Paulus denBleyker, his family and employees were among the first Dutch pioneers to settle in Kalamazoo. In 1846 Rev. Albertus VanRaalte had preceded him to western Michigan, and in his letters he spoke of the opportunities and future that existed here. DenBleyker had made a fortune draining land on the Dutch island of Texel and growing potatoes to sell to the Irish during the great potato famine. But the Dutch were experiencing a period of religious oppression that denBleyker feared would affect his business activities, and so, in the company of twenty-eight others, whose passage he paid, he left the Netherlands for America aboard the ship Catherine.
After a 36 day voyage, and a brief stay in New York City, the party arrived in Kalamazoo, probably by train, on 1 October 1850. Within three weeks seven of their number succumbed to cholera, including one of denBleyker's children. The new settlers were confined to a pest house outside of town to confine the epidemic. There denBleyker's wife Neeltje Dogger also lost a stillborn child.
Settlement in Kalamazoo
Despite these early tragedies, denBleyker decided to settle in Kalamazoo rather than joining VanRaalte's settlement in Holland or going on to Iowa, as was his original intent. He quickly purchased two farms, one near Schoolcraft belonging to Hezekiah Wells. The other, owned by former Michigan Governor Epaphroditus Ransom included 180 acres, a large home, outbuildings, crops and farm animals, for which he paid the sum of $12,000 in cash. This property, roughly bounded on the north by Lovell Street, on the south by Crosstown Parkway, on the west by Park and on the east by Portage Road encompasses much of the present Vine neighborhood. DenBleyker platted out this land into 50 foot wide lots. Within a few years he had sold off much of the land and recouped his investment.
DenBleyker's business interests in Kalamazoo did not stop there. He continued to invest his money into farms, railroads, mills and other ventures. He was known as a man of integrity and generosity and was nicknamed "the Dutch governor," at first because he had bought Governor Ransom's land, but he earned it in his own right with his leadership of the Dutch community and his extensive business activities. He was often consulted on legislation involving economics and business.
Paulus denBleyker died at home in Kalamazoo in 1872. He had lived here only 22 years, but his legacy to the city was a large one. He developed much of the south side of downtown Kalamazoo. He left descendants who were influential in the business, cultural and educational affairs of the city for many decades. His son John owned a large farm from which much of the city's east side was developed. Ann, Gertrude, Walter and John Streets were all named for members of the denBleyker family. Texel Drive was named for their Dutch home, Nassau Street derived from the surname of the Dutch royal family, and Sunnyside Drive originated in its location on the sunny side of the home of John and Anna Balch denBleyker. To assist him in developing his farmlands, Paulus denBleyker sent back to the Netherlands for farm laborers experienced in dealing with swampy land. Thus began a stream of Dutch immigrants that eventually lead to the development of the celery farming in the area and later of the bedding plant industry. A century after the arrival of the original denBleyker company, nearly half of the foreign born population of Kalamazoo was Dutch. Through their economic and cultural activities, they have left an indelible stamp on the life of the city.