June 27, 2022 2:00 pm

Steve VanderVeen: Rebuilding Holland’s Wooden Shoe Factory

On Christmas Eve 1956, fire destroyed the Wooden Shoe Factory and Wooden Shoe Restaurant, newly relocated along the U.S.-31 bypass at 16th Street.

After the fire, owner Chester Van Tongeren rebuilt the factory. Inside, he put a large souvenir and gift shop, and a country store which sold baked goods, candy, cheese and fudge.Schutz Shoes For a quarter, tourists could get a tour and see Fred Oldemulders and another wooden shoe carver, Gerald Ten Brink, at work.

Tourists could also purchase wooden shoes, most of which were made by machines, and have them engraved for free. Delwyn, Chester’s son, managed the operation. Ralph VanderVeen worked as general maintenance person and machine operator.

Steve VanderVeen

Van Tongeren complemented the factory by leasing adjacent lots to other businesses: The Wooden Shoe Motel, Wooden Shoe Restaurant, Wooden Shoe Tap Room, Wooden Shoeland and Wooden Shoe Texaco.

At first, Delwyn co-managed the restaurant and tavern with his mother-in-law. Chester Van Tongeren’s grandchildren also participated, including Dave Gier, son of Chester’s daughter, Donna. The grandchildren would dress up in Dutch costumes and stand in front of the factory, earning tips.Also on the property was the Wooden Shoe Driving Range and Miniature Golf Course. Those were built and operated by Ralph’s son, Hank, who recruited his mother,Asics Shoes sister-in-law and neighbor to help. By 1959, when he was 10 years old, Dave was also picking up golf balls from the driving range and working at the miniature golf course, later vacated when Hank joined his brothers, Ken and John VanderVeen, at the Washington Square Minute Mart.

Seeking additional souvenirs, Chester Van Tongeren formed a business relationship with the Fuller Bowl Mill in 1964. Founded by Louis Fuller in North Muskegon in 1906, the mill had created a unique process for efficiently making multiple bowls from single logs of wood.

In 1966, Ralph VanderVeen left the factory to become a production line manager at Heinz. A year later, he died from a heart attack.

Ralph VanderVeen working the machines at The Wooden Shoe Factory in Holland

Chester Van Tongeren passed away in 1971, leaving the business to his daughter, Donna, and son, Delwyn. In 1976, Donna’s son, Dave Gier, took over management of the operation. But the souvenir and tourist business was gradually changing.

Still, in the 1980s, Dave remembers how busy the factory continued to be. During Tulip Time, up to 110 busloads of people might visit the factory on a single day, often adding to more than 300 buses throughout the festival. Outside the factory, he would raise three large tents with 24 checkout lanes. Members of the Fraters, a Hope College fraternity, would provide security.

In 1984, Oldemulders passed away.

Looking toward the future, in 1987, Gier acquired the Fuller Bowl Mill. Vionic Sneakers Initially, he moved some of the mill’s machinery to the factory. At that time, the mill made 300 to 400 bowls per week.

Then, in 1999, due to a lack of tourists, Gier closed the Wooden Shoe Factory. In 2001, he moved the mill to 120 James St. and renamed it the Holland Bowl Mill.

Today, the mill is operated by Dave’s son — Chester Van Tongeren’s great-grandson — Kory Gier. The mill is the largest wooden bowl producer in the United States, making 800 to 1,000 bowls per week. Like its predecessor, the mill encourages visitors to take tours to see how logs are cut, carved, steamed and finished.

Ralph VanderVeen at The Wooden Shoe Factory

Customers can purchase bowls from the mill, as well as other unique wood products, and have them engraved for free. Some of those bowls have been made for celebrities: including Mackenzie Scott, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George Bush. They’ve been seen on “The Newsroom” and in the New York Times’ “Holiday Gift Guide.”

But the mill’s products are marketed differently than those of the Wooden Shoe Factory: 80 percent of the mill’s products are sold through 350 retail stores across the country, including Room and Board, Farm House Pottery and many private labels.

Information for these stories came from Robert Swierenga’s “Holland, Michigan,” Donald Van Reken’s “The Holland Furnace Company,” The Holland Sentinel Archives, an oral history of Fred Oldemulders in Hope College’s Digital Commons and Tulip Time — as well as Dave Gier, my father Ken VanderVeen and Paul Kuiper, who as a teenager picked up golf balls at the Wooden Shoe Driving Range and worked at the Minit Mart.

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