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History of Tulip Time

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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.

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. A tulip committee was formed to make sure 85,000 tulips were planted that fall. Dutch antiques were showcased in merchants’ windows, and some locals 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 began immediately.

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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 happens each 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.” (By 1939, the girls had to be 17-25 and live within the Pella city limits. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the top twelve 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.) The festival included crowning the queen, inspection of the streets by the Burgemeester and City Council, Dutch dancing the first organized street scrubbing, the first real parade (no floats - just local bands and 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. By 1937, there were twenty-seven committees working on Tulip Time. The third Tulip Time included a flower show and Tulip Town Park, now Sunken Gardens. The fourth added the Baby Parade, marching children, and the ”Dutch Orphans,” a Miniature Dutch Village (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 fields in the Netherlands.

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The first Tulip Toren, or tower, was built in 1940. Made of wood, it became a stage for community functions, but it deteriorated after just three years. 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 relatives back in Netherlands, yet 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 money for the people of Holland.

Regular Tulip Time festivities resumed in 1947, Pella’s centennial year, with a pageant called “City of Refuge” that included more than 600 people. Holland sent 1,000 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.

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The lighted Volks Parade began in the mid-1960s, as did the Dutch Fronts architecture program, which helped restore and enhance storefronts 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 to the Historical Village, which would include a pioneer farmhouse, a century Dutch house, the Viersen House, and the Scholte Church replica. The 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.

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. The year 2000 saw the completion of the Molengracht with its winding canal, brick walks, Dutch drawbridge, and buildings of Dutch architecture. In 2002, Pella Historical Museums saw the completion of its most ambitious project - the Vermeer Windmill and Interpretive Center.

The key to the success of Tulip Time, throughout history and now, whether Dutch or Dutch for a day, is the hundreds of determined and dedicated volunteers committed to showcasing their community and their heritage.

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