Posted by: trevormeers | November 30, 2009

Let’s Go Dutch

Jaarsma Bakery in Pella, Iowa, is the sort of warm, well-lit, pleasantly crowded place that you’d like to tuck into at the end of every long, cold day. It’s Cheers, if you replaced beer with almond cake and Norm with a pleasantly plump lady anchoring the far end of the baked goods case. Most of the girls behind the counter are teenagers, so they tend to wear a lot of eye makeup and clothes close to making a dad grumble about going out like that. But they also wear white lace hats from the Old Country and smile when they see you. I like to imagine their text messages and Facebook posts are always polite and uplifting.

On the day after Thanksgiving, we trekked to Pella in a three-car caravan with Teri’s family to find a little post-holiday breathing room and because her family drives around on holidays as reliably as most families fall asleep on the couch. Our main mission: acquire Dutch letters at Jaarsma, which sits on the Pella square across from the massive stage used for clogging dances during spring’s Tulip Time.

Inside the bakery, eight grandkids gazed through glass cases at endless rows of cookies and pastries, including gingerbread people with practically unpronounceable Dutch names. Closing time was bearing down, but the cases were full, and our kids’ noseprints appeared to be the first ones smeared on that day. You can walk into Jaarsma at any hour of the day and see exactly the same thing.

One of Pella’s proudest traits, along with continually erecting replica Dutch windmills, is obsessive tidiness. This firm Dutch Reformed town clearly holds cleanliness as not just next to, but a good barometer of, godliness. There’s hardly a fallen leaf out of place in the gutters come late November, and zoning ensures that even the Casey’s convenience stores (utilitarian boxes in the rest of Iowa) are solidly build of brick with traditional architectural flourishes. While most cities bring in Zamboni-like street sweepers after major events, Pella begins each day of the Tulip Time festival with an army of locals publicly mopping the streets.

We left Jaarsma with a supply of Dutch letters, S-shape pastries filled with almond paste, and walked around the town square. Thanks to my day job at a feel-good regional magazine, I’ve developed some expertise on the topic of little burgs full of bandshells, festivals and whimsy-filled gift shops. With that  perspective, I can say that if you’re looking for a legitimately captivating little town—one that belies your first impression that it’s a Disney-fied set and turns out to be authentic to the core—visit Pella’s square.

The square has a few shops clearly targeted to visitors (do people rent storage sheds to hold all the heart-warming signs and adorable cat figurines they buy on vacation?), but it relies on an honest base of stores offering real services to people leading real lives. There are businesses selling meat, bicycles, musical instruments, hardware and shoes that sensible folks would actually wear to work everyday.

Our family troop wandered past the shops, gazed up at the glockenspiel that puts on a show of mechanized actors every hour and settled in the Smokey Row coffee shop to eat the Dutch letters. Des Moines’ coffee shops have posters praising Obama as “Past. Present. Future.” and referring to God as “she.” In Pella, the coffee-shop posters advertise sacred music concerts at Central College, drives to donate Bibles to foreign missions and fund-raisers for a faith-based drug recovery center. Still, two booths held slouching, disaffected-looking college students with shaggy hair and thin, black glasses. They must be part of a Central exchange program.

After dark, we caravanned to the edge of town, where John and Birdie De Vries decorate their property with thousands of Christmas lights, including windmills, boats and other scenes from Holland. Dutch carolers play over loudspeakers hidden in the shadows. A sign on the barn announced that “due to health issues,” this would be the display’s final year, a tradition dying out just as we discovered it. An old man, presumably John, stood in the barnyard in his Carhartts, watching cars file through. We rolled down our windows and said thanks as we pulled out.

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