Saturday, January 7, 2012

SEARCHING FOR WALT: A Visit To Velsen, Whitman's Dutch Ancestral Birth Town

     On a two day side trip to The Netherlands to visit 'The Real Holland' of farms, villages, sand dunes and canals -- and acting on a kind of hunch, I decided on Friday to try to track down Walt Whitman's Dutch ancestral birth town.
     Origin of the Van Velsors, that is. Walt's maternal family, whose influence he felt acutely not only through his strong relationship with his mother but also grandfather Cornelius -- a driver of a stage and transport wagon bringing produce from farm-to-market, and a man with whom the young Walt sometimes went as his companion.
     There being no 'Velsor' on the map, my suspicions turned quickly to Velsen, the little village near the mouth of the North Sea Canal, linking Amsterdam to the world's oceans. It only took a little patient research to prove my suspicions founded. Around 1640, and six generations back in the Van Velsor (aka Van Velsen) family tree, Walt's direct lineal ancestor Gerritt Thyszen Van Velsen came into this world in the tiny town...and it was from Velsen that he emigrated to America.
     It was short work to go from that little brainstorm to an 'official visit' to Velsen, as the Writer in Residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace -- to pay my respects, inform them of this fortuitous historical connection, and present them with a book on Whitman.
     As much a kick as it was to be the bearer of good news, what happened after that was an incredible three hour grand tour of Velsen, Spaarrnwoude, Sandpoort and the surrounding area, led by Alderman Wim Westerman.
     Westerman, who was one of the only city officials on duty that afternoon -- and anyhow having pulled 'on-call' duty for the weekend -- was only too glad to slip behind the wheel of his car and share his wealth of knowledge about the vicinity on a little tour.
     Velsen! The tiny old town is a charming corner of Holland, surrounded by wet lowland agricultural fields and the extensive system of sand dunes which protect that portion of the mainland from the sometimes furious North Sea.
     And surrounded by giant reminders that The Netherlands remains, in the 21st century, a major player in the world economy. The huge North Sea Canal which split the little town asunder for international shipping connections to Amsterdam is awash with container ships plying benignly back and forth, a kind of unearthly quiet about them. On the north side of the canal, giant industrial plants send billows of smoke into the air -- including a huge paper mill; and Tata Steel, one of Europe's top steel producers at some 6.5 million tons and 2.7 billion euros a year.
     Sounds offputting, yet a visit to Walt's ancestral home is anything but. The old town of Velsen, clustered serenely along the canal, exudes a charm which draws artists to set up shop in its numerous lofts, and visitors to wander in and admire its cobblestoned streets, and residences and shops that run the gamut from thatched farmhouse to ornate 19th century town hall.
     Velsen's a place of history and myth, not to mention whimsy. It was home to the northernmost Roman outpost, in the first century AD, according to Tacitus. The old church in the center of town was founded on the very spot that an Irish missionary introduced Christianity to this corner of Frisian Europe. It's tower? claimed by Napoleon for surveying purposes, and remains in government hands to this day.
     Beyond the perimeter of the old village are fields drained by canal after canal after canal -- and protected with triple line of defensive dykes known by the fanciful names of The Sleeper, The Dreamer and The Waker.
     The countryside is dotted with mansions from the heyday of Dutch colonial supremacy -- summer homes to the rich Amsterdam traders whose empires spread from the Low Country to the Caribbean to South Afria to Indonesia and back again...including one more recently 'bunkered' by the Germans during WWII, expecting the allies to land in Europe at Velsen.
     Nearby Spaamwoude is home to Stompe Toren, a tiny church built on a mound of dirt that villagers would gather upon in high water "to keep their feet dry." According to a well known Dutch Renaissance play, the place wasn't so small that they couldn't make a big splash in Dutch history, however -- taking over Amsterdam at one point with the help of a giant named Klaus Kitten (Klaas Van Kieten), who  measured 8'10" if the markings still found on the south side of Stompe Toren are to be believed.
     Then there's Spaarndam, certainly hometown to Frans Hals (1583-1666) the famous Dutch Renaissance painter.
     The small statue of the famous Hans Brinker in Hals' old town, however, is one attraction it's a bit harder to feel generous about when it comes to fact and fiction. After all, the Dutch Tourism Board admitted that they only put it there in 1950 to please American tourists , who refused to disbelieve that Hans was the invention of New York's own Mary Mapes Dodge, a children's author and contemporary of Whitman (and with a lineage traceable to one of the English founders of Southold, Thomas Mapes).
     One thing's without much argument, however -- the little villages around the area, including the Van Velsor's old town of Velsen, exude a charm and beauty that has been recognized for centuries. "Down by the canals are long, unbroken frontages of antique buildings; tall red gabled warehouses, of mellow russet brick, with brightly- painted doors and shutters, all reflected in unruffled water," wrote Henry Montagu Doughty in 1890.
     It's as charming now as it was then, and was so back when the Van Velsors decided to head for America.
     "No doubt Walt's ancestors knew these streets," said Alderman Westerman proudly.
     So why did they leave? "Opportunity," he said simply. "Like other people in Velsen, they were connected to what was happening in Amsterdam. The East Indies trade. The West Indies trade, There was opportunity. And I guess they just took it."

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