Tulip Time Festival History

The idea of Tulip Time was introduced in 1927 at a Woman’s Literary Club meeting. Miss Lida Rogers, a biology teacher at Holland High School, suggested that Holland adopt the tulip as its flower because of its close ties to the Netherlands, and set aside a day for a festival. She titled her talk that day “Civic Beauty” and spoke at length about the area’s unique sand dunes, its fine trees, safe water supply, pure milk, and ample playgrounds. She advocated planting more trees, and because the Chamber of Commerce was seeking something appropriate, suggested planting tulips in every yard. She concluded with reading a poem, “Come Down to Holland in Tulip Time.”

In 1928, City Council, under Mayor Ernest C. Brooks, appropriated funds to purchase 100,000 tulip bulbs from the Netherlands. These bulbs were to be planted in city parks and other areas. Initial plans called for a “Tulip Day.” Bulbs were available to Holland residents at one cent a piece.

Thus, it was in 1929 that thousands of tulips bloomed, and Holland invited visitors to come during a week in May. Because of interest shown, it was decided to make Tulip Time an annual event with Mrs. Ethel Telling as the first chairman. Under Mrs. Telling’s leadership, the Festival was organized emphasizing Dutch costumes and wooden shoes. The revival of old Netherlands customs and traditions naturally followed, and visitors and townsfolk found the Festival both unique and picturesque.

In 1933 the first Tulip Time office opened, incorporating Festival functions with the Chamber of Commerce. By the mid- 30’s Tulip Time was a nationally known event and this nine-day Festival occurred up until World War II. It was also in 1933 that Ether Perry, a high school girls gym teacher, trained the Dutch Villagers, later known as Klompen Dancers, to perform Dutch folk dances. There were 12 dancers that first year, and they danced to “Where, Oh Where, Has My Little Dog Gone?” The number of dancers has grown to around 1,400, including approximately 675 alumni dancers.

Authenticity of the dancers Dutch Costumes has been a major priority since the early years. One of the early operettas had costumes of the musical comedy type, delft blue skirts, bodices, white organdy caps and aprons. The switch to authentic costumes, many of them with black skirts and aprons, seemed dull at first, but costumes of other provinces with more colors were added providing much more diversity.

The Tulip Time Festival was discontinued during World War II, but interest was kept alive with a flower show and musical events. A four-day Festival was renewed in 1946, retaining all the pageantry and special features of the previous nine-day Festivals. Tulip Time leaders learned early that visitors like tulips, flower shows, parades, Klompen Dancing, and music. Attempts to deviate from this formula have generally not proved successful.

Tulip Time in 1947 was geared to Holland’s centennial. Holland had bridged many problems and was ready to celebrate an important milestone in Tulip Time’s history. Tulip bulbs again were available, although in limited quantities. The Netherlands had in fact “rediscovered” Holland, Michigan, and our Dutch ties were strengthened, many of them out of gratitude for the aid our local citizens had sent to the Netherlands following World War Ⅱ.

It was in 1947 that the people of the city of Amsterdam sent a barrel organ to the people of Holland. It was just one of many things that came on a special Dutch ship that sailed into Holland Harbor. The barrel organ was played extensively during events and later in Tulip Time parades. After substantial repairs and renovation during the late 1990’s, the barrel organ is now displayed at Windmill Island and entertains hundreds of visitors during Tulip Time and throughout the tourist season.

The year 1947 also marks the first time a Michigan governor participated in the street scrubbing ceremonies. Governor Kim Sigler chose to join the Dutch burghers, and the photographers had a field day. Thereafter, all of Michigan’s governors have donned costumes. During the height of his popularity, Governor George Romney was even pictured in Time Magazine on the “People” page scrubbing streets! Governor G. Mennen (Soapy) Williams came to Tulip Time nearly every year during his 12 year tenure as governor.

In succeeding years, Tulip Time continued on much the same pattern, adding more cultural features and entertaining ever increasing crowds. The number of Klompen Dancers increased each year, and beginning in the mid-1970’s, even a few boys participated.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Tulip Time was discovered by group tours and package bus tours became popular. This was a happy development since huge numbers traveled in buses, alleviating to some degree the parking problem on city streets. A good share of the bargain tours used private home housing. Whole neighborhoods cooperated in keeping entire busloads in the same area. Some tours offering deluxe hotel service ended up lodging as far away from Holland as Toledo, Ohio.

A welcome development during the 1970’s was parade bleacher seating, filling a long time need and also providing some financial backing for the Festival. Most of the bleachers are conveniently set up in the vicinity of the Civic Center (Tulip Time Festival Headquarters) and Kollen Park. The venture was so financially successful that Tulip Time provided $10,000 towards the float that Holland entered in the 1976 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, CA, which launched America’s Bicentennial.

The year 1976 was a red-letter year for Tulip Time. Holland received tremendous publicity through its float entry (a huge basket of tulips suspended between two windmills) in the Tournament of Roses Parade. The four-day Tulip Time Festival was climaxed by the appearance of President Gerald R. Ford in the Parade of Bands. His wife Betty and their daughter Susan accompanied the President. The President’s son Jack visited Holland two days later.

In 1986 talks first began to extend the 4-day Festival due to the fact that the tulips were in bloom for most of May. After several years, in 1991 the Festival grew to a 10-day event. This change was made to better accommodate visitors and motor coach groups who had to visit Holland prior to the Festival to see the tulips due to hotel room shortages. During the initial talks in 1986, hotel rooms numbered 350. In 1991, they numbered 773. For the next 5 years the Festival flourished. Beginning in 1997, a new weather trend began. This global warming resulted in a change in the early growth and blooming of the tulips.

Due to the continued warm weather trends and global warming, in the summer of 2001, the Festival Board of Directors and Staff made the decision to move the Festival up one week earlier, and shortened it to 8 days. This would allow the Festival to better coincide with the blooming of the tulips.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented decision was made to cancel the 2020 festival for the safety of all. That significant economic impact was felt throughout the Holland area and plans were put into place to make sure the Festival would return in 2021. With a scaled-back list of events and activities, Tulip Time returned in 2021 as a result of amazing community support and contributions from all over the world. The 2022 festival was then back to pre-pandemic levels of activities and visitors. The best part of those difficult years...the millions of amazing tulips bloomed in all their glory, right on time, reminding us of the joy and hope of spring.

The Tulip Time Festival now strives to add and upgrade events and activities offered. The Festival provides entertainment for all ages including: concerts, shows, parades, Klompen Dance, Art & Craft Fair, Historic Tours, some of the most unique area attractions and much more! Dutch heritage and culture run deep in Holland and help shape the future of Tulip Time Festival activities. Come see for yourself why Readers Digest has named The Holland Tulip Time Festival the “Best Small Town Festival in America”!