In a country where settlement patterns are as heavily based on individual property rights as the United States, it is hard to define what constitutes a town or village, outside of the official political boundaries. To a certain extent, the definition of an incorporated area as a “city”, “boro[ugh]”, “town”, “township”, or “village” is critical for a visitor’s understanding, because it is codified in to the various states’ constitutions. However, these definitions vary greatly from state to state: the distinction between “town” and “village” only applies in a handful, while “town” has a completely different meaning in New York than it does in, say, Iowa. Most states do not use boroughs; very few states south of the Mason-Dixon line use townships.
At the very least, statutes articulate cityhood and townhood to compensate for the persistently murky cultural definitions, which often demonstrate huge variety even within a single state. Sure, we may see the corporate boundaries of a town on a map, but is that really where the town ends in the minds of the people? Can a community claim an implicit ownership of an event that takes place a quarter mile outside of the limits, or must it annex that land in order to do so? How do we account for cultural expressions in unincorporated towns, or what does it mean for a shared component of culture to straddle two or more corporate boundaries? Conversely, a few states mandate the incorporation of all land within their boundaries; does that give these states an advantage for asserting local or community culture, or does it impose an added burden not expected in states in which very little land falls under incorporation?
I don’t expect a single blog article to be capable of providing answers to most of these questions, but at least I can offer an empirical example to enrich our understanding of how aggregated settlement can carry more than a passing whiff of cultural commonality when our senses are well engaged. This example comes in the form of DeMotte, an unassuming little town in northwest Indiana, about 30 miles south of Gary.
It’s far enough away that Jasper County (which contains DeMotte) falls outside of the vast Chicago-Gary Combined Metropolitan Statistical Area, yet still close enough that it consumes the Chicagoland sub-culture. The town depends mostly upon Chicago media; the town is within a reasonable commuting distance from the Calumet Region’s outer suburbs; Jasper County falls into the Central Time Zone along with a few other northwest Indiana counties whose economies are unquestionably tied to Chicago, whereas the vast majority of Indiana is under Eastern Time. I wouldn’t be surprised if people in DeMotte typically cheer the Bulls and the Bears.
My guess is, however, that DeMotte is both too small and too far removed for most people in Chicagoland to be familiar with it. No doubt the other residents of Jasper County know the name, but for almost everyone else, it is simply a sign along I-65 shared with the nearby town of Roselawn, both of which are accessible through Exit 230. A drive along U.S. Highway 231 through the heart of DeMotte isn’t likely to avert the eyes too much: it’s a fairly typical Indiana town, certainly not impoverished looking but nor is it booming. The block-long main street features a string of architecturally unremarkable low-slung buildings typical of a town of under 4,000 people:
It’s not the physical form of DeMotte that stands out in any way—it’s the less conspicuous details. Under closer scrutiny, a few anomalies emerge. In this case, I first noticed this unusual last name:
Eenigenburg. Not a name you see too much anywhere, let alone in Indiana. In most Midwestern states, it’s usually reasonable to guess that a long, unusual sounding name is of German or Scandinavian descent. But I know German well enough to recognize that a double vowel pairing, particularly two of the same vowel, is uncommon; however, another language commonly mistaken for German by the unacquainted uses this pairing (presumably a diphthong) routinely: Dutch. Thus, my first guess was that Eenigenburg was of Dutch lineage, and a quick Wikipedia search reveals that, at the very least, it’s a town in the Dutch province of North Holland. More telling, though, are the top results after a Google search using this last name, most of which claim an address in Northwest Indiana or Chicago’s southern suburbs: Eenigenburg Builders, Eenigenburg Roofing, Eenigenburg Quality Water, Eenigenburg Xteriors, Eenigenburg, Mfg., Inc—all located in towns like Dyer, St. John, Lansing (Illinois), or DeMotte.
But Eenigenburg is hardly the only unusual last name to show up on signs in town.
In this case, the “-stra” suffix is the giveaway. It derives from the old Germanic –sater, meaning dweller or sitter. A more common last name that uses this suffix is Dykstra (sometimes spelled “Dijkstra”), meaning “dweller of the dyke”–obviously Dutch, once again. And this surname suffix pops up routinely in DeMotte.
(This final photo is unfortunately very blurry, but the white lettering with red background at the bottom of the sign says “Walstra Landscaping”.)
By this point, I was getting a feel for the town, and having seen enough of the Dutch language in thepast, I could intuit which of these last names reflected that shared heritage. It was like an Easter egg hunt:
Most “van” last names are Dutch derived—a contrast from the German “von”. (And before anyone protests that “Ludwig van Beethoven” was German, it does not take much research to learn that his grandfather came from Dutch-speaking Flanders.)
The “Dreyer” sounds German, but the “Ooms” and “Van Drunen”? Unmistakably Dutch.
Another blurry one, and “Hollandale” on the left-hand sign might be a stretch (then again, it could be a Dutch immigrant to another country in Europe). And the “Drees” on the right-hand sign is ambiguous: it could be North German, French, English, or Dutch, but most research indicates that the most common origin is Dutch, and given the milieu in which DeMotte rests, Dutch heritage would be the most reasonable guess. Other words require little to no guesswork:
After awhile, it almost became too easy finding Dutch surnames in DeMotte. But other indicators of this town’s distinctive Netherlandedness are often far subtler than a field of tulips or a windmill.
The American Reformed Church in DeMotte is part of the Reformed Church in America, a denomination that owes its roots to the 17thcentury Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, where it was the established church of the colony. Despite its name, the RCA includes some Canadian churches within its membership. The majority of RCA churches in Indiana are in the northwest of the state, within a 75-mile radius from Chicago. By this point, the name of the pastor should come as no surprise:
Like the aforementioned “-stra” suffix, “-sma” is also common among Dutch surnames and means “son of” or “descendant of”, as evidenced by the more common last name “Boersma”, which loosely means “son of a farmer”. The closest translation I have been able to get on the “jel-” prefix in “Jelsma” is “to go”, so perhaps it’s “descendant of the traveler”? An appropriate name for a Dutch-American. And the American Reformed Church isn’t the only denomination in DeMotte with Dutch origins:
The Christian Reformed Church (to which Bethel ostensibly belongs) also owes its evangelical, Calvinist heritage to the Dutch Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. Though it split from the Reformed Church of America in the 1850s, it is now apparently about 50% larger than its derivative denomination, with about 300,000 members in USA and Canada. Its highest concentrations are in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, while it’s particularly sparse in the South and New England. Indiana has around twenty CRC member churches, and three of them are in DeMotte—more than any municipality in the state. A quick look at the staff directory at Bethel reveals that three of the four last names are unmistakably Dutch.
At this point it is safe to say that DeMotte—or perhaps the greater DeMotte area—has an unusually high concentration of Americans with Dutch heritage. The last names on all these signs are ample evidence. And Census records confirm it: Dutch is the third most commonly reported country of origin (9.6%), behind German (27.6%) and Irish (16.5%). (In the 2000 Census, it was the second most common ancestry.) In none of the surrounding counties does Dutch ancestry appear in the top three ancestries; only in Newton to the west does it appear in the top five. And although the Midwest and North Atlantic can claim a larger share of Dutch Americans than the rest of the country, not even Michigan, with the highest percentage of persons of Dutch heritage (5.1%) can claim it in the top five ancestries for the state. Most of Michigan’s Dutch population has concentrated in the southwest, near Grand Rapids (evidenced in the map), while metro Chicago also has quite a few. Thus, one could argue that a “Dutch belt” loosely runs from southwest Michigan along the lakeshore, into Indiana, and across to Chicago’s southern suburbs. But rural ethnic boundaries are generally very difficult to define, due to the already low population densities. It is hard, even, to determine if Jasper County can claim much Dutch heritage outside of DeMotte. The closest way to determine quantitatively if DeMotte is a distinctly Dutch enclave, or if the population is scattered across the county, would be to engage in intensely detailed Census research down to the block group and block level. However, it is not usually possible to obtain data from the Census on something as cryptic as Dutch ancestry at that level of geographic detail.
So I prefer good old-fashioned empiricism, which is how I came to the conclusion that DeMotte had lots of Dutch-Americans in the first place. Clearly it was not too hard after noticing the first few unusual last names on signs. I’ve managed to validate some of those observational hunches even further through the research used in creating this essay. For example, the Town of Demotte’s website affirms the towns heritage through the events calendar, which lists and upcoming Touch of Dutch Festival, Parade, and Car/Bike Show. Some of my speculations might be stretching credibility, but the indicators are numerous enough to suggest more than a bizarre coincidence. Unfortunately, none of my online research has revealed anything that would explain DeMotte’s history as a Dutch settlement. Why did they choose this patch of land, beyond the Dutch affinity for extreme flatness in topography? How far did the Dutch ancestors settle outside of DeMotte town limits? Can the entirety of Jasper County claim this Dutch prevalence, or is it mostly isolate to the area in and around this community? To delve any further would most likely require another visit to DeMotte, but I’ll save an ethnography for someone more qualified.
I’m going to conclude with my favorite picture of all from the DeMotte area, in which my assertion might not make for a defensible case in a court of law, but it works adequately for this blog:
I couldn’t begin to guess what the use of this strange little building is, which stands in the front yard of an affluent home around the western border of the town. But its most striking feature is that crow-stepped gable—a roof-line that descends in a series of right angles. Also known as a stair-step gable or trapgevel in Dutch, they are, as I recently discovered from travels, most common in the Low Countries—noticeable in Netherlands but virtually ubiquitous and iconic in Brugge, the most prominent ancient city in Belgium. And Brugge is in the Flanders region of Belgium, where, as mentioned earlier, the dominant language is Dutch. Is the owner of this house displaying a hat-tip to his or her family’s history? Like the unofficial boundaries of the Dutch heritage in Jasper County (there are no official boundaries), or greater Chicagoland for that matter, one can only gather evidence from plowing the land and the roads that divide it.