A History of the Gatze Jan (George) Rienstra Family
By W. T. Block
The founding of the City of Nederland, Texas, begins with the arrival of the city’s first settler, Gatze Jan (George) Rienstra, who was born in Parrega, near Bolsward, in the province of Friesland, Holland, on August 26, 1867. And almost simultaneous with his own arrival was that of his sister, Feikje (Fannie) Rienstra, who was to become the first woman in the infant Dutch colony. Later, she married (1) Herman Houseman, and (2) Ed Van Der Vegt of Groves. Ultimately, two other members of the Rienstra family progeny would arrive in Nederland, a younger brother, Dan J. Rienstra, who married Johanna Ballast, and another sister, Neltje (Nelly) Rienstra, who married Klaas Koelemay. The parents of these four Rienstra children, as well as of others, who remained in Holland, were Jan Rients Rienstra and his wife, Anna Gatzes Rusticus.
George Rienstra first arrived in New York City in 1895, traveling thence to Iowa, where he learned the blacksmithing trade and manufactured some of the tools that be would later use while building his home in Nederland. After one year in Iowa, he came to Alvin, Texas, where he left his wagon, team, blacksmith tools, and personal possessions with a Dutch friend, while he made a trip back to Holland to visit his parents. On his return trip to Texas, Rienstra brought with him his younger sister, Fannie, who planned to cook and keep house for her brother.
Actually, one of George Rienstra’s surviving letters in Dutch not only dates closely his first visit to Nederland, but also was to be used extensively in Holland by Albert Kuipers, a Kansas City Southern Railroad colonizing agent, whose assignment was to recruit Dutch emigrants willing to resettle in Nederland. Kuipers published a Dutch booklet or brochure, titled in English, “Where to? Directions for the Dutch Farmer, Truck Grower, Florist and Nurseryman …,” in which Rienstra’s letter was one of three from Dutchmen who either had lived in or had visited in South Jefferson County. The letter read as follows:
It appears that, considering the speed with which Rienstra had arrived from Alvin, he must have ridden aboard the Gulf and Interstate Railroad from Galveston to Beaumont and the K. G. S. train to Port Arthur, thence back to Alvin via those routes. Within a few weeks, however, he, along with his wagon and team, would be back on the bald prairie that was soon to become Nederland, in search of the most promising site for a home. According to family traditions, Rienstra drove his wagon along the railroad tracks until he picked out where he would build his house (in the 1100 block of present-day Avenue H), where he unloaded his wood stove and other items. He then drove on to Port Arthur, where he bought a load of lumber to begin his home, and he returned along the railroad tracks in search of his stove. When he failed to find it in the darkness, he spent the night camped out on top of his load of lumber. Once during the night, he had to shoot at howling wolves that wandered too near to the vicinity of his horses. The following morning he discovered that he had camped only a half-mile from where he had left the stove.
On July 17, 1897, the Port Arthur Land Company executed its warranty deed to George J. Rienstra for eighty acres of land (Lots 1, 2, 3, and 4 of Block 15) in “Range G” for $800, or $10 an acre. In order to make sense out of this deed, one needs to knows that the “lots” in the 75-square mile Port Arthur Land Company surveys were actually twenty acres in size, not the size of city lots, and that Rienstra’s four “lots” totaled 80 acres. All of the old part of Nederland lies within “Range G,” which is a huge strip of land, one half mile wide and several miles long, lying immediately west of and adjacent to the railroad tracks, or roughly everything between Twin City Highway and 21st Street in Nederland.
It is also of interest to note that the subscribers to Rienstra’s deed were among the top officials of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, several of whom were from Holland. Arthur Stilwell was president of the railroad; John McDade Trimble was the railroad’s general counsel in Kansas City; and Jacques Tutein-Nolthenius, a Dutchman, was the general land and right-of-way agent, who had purchased the 75-square mile tract for the railroad.
Within a few weeks, George Rienstra completed his home at the intersection of Nederland’s present-day South Twelfth Street and Avenue H, a site currently occupied by his nephew, Albert Rienstra. In January, 1898, the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company began building a series of rice irrigation canals throughout Mid-Jefferson County, one of which was adjacent to Rienstra’s property, crossing Nederland’s present-day South Twelfth Street and other numbered south streets at the 400 block. Until World War II days, South 12th through South 17th Streets ‘dead ended’ at the 400 block. With the canal’s water so readily accessible, Rienstra, like all of the early Hollanders, engaged in rice-farming after 1898, and for the next eight years, until the rice market collapsed in 1906, he found it a highly profitable endeavor. With the prospect of a $10,000 profit from a 100-acre rice field, early rice growers could sometimes pay for all their land, machinery, mules, and other production costs in a single year and still retain a tidy sum to live on. In 1900, a rice field laborer’s wage equaled one dollar ($1.00) a day.
In 1900, George Rienstra married Tryntje (Kate) Koelemay, the daughter of Maarten Koelemay, Sr. and Antje DeJong Koelemay, who had migrated from Holland to Nederland earlier. The Koelemay family, consisting of five sons and three daughters at or near adulthood had arrived in Galveston on March 1, 1898, having sailed earlier from Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the Diedericksen line steamer “Lauenberg.” The Koelemays had been dairymen, and cheese makers in the village of Hoogkarspel, near Enkhuizen on the Zuiderzee. After A.J. Ellings and family left Nederland about 1899, the Koelemays took over the Orange Hotel and for a few years remained the host family there. Later, they built the two-story Koelemay home on Koelemay Road, which in 1948 became the 2100 block of Helena Street.
George Rienstra would certainly have met Kate Koelemay at the Orange Hotel, where all the Dutch rice field laborers met at night to eat, dance or enjoy conversation. At the Queen Wilhelmina coronation festivities in Nederland on September 6, 1893, Piet Koelemay was a member of the coronation planning committee, and John Koelemay had won first prize for some of the sporting events. “Another very interesting feature of the evening was the vocal selections rendered by Piet Koelemay, Misses Tryntje (Kate) Koelemay, Dieuwertje (Dora) Koelemay, Klara Koelemay, and John Koelemay.” (Port Arthur Herald, September 8, 1898) Dora Koelemay (Block) was an accomplished zither or autoharp player, whose enchanting musical notes guided the toes of the polka dancers.
The Rienstra family left Nederland for brief periods on two occasions. According to their daughter, Mrs. Marie Wilson, they moved to Dexter, New Mexico, about 1906 or 1907, and lived there for about one year. Around 1970, the base of the old adobe house that they had once lived in was still visible. The family returned from New Mexico to Texas by wagon, and it took George Rienstra seventeen days to cover the distance between Sweetwater and Nederland. In 1917 they moved to Rosedale, Texas, the area in Beaumont slightly south of Pine Island Bayou, which is where Marie Rienstra (Wilson) started to school. They moved back to their old home about the beginning of 1919.
The original Rienstra home was built on Twelfth Street. The new home was built in back of it, facing Avenue H, and the old house was then moved to 824 South Thirteenth, where it stood until it was finally torn down. Lumber from the original home was used in building the houses, which currently are standing at 808, 816, and 824 South Thirteenth.
After the Port Arthur rice canal company went bankrupt about 1915, and the Nederland’s rice era ended, George Rienstra turned to truck growing for his livelihood. After 1915, he also began investing in real estate, both in rent property and undeveloped acreage. Around 1920, he developed the George Rienstra Addition to Nederland in the 700-800 blocks of Detroit Street. He remained actively engaged in real estate operations of various kinds until his death. Mrs. Marie Wilson of Livingston, Texas, recalled that when she was a child around World War I days, she and her mother, Kate Rienstra, used to drive a buggy, loaded with eggs, butter, and produce, to market in Port Arthur on Saturdays, and the trip would consume the entire day from dawn until dusk.
George and Kate Rienstra were the parents of four children, including two sons, the first of whom was Jan G. Rienstra, followed by Martin “Sandy” Rienstra, and a daughter Marie Rienstra (Wilson). A second daughter, Anna Antje Rienstra, died at the age of nine months. Jan married Ruth Pruitt, and they became the parents of two children, Jan Rienstra, Jr., who still lives in his parent’s former home at 808 South Thirteenth Street, and Marilyn Rienstra Hebert of San Diego, California. As the writer can best discern, Jan, Jr. and his family are the only descendents of George and Kate Rienstra still living in Nederland. His father, Jan Rienstra, Sr. began work at first for the old East Texas Electric Company; then in Barranquilla, Colombia, South America; later at a brewery in Chicago, and ended his working career with Gulf Refining Company. He died in 1952, followed by his wife Ruth in 1955.
Martin Sandy Rienstra married (1) Minnie Opal Hughes, who died in 1965, and (2) Othelda—who had been a fellow employee of Sandy’s at the court house. There was no issue from either marriage. Sandy worked in Beaumont before World War II, was city manager of Nederland for about fifteen years, and later, was right-of-way land agent in the Jefferson County engineer’s office until be retired. He died in 1973.
Marie Rienstra married Loyce “Doc” Wilson, a longtime radio-TV shop owner of Beaumont. Both are now (1991) retired and reside at Route 4, Box 1278 in Livingston, Texas. They are the parents of four children, daughter Judy (Mrs. Bob) Meeker, and sons Jim, Joe, and Dale Wilson, as well as several grand children.
George and Kate Rienstra was a couple of impeccable character and sterling integrity, loved by their friends and family, and thoroughly respected by their peers in Nederland. The writer was privileged to have known them over a long span of years in his youthful days. Kate Rienstra was a sister-in-law to the writer’s father, Will Block of Port Neches, and the Rienstras were frequent guests in the Block home in Port Neches. The writer often visited in the Rienstra home in Nederland. He likewise remembers George Rienstra as a quiet, reserved person, not given to idle chatter, who enjoyed smoking his curved pipe. In 1948-1949, when the writer lived in Kate Rienstra’s rent house at 816 South Thirteenth, he enjoyed long conversations with Mrs. Rienstra, which often were reminiscences of her early years in Nederland.
George and Kate Rienstra lived nearly all of their married life of some forty years in their two homes built at the intersection of Twelfth and Avenue H. George Rienstra died at age 71 in 1939. Kate survived her husband about fourteen years, dying at age 76 in 1953. It is only fitting that the site of that first dwelling in Nederland should remain in family hands, for Albert Rienstra, a nephew, built his brick home there at 823 South Twelfth Street many years ago. And only a block away, still living on land that George Rienstra acquired almost a century ago, is the Jan Rienstra, Jr. family, whom the writer believes to be the only George and Kate Rienstra descendents still living in Nederland.
George Rienstra Necrology