This post is a bit of a cheat. I’m re-publishing a short travelogue that I wrote in 1998, describing a weekend visit to the province of Zeeland, in the Netherlands. I was living in Belgium at the time, so it was a short drive up to Zeeland, where I did a little sightseeing and also visited Eede, the town that my great-grandmother Nathalie Verstraete (b 1864) was from. Amazingly, I actually got to talk to a living Verstraete in Eede, who was most likely a distant cousin.
Original Post Follows Below. Originally published on the web in Spring of 1998.
A few weeks ago, I spent a weekend driving around Zeeland, one of The Netherlands’ 12 provinces. Zeeland is in the Southwest corner of Holland, and consists of several large islands or peninsulas, separated by long tidal inlets. “Zee” means “sea” in Dutch and it was easy to see how it got its name. This part of Holland is unbelievably flat, and mostly below sea level. The history of this part of Holland is basically a saga of the residents’ continuous battle against the sea. I read somewhere that in the past 100 years, the Dutch have lost more land to the sea than they’ve reclaimed.
The last great flood, and the greatest flooding disaster in Holland’s history, was in February of 1953, when the dikes broke in a number of different places, flooding 70% of the total land area of Zeeland. The flooding happened quickly and during the middle of the night and 1,835 people were drowned, 72,000 left homeless.
The Dutch quickly recovered from the flooding, repairing the dikes and pumping the water out. They decided to shorten their coastline by damming off several of the tidal inlets and to enlarge and reinforce many of the existing dikes on the coast. This was dubbed “The Delta Project” and was finally finished in 1986 with the building of the last dam, the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier.
One of my reasons for visiting Holland was to see if I could find the birthplace of Nathalie Verstraete, my great-grandmother. I had only a little bit of information about where she came from, but I thought that it would be easy enough to find the town.
The information that I had came from a tape of Marie Sexton, nee Wolters (my grandmother). She’d talked on the tape about her parents, who were both born in Holland. According to what grandma said on the tape, her mother, Nathalie Verstraete, was born in 1864 in a town called “Aidan”, right on the Belgian border. She had two brothers, Jacob and Peter, both of whom emigrated to America. Jacob ended up in St. Paul, where he worked and eventually sent for Nathalie, who probably came over somewhere between 1885-1895. According to the tape, she’d been working as a governess for a couple with two children.
No one had been able to find the town of Aidan on any map but, after doing some searching on the Internet, my dad got a note from someone that said that we must mean “Eeden”, which was in Zeeland, about 10 km south of a town called Oostburg. I couldn’t find either Aidan or Eeden on the map that I had, but I decided to see if I could go find it.
Looking for Eeden
I’m living right now in Leuven, which is a smaller city not too far from Brussels. I didn’t really have any idea how long it would take me to drive up to Holland but it ended up being only about an hour to Antwerp, near the Dutch border, and then another hour headed west along the border, before I turned north to cross over into Zeeland.
It had been raining steadily all morning (all week actually), but it started to clear up just a little bit as I left Antwerp, heading west. Someone had told me that I had no chance of sunshine in Holland—they said that it rained twice as much in Holland as Belgium and the forecast for Brussels was for non-stop rain all weekend. But by the time I turned North, onto a smaller highway heading for Holland, the clouds had scattered and the sun came out in full force right about the time that I got to the Belgian/Dutch border.
I crossed over a couple of small canals and I started looking for some sign that said that I was near the border. There didn’t seem to be anything marking the border, just more of the same small green farms on either side of the highway. As I looked around, wondering if I was in Holland yet, I came into a little town that was marked with a small sign labeled “Eede”. I hadn’t really been looking for Eeden yet, so the sign caught me by surprise. I’d been thinking that I’d drive up to Oostburg, and then work my way backwards, looking for the town.
I realized that this had to be the place, so I pulled over to check my map. This time I found Eede on the map, almost obscured by the dark line that marked the border. After hunting for the legend on the map for a little while, I managed to measure the distance and discovered that I was exactly 10 km south of Oostburg. Even missing the “n” in “Eeden”, I figured that this had to be the place.
Quiet Little Town
Once I realized that this was the place I’d been looking for, I took a minute to glance around. There wasn’t much to the town, most of which was off to the left of the highway, where I could see a bunch of red-tiled roofs clustered around a single church steeple poking up through them. It seemed a bit like a Dutch version of Lake Wobegon—pretty sleepy. It was Saturday morning, about 11:30, but there were only a few cars to be seen and absolutely no people moving around anywhere.
I drove around a bit, exploring the town, before ending up at the church. Everything still seemed pretty quiet, and the church was locked when I walked up to try the door. One thing that I noticed immediately about Eede, comparing it with the Belgian towns that I’d been in, was how clean everything was. The towns in Belgium all seem to be grey and dirty and a little tattered around the edges. But in Eede, everything seemed meticulously cared for, which made the town seem almost brand new. Most houses had little gardens in front of them and even though nothing was blooming yet, the bare hedges were perfectly trimmed and the gardens looked as spotless as the brick homes.
Looking For Verstraetes
I decided to find somewhere that I could have a little lunch and possibly talk to someone about the town. I eventually found my way back to the main road and went into what looked like the only restaurant in town—a spotless, subdued place, full of plants and seeming brand new. There was a bar running along one end of the dining area, and several older guys sitting at a table near the bar, talking to each other and to the guy behind the bar, who seemed to be the owner. I grabbed a table near the front window and ordered a sandwich.
As I ate, I watched the town through the front window of the restaurant. It was still pretty quiet outside, with only the occasional car rushing by on the highway out front, none of them stopping. The guys up front were talking quietly with the guy behind the bar and the place felt like some tourist town in Northern Minnesota in April, waiting for the summer holiday to start.
The guy behind the bar eventually came to clear the table for me and I ordered a coffee. As he started to turn away, I told him that I had a couple of questions about Eede. I’ve stopped prefacing every conversation with the question, “Do you speak English?”, because I have yet to meet someone who says no. Most often, the answer turns out to be “of course”. I explained that my great-grandmother had been born in this town and that I was looking for someone who could tell me a little bit about Eede. I told him that her name was Nathalie Verstraete, and I asked if there was anyone named Verstraete still living in Eede.
He seemed pretty impressed that I’d come all the way from America, looking for relatives in Eede, and said that there weren’t exactly a lot of Verstraetes in Eede, but that there were a few. Then he told me to wait a few minutes and he’d go call a friend of his that could possibly answer some of my questions for me.
Willem and Miriam Verstraete
I sat sipping my coffee for a few minutes, enjoying the sun that was now beginning to shine directly into the window. The owner came back a few minutes later to tell me that he’d contacted his friend, who was a Verstraete, and that he might be able to come talk to me. He explained that the man he’d telephoned didn’t speak English, but was calling his daughter, who spoke English, to see if she was able to come to the restaurant with him.
After another ten minutes, he came back again, smiling a little, to say, “Ok. They are going to come now to meet you..” I went back to my coffee, and eventually a woman and older man came walking up to the front door of the restaurant. They came in and I got up to greet them. The woman, who seemed to be in her mid-30’s, introduced herself as Miriam Verstraete, and the man was her father, Willem. I invited them to join me and they ordered some coffee and sat down at my table.
After I introduced myself as Sean Sexton, they listened patiently while I explained why I was looking for Verstraetes. I ended up pulling out a notebook and drawing a quick family tree, to show them how our family was connected to Nathalie Verstraete. By her name I penciled in “born in Eede – 1864” and Willem nodded, smiling, as Miriam explained in Dutch that it was my father’s grandmother who had come from Eede.
Miriam told me that her father had been born and raised in Eede and that she had also grown up here. She said that she was married, had a couple of kids, and lived in the town of Aardenburg, just a few kilometres north of Eede. Willem still lived in Eede, and Miriam said that her mother had just died a few years ago. She said that many of the younger people had moved to larger towns over the past few years and that Eede was becoming “quite grey”.
I asked them if they knew anything about the Verstraetes that would have been living in Eede 100 years ago. Miriam translated for Willem—he said that he thought there had been a couple different groups of Verstraetes living in Eede back then, but he didn’t know if Nathalie would have been from his side of the family or not. He said that it made sense that Nathalie and her brothers might have left Eede in the 1880s or 1890s, since a number of people had left the area around that time to go to America.
Miriam also told me that they’d recently met a couple from Texas who were cousins and whose family had also originally come from Eede. She said that she had a large family tree that someone in America had put together, showing her side of the family, and that she’d send a copy to me. Willem said that maybe the Verstraetes in Eede didn’t know anything about our side of the family because we had all moved away.
I asked a lot of questions about Eede, and Willem explained some of the town’s history. Eede currently has a population of about 600 and he said that it was roughly the same size 100 years ago. When I asked if most of the inhabitants had been farmers, he said that some were, but many people who lived in Eede during the last century were involved in making cloth—probably linen.
Willem also told me that during the 2nd World War, the Germans had occupied the entire town during most of the war. He said that the Allies began bombing the whole area late in the war and that Eede had been completely destroyed as a result of the bombing raids. Since there wasn’t a single building left standing in Eede, he explained, the residents had all moved north to Oostburg until the war was over.
They also told me that the allies had fought the Germans not too far from Eede towards the end of the war. Miriam said that it had been mostly Canadians fighting near Eede, and that there was a large cemetery for them not too far away. She said that the town had been completely rebuilt after the war.
I asked about the flood in 1953, and whether Eede had been affected, but they said that Eede was far enough away from the sea that it hadn’t been flooded at all.
At some point I remembered that I wanted to ask them about “teat”. I said that our family made a particular kind of food that we thought was Dutch and that I was curious if they knew what it was. I explained that we call it “teat”, but they shook their heads, not recognizing the name. But as I started describing how it’s made, they both starting nodding, recognizing immediately what I was describing. They said that they call it “Hoofdvlak”, or “Oofvlakke” in the local dialect.
Willem said that Oofvlakke was generally made only once a year, in the late Fall, when the pigs were slaughtered. He said that it was made from the pigs’ heads, which were boiled to get all the meat off of them, before grinding up the meat. He didn’t recall anyone adding flour to the meat, but he thought it was quite possible that some people made it that way.
Everything else about how Oofvlakke was made seemed to match “teat” exactly. He confirmed that the result was a disgusting color of grey and that you poured it into pie tins until it solidified. The only difference seemed to be that we fry it before we eat it, while Willem said that they just slice it, putting the slices on bread and eating it that way. Miriam told me that she thought Oofvlakke was disgusting, but that her father loved it.
I smiled and admitted that there was a group of us in Minnesota who also loved it. I explained that we get together a couple of times a year to make it and that many of the cousins really looked forward to the chance to have some.
The Language and the Name
We also talked a little bit about the language spoken in Eede. Miriam told me that they spoke a special dialect that was quite different from “High Dutch” and that it was actually a little bit closer to German than to Dutch. From what I’ve heard, there are quite a few dialects throughout Holland and they aren’t necessarily always that close to High Dutch.
While we were talking about the language, Miriam mentioned that she’d once looked up the origins of the name “Verstraete”. She said that the literal meaning is “from the stone street”, since “straete” is a variation on “straat”, which means street. “Straete” referred to a type of street that was paved with stone, which signified that it was in a part of town where the rich people lived. The bottom line seems to be that “Verstraete” refers to someone that came from the rich part of town, where the streets were paved.
We all talked for about an hour before it was time for Miriam to head home and for me to hit the road again. We exchanged phone numbers and Miriam said that she’d send me a copy of some of the family tree information that she had. I thanked them again for coming to the restaurant to meet me and told them that several other cousins who were descended from Nathalie Verstraete might be traveling to Eede in the next month or two. Miriam said that she and her father would love to meet them and that maybe they could arrange to meet for lunch.
I really enjoyed my quick visit to Eede, and meeting Miriam and Willem. Eede is a beautiful little town and has a special sort of charm, apart from it being the home town of one of my ancestors. It was also fun to meet a couple potential cousins, though in the end it didn’t seem to matter that much whether there was a direct connection between us or not.