“In which book does a girl stare into a wooden shoe to help her think?”
I huddled with my two teammates and in a few seconds had our answer on the paper. Title. Author. Pencil down!
While some kids were winning sport competitions or spelling bees, it probably won’t surprise you to know that my elementary school competition of choice was…reading. I know, you’re shocked. To be exact, I was a champion at Battle of the Books. Some of you might know what this is, you’re here reading a book blog after all, but for those that had friends outside their bookshelf, let me catch you up. Battle of the Books is a competition in which children grades 3-12 read through a list of 15 books (12 for the older children reading longer books) selected for each grade level. The details of each book then must be committed to memory. Each competition question starts with, “In which book does…” and teams of 3 answer with a book title and author. Eight points for the correct title, three for the correct author.
In 2001 The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong was one of the Battle Books. The story takes places in Holland in a fictional shore-side town in an area north of Amsterdam. The main character, Lina, who often stares into her wooden shoe to help herself think, is a thoughtful school-aged child who convinces her teacher and classmates that storks might just return to town if they could get a wagon wheel atop the schoolhouse, in similar fashion to the neighboring towns. The teacher agrees to allow the children one day to search for a wheel. The children split up and through their searches, each learn lessons and meet the various elderly neighbors in town who tell them about the old days. In the end it takes a town to raise a wheel. Literally. Coming from a small town myself, I recognized characters in this book as archetypes of people in my own town. And I perhaps recognized myself in Lina, as the overly attentive school child very concerned with turning homework in on time.
“The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong,” I answered for my team. 10 points!
15 years later…
“Do you want to go to Holland with me?” I stared at the text my mother had just sent me out of the blue.
I texted back, “Like the country?” And then a few minutes later… “Do they have wooden shoes and windmills there? And storks on their roofs?” I probed my memory for anything I knew about Holland, but the only thing that came to mind were the fuzzy memories of a book I’d read so long ago. The details were long gone, but there was something about wooden shoes…and storks?
Two hours later another text from my mom, “Yes. I don’t know.”
I texted back. “I better go with you and find out.”
I reread The Wheel on the School, hoping it would shed some light on the culture of Holland. What I realized is that the small town of fishermen and their families, although fictional, was a great representation of rural Holland in the early 1900s… not exactly the experience I would find today in Amsterdam. So I turned to Google. Where was I going to find a countryside town where I could experience “old” Holland. Was there anywhere I could still find wooden shoes, windmills, and the practice of hand-crafting traditional Dutch products? The answer: Zaanse Schans.
Zaanse Schans is a historic village 40 minutes by bus outside of Amsterdam. The Zaanse was once the leading industrial area of Holland. 600 windmills lined the river, producing all sorts of products. The river provided the transportation for the goods. These windmills stayed in production until steam engines began to replace them around 1850. Slowly the windmills came down in favor of factories. Today four windmills are left, and only one is still in operation. The rest of the river provides an unromantic view of factory smokestacks, as the Zaanse is still an industrial area- just a bit more up to date. Interestingly, painters like Monet found the view of the windmill-lined river so romantic, that they painted the scenery, leaving the new factories out of their paintings! Which is why today when we think of Holland our idea is of a bucolic countryside with windmills.
The day I visited Zaanse Schans was cold and rainy, the windows of the bus were completely steamed up, but from what I could tell, we never seemed to enter the countryside, just city suburbs. So by the time I got off the bus, I wasn’t quite sure this was the kind of place I’d been looking for. But there in front of me was the Zaans Museum, so I was in the right place.
Zaans Museum & Verkade Paviljoen
I highly suggest starting your experience with the Zaanse Museum for a few reasons. First, there you can purchase the Zaanse Schans Card that will give you free entrance into several of the historic village museums and a windmill of your choice, as well as discounts at the other village museums and shops. (You then need to remember to use it! I forgot to pull it out at a few of the shops.)
Second, the museum will give you a good introduction into the industrial history of the region so you can better understand the context of the historic village. The Zaanse region is famous for industry of almost every product imaginable! Chocolate, soap, sail cloths, cheese, paint, lumber… from edible to inedible, these products shipped worldwide. Also, take the offered audio tour, it is very informative.
Finally, the museum is attached to the Verkade Paviljoen – a biscuits and chocolate factory museum. The Verkade factory hired many women to work at the factory, and I found the history of the female industrial workers fascinating. At the end of the factory exhibit a woman in a white lab coat handed me a chocolate covered cookie. Perfect sustenance to now head outside into the village.
Now with context, you’re set to see the village. With hood up I crossed the canal bridge and stepped into the 1850’s.
Wooden Shoe Workshop (Remember Lina and her wooden shoes?)
With head down to shield myself from the rain, I was taking quick glances from side to side. A large yellow shape caught my eye. Looking again, I realized it was a HUGE wooden shoe, large enough I could sit in it. Sadly, with no companion or tripod, all I have for proof is this selfie. I had obviously found the Wooden Shoe Workshop.
Eager to learn more about the shoes that were historically worn with thick wool socks and used for outdoor work, in the same way I might use my Xtratuf boots today, I stopped here first. Unfortunately there was no demonstration of shoe-making taking place as I had hoped, but I was able to see a short film about the lumber used for the shoes and a display of old traditional shoes.
Then I saw the wall of bright, shiny shoes for tourists and forgot all about learning anything. They were so very pretty. Hardly the worn bare shoe I imagined Lina found conducive for thinking. If I had a pair of these shoes I’d hold it in front of my face just to stare at the pretty painting on the front. I took a pair down and gingerly tried them on. Sadly, I didn’t think they would make a great replacement for my Xtratufs, so sighing I put them back, bought a magnet replica of the pretty pink shoes, and stepped back outside.
Break for Hot Cocoa
As I followed the path by the Shoe Workshop, the windmills came into view. My first view of Dutch windmills! So far I had only seen them represented in Delft Blue Pottery depictions. They were out past the last of the historic village buildings. Wanting to make the best use of my time, I decided to start with the windmills and work my way back so I didn’t run out of time at the end to tour a windmill. So I was on my way…when a sign advertising hot chocolate caught my eye. I was chilly and wet with rain so a hot chocolate sounded like the perfect treat. I stepped into the tiny Cocaolab without hesitation. Cocoa production was one of the industries mentioned at the museum so I thought it only seemed sensible to taste the local product…and buy a few bars to take home. The cup of hot cocoa was small, but it was just enough to get me between there and the windmill.
A Real Windmill!
The paint mill is the last remaining paint windmill in the world and happened to be the only one open on this day. Inside there wasn’t much besides a few display cases on the walls related to paint color substances and steep wooden ladder-stairs to the upper levels.
We were free to climb up at our own peril, so of course up the steep stairs I went! One level up I found myself next to the largest pair of gears I’ve ever seen. One more level up and I stepped out onto a balcony just as a spinning blade swung by in front of me. I was just under the spinning blades! At this point my fear of heights and creaky old buildings- and the fact that the old wood was slippery from the rain- got the better of me and I headed down.
Working my way back towards the village the next building in my path was the cheese shop. Holland is famous for its cheese. I was hoping I would be able to catch a demonstration here, but again I was thwarted. So I just walked around the shop.
There were cheese flavors I never would have imagined! Rum? Sparkling Wine? These are cheese flavors?
The Weaver’s House
I had hoped to visit the Timepiece Museum but it looked pretty closed, so I stopped in next door to buy some locally made soap and then continued to the next open door I could find. A small cabin with a woman in historic garb inside the doorway looked inviting. Ducking in out of the rain, I found myself in the weaver’s house. (This time I remembered to use my card to get in for free!) The crowds on this wet, clearly off-season, day were minimal so the woman was able to give me a personal demonstration of weaving on the loom in the back room and told me about the history of the building. It had been in use up until 10 years prior, and then had been relocated here to the village and restored to it’s 1850’s self. The weaver family that had lived and worked in this house in the 1850s had woven sail cloths. The Weavers of the Zaanse region were known for making the best sail clothes in the world. It is known that the Zaanse sails were used all over the world due to a shipwreck found off the coast of Australia. Each weaver’s work was slightly different, so it was easy to identify where a ship’s sail had been produced. The sail from the shipwreck had come from the Zaanse region. I bet Lina’s father and the other fishermen of her village would have had these sails on their fishing vessels.
Another thing I learned here at the weavers house, was that in 1850’s the Dutch believed that lying down at night could cause death, so sitting up was the proper way to sleep. Therefore, the beds were built like small closets into the walls and only wide enough for a human to sit in with their back against the wall. During the day, the door to the closet could be shut, hiding the bed from view. I assume this would have been the way the houses were built during the time period of Wheel on the School. Poor Lina, how uncomfortable!
November was perhaps not the right season to visit. Many of the buildings were closed and the demonstrations were few and far between, so I missed some of the museums I had been looking forward to, such as the timepiece museum and the barrel maker. I managed, however, to spend all afternoon there anyway. At the end of the day, I boarded the bus back to reality and the present day. It had been a pleasant, if cold afternoon, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a different season.
P.S. I tried staring into a wooden shoe…it didn’t help. Perhaps for me, an Xtratuf might work better.
Know Before You Go
Take the #391 bus at platform E from Amsterdam Central Station. You’ll find the bus ticket office one floor down from the bus platforms.
Zaanse Schans Website
The website also suggests downloading an app with walking tours of the historic village. I downloaded the app but never had time to test it out.