Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Prof. Nieuwenhuis: Historian
Albert didn’t sign his work, of course; neither did any other 20th century Sioux County builder, but Albert’s son Nelson did. You see, Nelson Nieuwenhuis is a historian, a professional historian, whose name appears on the covers of several books, including Siouxland: A History of Sioux County, Iowa, a 1983 publication of the Sioux County Historical Society, a project which grew out of the American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. The Committee asked Nelson Nieuwenhuis to write the book; after all, Nieuwenhuis was a professional historian.
In a way, professional suggests work-for-hire. We call someone’s work professional when it’s accomplished with decorum and efficiency, as Nelson’s histories are. But to call Nelson Nieuwenhuis a professional doesn’t capture his character. For while he goes after his work like a professional, Nelson Nieuwenhuis has the heart–the enthusiasm, the delight, the joy–of an amateur, someone who does the work solely because he or she just loves it. Like I said, stop in sometime at that little house on the corner, chat for awhile, and you’ll know that not a dime’s worth of that enthusiasm has waned. He sits in a chair on the sun porch, remembering, his thumbs atwirl, piecing together anecdotes he conjures from his memory as if each of them were as precious as the arrowheads that still occasionally emerge from the banks of the Big Sioux River.
His father’s family came to Sioux County from Michigan, where they’d been part of a strong Dutch immigrant settlement since the 1860s. His mother’s family moved from Wisconsin, where they too (the Hendrick teStroetes) had lived for decades. If you drive two miles west of Hospers, on the blacktop, you’ll pass the original TeStroete place; a looming oak that still plumes over the front yard, planted there a century ago by Nelson’s grandfather. Those are the kinds of facts Nelson remembers, the kind of facts the rest of us too easily forget.
Blessed with a predilection for math and science, not to mention facts and figures, Nelson Nieuwenhuis graduated from Hospers Elementary in 1921 and Hospers High School in 1925, one of a class of ten–five girls and five boys, who, he claims, couldn’t agree on anything.
But his education didn’t end there. He would have loved to go to Hope College, the church college back in southwestern Michigan, where his grandfather put down his first American roots; but money was something of a problem so he stayed home. Now if there are other alumni of Sheldon Junior College (class of 1928) there likely aren’t many since the place opened and closed within 17 years. But that’s where he spent his first two years, transferring thereafter to Central College, in Pella, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in 1932.
It’s entirely possible that, during the Depression, Nelson Nieuwenhuis was the only college-educated carpenter in Sioux County. Jobs were scarce, but his father’s crew had some work, so he built houses and barns and what-not else for a few years until he got a teaching job right there in Hospers. Armed with a masters degree in history from USD, he moved on to Northwestern Academy in Orange City in 1948, where he became, as I said, a professional historian.
A consummate professional historian, academically trained at a time when historians thought of themselves as archivists, repositories of facts, Nieuwenhuis penned histories, including Siouxland: A History of Sioux County, which reads, in part, like a compendium. If you to want a sense of Nelson’s spirit and personality, his biases or his agendas, you won’t find them. Nope. All that eagerness, that grinning enthusiasm he has for history isn’t in the prose because Nelson Nieuwenhuis, as a professional historian, was taught that historians should be invisible, their stories nothing more or less than what Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to pull from witnesses to crime–“Just the facts, ma’am.”
Or this, from Siouxland. “Lastly, we send forth this work with sincere thanks to God for His indispensable help, for we are convinced that ‘unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.’”
What follows in both of those books is story, well told, professionally done; but Nelson disappears. If you want to know him, he’d likely say, just have a look at those two paragraphs.
That’s why he wouldn’t take that palace.
And in part, he’d say, that’s what makes him a really wealthy man.
I wrote this profile a decade ago. Prof. Nieuwenhuis died last week. He was 103 years old. Isabella died several years ago.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:29 AM