ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Steve Connell was a bit familiar with Orange City prior to interviewing for the band director position at Maurice-Orange City High School in 1975.
"As a sophomore at Luverne (Minn.) High School, I remembered coming down to Orange City to march in the Tulip Festival," says Connell. "It would have been around 1968."
Connell had just graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, when he drove to Orange City to interview for the vacancy, the only high school-only position for which he interviewed. The rest were positions involving grades 7-12 or 5-12.
"I don't remember the interview, but I remember asking about the condition of the marching band's uniforms," says Connell, 62. "They opened this cabinet and showed me all the wooden shoes. They said, 'You know we march in authentic Dutch costumes with wooden shoes.'"
Connell had remembered seeing the shoes during that previous performance trip to Orange City. He also remembered seeing Dutch dancers from Orange City in the parking lot at the grocery store in Luverne.
"The Dutch dancers used to go out and promote the Tulip Festival," Connell says. "They'd come to Luverne and dance with their wooden shoes in the parking lot of our grocery store. They'd hand out fliers inviting people to come to the Tulip Festival."
Connell was offered the job in 1975. He took it and has been marching with his Pride of the Dutchmen marching band ever since.
"I have it figured out; it's 300 to 315 miles I've marched in wooden shoes," says Connell, who is wrapping up his 38th year serving MOC-FV High School.
Figure a couple of parades per day during the three-day Tulip Festival. And then, figure dozens of special marching performances by this 170-member band. Connell has marched in wooden shoes in Hawaii, California, Oregon, West Virginia, Minnesota, Arizona and several places in between.
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The band even slid with its wooden shoes through a performance in front of the White House years ago.
"It's a rite of passage," Connell says of performing in wooden shoes shipped directly from Holland, providing yet another link between Orange City and its point of origin. "People here attend the Tulip Festival as little kids and they see this big band march by. They figure they want to do that someday. They get into it as a freshman and you can tell they're excited when they get their shoes."
MOC-FV High School gets the shoes for around $35 to $40. While some students can march for four years in one pair, there are others who wear out a pair in one marching season.
"Stand behind the band as it goes down the street sometime and you'll see it's like the kids are marching in a little fog," Connell says. "That (fog) comes from the friction as the students slide their wooden shoes along the pavement. The shoes do get hot as the kids are actually sanding the bottom of the shoes as they move."
The Pride of the Dutchmen marching band more or less shuffles down the street, rather than picking up and setting down each shoe with each corresponding step.
"There's a smoky sawdust created as they slide," he says.
Connell and his musicians have tricks they've learned through the years to keep their feet from buckling under the strain of wearing these unforgiving wooden shoes. Many students sport three to five pairs of socks while they march. Some pairs of socks are separated by foam pads.
"The top of the foot often hurts, as does the big toe," Connell says. "There is no give in these shoes."
That said, Connell has never had a musician who refused to march in wooden shoes. He's seen dozens of players finish a parade before sitting down to massage bruised and bloodied feet.
"When MOC merged with Floyd Valley (or nearby Alton, Iowa), that was an issue at first," Connell says. "People wondered if the Floyd Valley kids would come in and march with these Dutch costumes.
"Well, they came in and did VERY well! They jumped in and took right off in them," Connell says.