One of Michigan's most winning attributes is its multicultural heritage, as evidenced by places like Frankenmuth , with its distinct Bavarian vibe, and Holland , which, as the name implies, owes a lot to its original Dutch settlers. As mentioned in the third edition of Moon Michigan , however, the founding of Holland, now one of the state’s most popular sightseeing destinations, was basically a fluke.
In 1846, Reverend Albertus Christiaan VanRaalte, seeking religious freedom and economic prosperity, led a group of 60 Dutch Calvinists on a seven-week trip from the Netherlands to New York. Despite a plan to head west and purchase land in Wisconsin, travel delays and early winter weather forced the group to stop in Detroit. When VanRaalte heard about available lands in southwestern Michigan, he decided to survey the region. By January 1847, he’d reached the banks of present-day Lake Macatawa, and the initial group of settlers arrived roughly a month later.
While subsequent Dutch immigrants were dismayed to find a dense forest, an insect-infested swamp, and a scarce food supply in the area just north of present-day Saugatuck , the settlers persevered, recognizing the value of the surrounding woods and lakes. Without government aid, they dug a channel to Lake Michigan and created a centralized market square. In 1851, VanRaalte helped to establish the Pioneer School, which soon evolved into Hope College .
When two railroads extended spurs to Holland in the early 1870s, it seemed the town was poised for a booming future. Then, disaster struck. In October 1871, a fire swept through Holland, bankrupting its citizens. With the aid of surrounding communities, the villagers began a steady revival, and by the end of the 19th century, Holland had utility systems, paved streets, mail delivery, transportation facilities, manufacturing plants, a thriving agricultural market, and several resort hotels.
As the 20th century dawned, Holland continued to prosper – as both a manufacturing center and a tourist destination. During the 1920s, thousands of vacationers flocked to Holland, for its gorgeous beaches, burgeoning resorts, Tulip Time Festival, and other attractions. The Great Depression caused the closure of many of Holland’s furniture factories, and yet the town survived. Farmers worked together, and new businesses replaced old ones, especially during World War II.
Despite an influx of varied ethnic groups – such as Latino farm workers in the 1940s and Southeast Asian refugees in the 1960s – Holland continued to honor its Dutch heritage. The 1947 centennial celebration included an exhibition of Dutch artwork and a play about the Dutch pioneers. Seventeen years later, a local businessman successfully transplanted an authentic windmill from the Netherlands.
Since then, Holland has undergone many changes. During the 1980s, the area witnessed a deteriorating downtown core and an increase in the number of housing developments, fast-food restaurants, outlet stores, and shopping malls. Preservation efforts nevertheless prevailed, even through the 1990s. The historic Tower Clock building was saved, three downtown parks were added, the old post office became the Holland Museum , and Hope College was expanded.
While people of Dutch ancestry no longer dominate the demographics of Holland, many local families can still trace their roots back to the original Dutch separatists who settled in this part of the Midwest in the 1840s. No matter their actual heritage, though, Holland's modern-day residents know the city's Dutch vibe is what lures thousands of visitors every year. Named a “Distinctive Destination” in 2002 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, family-friendly Holland continues to thrive with its Dutch-inspired sites, bountiful harvests, holiday festivities, and vibrant annual events like the ever-popular Tulip Time Festival  (800/822-2770), a weeklong celebration of Dutch heritage and culture that usually takes place in early May and features free concerts, carnival rides, parades, fireworks displays, traditional arts and crafts, klompen dancing, and, of course, a myriad of vivid tulip bulbs.
Naturally, if you can't make it to Holland for Tulip Time, you can still experience its Dutch heritage during other seasons. From April to October, for instance, you can get an up-close look at the 248-year-old De Zwaan (“The Swan”), the last authentic windmill that the Dutch government allowed to leave the Netherlands. Shipped to Michigan in 1964 and lovingly reconstructed, De Zwaan now serves as the centerpiece of Windmill Island Gardens  (1 Lincoln Ave., 616/355-1030, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily mid-April-early Oct., $7.50 adults, $4.50 children 5-15), a 36-acre property near downtown Holland, featuring a variety of gardens and structures. Guides offer thorough tours of the wooden windmill, and while here, visitors can also experience the tile-roofed Posthouse museum, an exact replica of a 14th-century wayside inn; ride an authentic Dutch carousel; and view Little Netherlands, a 50-foot-long model village, complete with canals, farms, a cheese market, and, naturally, windmills. In addition, you'll find an on-site fudge and souvenir shop, where you can purchase traditional wooden shoes and classic blue-and-white china.
For more information about the Windmill Island Gardens as well as other Dutch attractions in the Holland area, contact the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau  (76 E. 8th St., 616/394-0000, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. year-round, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. mid-Apr.-mid-Nov.) – and try to see the impressive De Zwaan windmill before the gardens close for the season on Sunday, October 3.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad  blog and my Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of Windmill Island Gardens  © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone