ORANGE CITY | Orange City’s annual Tulip Festival celebrates its 75th year May 14-16.
Bill Kalsbeek, an Orange City native, was inspired by the festival’s history to research and record stories of festivals past.
“When you go back in your hometown, you begin having coffee with your old friends,” said Kalsbeek, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina and a part-time resident of Orange City.
“We began talking about the 75th annual Tulip Festival and I asked, who is writing this down? Somebody needs to write down the history of the festival.”
Kalsbeek found himself going through the stacks at Northwestern College, knee-deep in decades-old photos, newspaper clippings and festival mementos.
“I just started reading about the Dutch history and the festival, and that led to writing a book,” he said.
The book, “Celebrating Our Dutch Heritage: The Story of the Orange City Tulip Festival,” documents the festival’s history and contains hundreds of images that span the decades of the event.
What began in 1936 as a small celebration of Orange City’s Dutch heritage has led to more than 70 years of parades, wooden shoes and thousands of tulips. (The festival was not held from 1942 through 1946 because of World War II.)
To ensure historical accuracy, Kalsbeek conducted focus groups ranging from former festival pageant queens to Dutch dancers who have long retired their wooden shoes. He also interviewed many current and former residents who have participated in the festival for years.
“I’m not a historian -- I’m a biostatistician in public health -- but both of these involve collecting information. I organized group interview and broke them down by categories. The whole endeavor took two and a half years,” Kalsbeek said.
As he combed through scrapbooks, the amount of community collaboration it takes to make the festival run smoothly stood out.
“The volunteer community aspect of the festival has been so important over the years,” Kalsbeek said. “I’m absolutely blown away by the level of community involvement. It’s not just a commercial event.”
The internationally recognized festival features music and dancing by children and adults in authentic Dutch costumes, two daily parades, nightly musical theater, a carnival midway and Dutch delicacies. The annual evening musical production for the May festival is Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s “Mary Poppins.”
“The community commitment and level of planning is impressive,” Kalsbeek said.
Arlyn and Bea Schaap, co-chairpersons of the Tulip Festival Steering Committee, researched the history and foundation of the festival to determine a theme for this year’s festival.
“Words such as heritage, traditions and remembering where we came from were quoted often in articles from past celebrations,” Arlyn said. “The Tulip Festival celebration is a time for us to remember our Dutch roots, as roots are reminders of another era, land or custom.”
The Schaaps settled on “Remembering Our Roots” for this year’s theme.
Compiling the history for his book helped Kalsbeek remember his roots, too.
“You take your heritage for granted. This book experience has shown me that the Orange City community has an incredible commitment to this enterprise,” Kalsbeek said. “Heritage is so important to this community. I learned that you’re a product of everything that went before you.”
Kalsbeek will hold book signings during the Tulip Festival, and attendees will have the opportunity to have their books signed and stamped with the 75th annual Tulip Festival seal. The book signings will take place at Orange City’s new Stadscentrum tourist center from 9-10 a.m. each day of the festival.
Kalsbeek, who himself donned Dutch costumes as a child, found himself entrenched in the rich history of the small town’s big celebration as he wrote his book. Piles of photographs and clippings filled his office, and his iPhone almost ran out of space from all the photos he snapped as he documented his research.
“It was quite an adventure and quite an experience. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” Kalsbeek said. “It was a wonderful way to reconnected with my community I had been away from for 40 years.”
The festival will include other commemorative features for its 75th year.
“We’re recreating a float from 1936, the year of the first festival. It was an award-winning float at that time, and we’re excited to see it,” said Juliana Pennings, Orange City’s Tulip Festival and community tourism director. “We have really good photos of the actual float -- a wooden shoe-carving factory. We have a float-building committee -- it should be fun.”
The community festival, fueled by volunteers, hopes to attract tens of thousands of visitors. And while it’s a celebration of tradition and heritage, it will feature new attractions, too.
“There’s a lot of things that we do at this festival that have gone on for 75 years -- street scrubbing, Dutch costumes -- it’s fun to see things stay the same,” Pennings said. “It’s also fun to see the event expand.”
A craft show will be added to this year’s list of events during the festival. This year will also include Friday night fireworks and a reunion for former Tulip Festival queens and court members -- features that recur every five years.