James A. Brouwer and the Electric Car

Here’s another chapter – and most likely the last one you will see here – from my new book, now titled The Truth About Who We Are: A Letter to My Grandchildren.

To this point I’ve written mostly about ancestors who came to the United States and, against tall odds, not only survived, but thrived, making me proud to be descended from them. That was meant to be an inspiring story for you, as it has been for me. But the story is more complicated than that, as you must have recognized by this point. 

The separatist spirit that brought Dutch immigrants to the United States was sincere enough, but it could also be stubborn, rigid, and intolerant.

I have found no stories from those who remained in the Netherlands about how they were sad to see the separatists leave. Divorce, which this surely was, is painful in any set of circumstances, but I can imagine that the state church breathed a sigh of relief with every departing ship.

What was unexpected to me about this history is that, given the immigrants’ desire to preserve their culture and beliefs, they were at the same time in a rush to be assimilated within American culture. The name changes I mentioned in a previous chapter, such as my grandmother’s name change from Jacomina to Minnie, were certainly heroic at one level, but utterly practical at another. As much as the Dutch immigrants were suspicious of American culture, as much as they kept their distance from it, as much as they railed against its many shortcomings, they nevertheless longed to be accepted by it.

To dig deeper, I want to tell the story of Jacobus Apolonius Brouwer, who is better known in western Michigan as James A. Brouwer.

You probably didn’t know that your grandmother is also descended from a person named Brouwer, but don’t be alarmed: Your grandmother and I are not second cousins. As I explained in a previous chapter, lots of Dutch villages in the 19th century had Brouwers, just as they had Bakkers, Vissers, deJongs, deBoers, and so on. In spite of having the same last name, few of these people were related.

Still, I think it’s interesting that there are Brouwers on your grandmother’s side of the family, and I think you should know about them, one in particular, and the important role he played in Holland’s business, civic, and church life, all the way into the mid-20th century.

James Brouwer was born on February 20, 1854, at 6:00 p.m. I’m not sure why the time of his birth is important, but that’s how he tells the story in a document he wrote called “History of Our Family Record – as much as I could obtain or recall in February 1936.” It’s a fascinating document – part autobiography, part family tree, not so different from what I’ve written here, though much shorter.

In any case, a great deal is known about James Brouwer and his life, including the exact time of his birth, because, at age 80, he decided to tell his story. Most of what he writes sounds reliable, but you should know that I have been unable to corroborate all of the names and dates (and precise times of birth) he provides.

James Brouwer reports that his father, Willem Brouwer, was born in Arnhem, in 1812. His mother, Gertrude Johanna deWaal, was born in Delft, in 1817. They were married in Arnhem, which is in the Dutch province known as Gelderland.

Like the members of my own family who immigrated to the United States, your grandmother’s family members were also separatists who rejected the state church in the Netherlands. But, as James Brouwer tells the story, the decision to “join the secession had economic consequences,” which is something of an understatement in the case of his parents. Willem Brouwer – a tailor, not a brewer – had a small shop and seven employees, and with his decision he lost all of his customers and, shortly thereafter, his business.

“Rather than denying their faith,” as James Brouwer tells the story, Willem and Gertrude set out for America “where they could serve God according to the dictates of their own consciences.”

I am inclined to trust this description because it is similar to so many other stories from the same period. The state church in the Netherlands, the Hervormde Kerk, “originally sound in doctrine,” became “so modernistic” that many of its members, including my ancestors and those of your grandmother, made the decision to join the wave of immigrants who were leaving Europe at the time.

The cost to the separatists was not only economic, but personal. Gertrude’s brother, Jacobus Gerardus deWaal, a physician, “was so displeased” with his sister’s decision to go to America that “he refused to reply to the many letters she wrote him from America.”

James Brouwer, Gertrude’s son, adds this telling comment about his uncle, which he must have heard more than once from his mother: “[Jacobus] seemed adverse to religion.” It’s a cutting comment, but it reflects the zeal of those who left. If blame were to be assigned, it would be assigned to the brother who apparently didn’t take his faith seriously enough.

My inclination through much of my genealogical research has been to admire my ancestors, and there is no denying their courage and the sacrifices they made. More than once, knowing how difficult it is to set out on a journey, I wondered if I would have been able to do what they did. But the separatist spirit did not disappear after the arrival in the United States. Breaks, schisms, and separations – ecclesiastical and personal – continued to occur.

Doctrinal error was a serious matter, and being right was nearly always more important than getting along.

Willem and Gertrude, according to their son’s account, arrived first in New Orleans, where Willem briefly and unsuccessfully tried to duplicate his previous success in the tailoring business. Within a year, Willem and Gertrude, having heard about the Dutch colony founded by Albertus Van Raalte in Michigan, decided to set out again. In 1848, only a year after Van Raalte established the Holland settlement, Willem and Gertrude arrived with a hundred dollars and “lived in with others where they could find shelter.”

In what is now downtown Holland – at the intersection of 8th Street and College Avenue – Willem and Gertrude bought a lot from Van Raalte for forty-eight dollars. There they planted apple trees, dug a well, built a small home, and started a family, producing seven children in rapid succession. Sadly, four of the seven did not live beyond childhood. Jacobus Apolonius – who later changed his name to James for reasons he does not provide – was born in 1854 and lived to be nearly 97 years old and became one of the most colorful characters in Holland’s early history. His grandchildren describe him, when he was in his 90s, as a “kindly old man with twinkling eyes.”

In 1864, when James Brouwer was ten years old, his mother “concluded that it was her duty to sever her relationship with the Reformed Church since some of their ministers taught unreformed doctrine,” though the exact nature of this doctrinal deviation is not mentioned. The nearest Christian Reformed Church – “then called the True Reformed Church,” according to James Brouwer’s account – was in Graafschap, a walk of four miles from their home in Holland, perhaps a pleasant walk on sunny days, but undoubtedly a slog in winter months.

James’ father, interestingly, consented to Gertrude’s decision “to sever her relationship,” but he decided to remain in the Reformed Church. Again, no additional information is provided about what must have been quite a serious discussion between husband and wife.

At age 11 James Brouwer went to work full-time, and by age 15 he was apprenticed to a furniture and cabinet maker, starting at three dollars per week and gradually moving to a rate of six dollars for a 60 hour week.

“This was hard work,” he admits, but he quickly learned all phases of the business, including sales and marketing, eventually establishing the Jas. A. Brouwer Furniture Co., which was something of a landmark in downtown Holland. The “showroom” would eventually include one of the first elevators in the city, so that shoppers would not have to trudge all the way to the third floor.

James Brouwer married Gezina Noordhuis “of Grand Haven” in 1881. Less than a year later, they “were gladdened by the birth of a daughter,” named Gertrude Johanna after her grandmother. She lived only three years and four months, however, and James Brouwer writes that “this was a loss no one can understand that has not experienced it,” which is a succinct and touching description of the death of a child, one I have heard several times in my work over the years. “We were very much cast down and gloomy. We could not stand to see anyone joyful or singing.”

This first child was followed by three more girls, including a set of twins, and finally two boys.

In his account James Brouwer modestly states that “our business kept growing,” as though this came as a surprise or without much effort on his part, but the truth is that he in time became one of the most prominent business owners in Holland, active also in civic and church affairs, serving in leadership roles. His electric car, the first of its kind in Holland, a 1925 Detroit Electric, added to his legend as a colorful figure, and newspaper photos suggest that he was also exceptionally well-dressed, further evidence of his financial success.

The account of his life concludes with these words: “The Lord has greatly favored me, an unworthy sinful man. I cannot account for His goodness…but humbly bow before Him believing that He is an all-wise God.” I suppose I could say the same about my own life.

Though I am not related to his man, except through your grandmother, I find that I have inherited a great deal from him, an odd and perplexing blend of characteristics: humility and yet a stubborn belief that I am right about most doctrinal matters; courage and then tenderness and frequently tears in the face of death; deep piety with more than a little earthiness; and finally an inner determination to work harder and longer than anyone else in order to succeed.

These qualities, found in James Brouwer and in many of the second- and third-generation immigrants, have shaped who I am far more than any genetic material.

(Photo: This has been my office for the summer.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

8 Responses to James A. Brouwer and the Electric Car

  1. Bill Schewe August 16, 2018 at 8:42 am #

    You are still a wonderful and interesting writer, Doug. I hope that all is well with you and your family.

    • Doug August 16, 2018 at 6:22 pm #

      Bill, it brings back such good memories to hear from you. Would love to see you and Andrea again soon. Thanks for the kind comment.

  2. Mary Ann Vanden Berg August 20, 2018 at 1:32 pm #

    Dear Doug, I remember well James A. Brouwer. He was my great grandfather. Whenever I visited him in Holland with my mother, who was his grand daughter, he always gave me a nickle to purchase an ice cream cone. I called him my “nickle grand father”. He was always well dressed and he visited the sick in Holland Hospital every Sunday afternoon. I have a large drawn picture of William or Wilem Brouwer in my home along with my great grand fathers stained glass lamp which he had in his home. James A. Brouwer was a righteous man.
    Mary Ann Vanden Berg

    • Doug August 21, 2018 at 10:58 am #

      Thank you for leaving a comment, Mary Ann. Have you seen the “History of Our Family Record” which your great grandfather left behind? It was wonderful to read, as well as the source for all or most of my descriptions of him. If you haven’t seen it, one of your cousins should have a copy. It was from your other cousins that I learned about the coins he liked to pass out. I would be proud, as you are, to call James Brouwer my great grandfather.

  3. Mary Ann Vanden Berg August 21, 2018 at 3:27 pm #

    Do you know which cousin has the Brouwer History. Was it Barb Van Noord? She shared your writings on Face Book. That is how I was able to contact you.

    • Doug August 21, 2018 at 6:36 pm #

      I believe the DeYoung siblings have a copy of the document, so Barb should have one. You’d love to read it.

  4. Jürg Kessler August 21, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

    Your present office certainly beats Zeltweg 20. !!

    • Doug August 21, 2018 at 6:34 pm #

      My office at Zeltweg 20 was very nice. No complaints. On the other hand, spending the summer at the beach with the sound of the waves is very nice. Greetings, Jürg.