns in a Dutch setting in the Interpretive Center section of the Mill. The model has existed for over 30 years, and one needs an hour to look at the details of the display.
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Grinding geers in the mill
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Winter scenery at the Interpretive Section of the Vermeer Mill

2. Historic Village: Inside the Museum Complex is a must-see attraction in the Historic Village. The Village consists of 24 buildings, many of them have existed since the founding of Pella in 1848, including the church, blacksmith shop and shoemaker. Others, such as the log cabin, one of the first built in Marion County, were brought in and restored. Even the street lamps at the complex originates from the bygone ear. Most likely gas-powered, the bulbs displayed are from the 1930s.

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One of the first log cabins in Marion County
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Vintage street light with 30s era light bulbs

Each building features a display or a demonstration, pending on which building has what. For instance, the shoemaker shop produces and displays wooden shoes, which are typical of Dutch culture. Examples and displays of these shoes, including a jumbo pair at the museum shop, can be see everywhere. Some places have displays with mannequins dressed in their Dutch apparel. The bakery offers a display and a plate full of cookies to try. And even a gallery with the displays of all the Tulip Festival dresses and a hall of fame of all the queens are a treat to see. We were welcomed with Christmas trees in the majority of the houses and buildings on display

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Dutch-style shoes after being wood-carved

3. Scholte House and Gardens: Located on Washington Street, the house is the first in Pella, being built by Hendrik Scholte in 1848 for his wife. One can see the rooms and exhibits pertaining to their lives and the history of Pella. While the house and the gardens are best seen in the spring time during the Tulip Festival as well as during the summer, the house itself has a wide display of 15 Christmas trees to see, each one has its own taste and history. While we saw the house but not the display because it was closed, a columnist visiting the house at Christmas time found the displays very impressive. Yet with the holiday season one should look at expanding their opening hours to include weekends and 2-3 more days in the week instead of only one day a week. But in either case, the house has maintained its original form and is impressive even from the business district.

4. Jaarsma Bakery and Smokey Row Café: Both located along Franklin Street, the shops are literally a block apart, but each one serves the finest pastries, bars and coffee products. The Jaarsma Bakery, located across the street from the Public Gardens, offers a wide variety of Dutch pastries, including the Dutch apple cake, almond bars and the Dutch “S”. They are excellent to take home for the holidays to share with family and friends, as we did just that.  The Smokey Row Café provides travellers and tourists alike with a wide selection of coffee with pastries to eat in a historic coffeehouse setting, as you can see in the pic below. The café is also a great meeting place for the young and old alike and has a family setting that makes a person stop there again and again.

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5. Market Square: Behind the Jaarsma Bakery is the Market Square, one of the most modern places in Iowa and one that mimics a Dutch setting, with its famous red brick buildings and Dutch facade . The square is the central point of entertainment, as the Opera House, the Cinnema, The Amsterdam Hotel and Conference Center and the Pella Showroom are all located in one block, divided by a man-made canal that is crossed by a double-leaf bascule bridge, typical of the bridges in the Netherlands. While the square is laden with flowers and other floral decorations, it would be a perfect place for a Christmas market, if city officials are willing to at least experiment with it. As Christmas markets are popular in Germany, France and the Netherlands, the city can benefit from having one at least for a couple week(end)s during the holiday season.

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After a few hours in Pella, it was time for us to move on, but not before collecting some thoughts and recollections on the city and its settings around Christmas time. Although Pella does have a lot to offer for Christmas events and places to visit during the holiday season, it is clear that the Dutch community is more focused on the Tulip Festival and other events in the summer months, which means the holiday events are like the ones in an American town: light festivals, music concerts in churches and shopping. But can you imagine what Pella would look like if they had a Christmas market in the Market Square and Public Gardens and events similar to what the Dutch have at home in the Netherlands? Could you imagine how Pella would stand out among the rest of the communities in Iowa during the holiday season? And can you imagine how it would be a big of a magnet for tourists?

Check out the photos and think about it. 🙂 <3

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Flensburg Files logo France 15

Author’s Note:  Sister column the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles did a series on the historic bridges in Marion County, including the bascule bridge in Pella, as well as historic bridges that existed over the Des Moines River before the Red Rock Lake was created in the 1960s. More on the bridges here:

Horn’s Ferry Bridge

Bridges at Red Rock Lake

Old Hwy. 14 Bridge near Cordova State Park

Pella Bascule Bridge

Fast Fact:  Pella was the birthplace of Wyatt Earp, famous US marshal. All his brothers except Virgil were  raised near Pella.