Evelyn DeBruyn Van Dorp was a pioneer.
She was the daughter of David DeBruyn, born in 1878. David was the son of Robertus DeBruyn, Zeeland’s first schoolteacher. Robertus later served as Zeeland’s “constable.”
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In 1883, after Jacob Den Herder’s bank was robbed, David shared guard duty with his father, sleeping in the bank.
In 1884, Den Herder and his son-in-law, Albert LaHuis, co-founded LaHuis Grocery and Dry Goods. In 1893, LaHuis hired David. In 1904, LaHuis gave him a third of the business — later increased to 49 percent. Around that time, David married Henrietta “Trixie” Bosch. Together, they had three children: Robert, Donald and Evie, born in 1916.
In 1928, tragedy struck. Trixie died in August, at age 48, from a lingering illness. Then, in September, the bodies of Albert and Christina Den Herder LaHuis and their real estate agent were found at the bottom of a canyon on the California coast.
In the aftermath, David purchased the remainder of the LaHuis store. In 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression followed. Both DeBruyn and his supplier, Marshall Field, flirted with bankruptcy.
In response, David expanded his business. In addition to selling farmers’ produce, he began to sell seed to the farmers. He also expanded his produce brokering business. This meant he traveled, especially during planting time and harvest. He took his sons with him.
To store produce and seed, he used a warehouse directly behind the store. Not yet willing to give up his other lines of business, he put Evie, who had recently completed a course in retailing at Grand Rapids Junior College, in charge — but only temporarily.
In 1937, David sold the grocery business to George Van Eenenaam and the flooring business to Jason Wagoner. In 1938, David sold the dry goods and clothing business to Cory Poest. That freed up Evie to travel.
First, she took a job in a dress shop in LaPorte, Indiana; then she returned to the DeBruyn Company; then left for New York City, where she worked for Chase National Bank. Meanwhile her brothers, Robert and Donald, graduates of Hope College, continued to work with their father.
In 1943, during World War II, David dismantled the four-story Zeeland Milling Company at Elm Street and Washington Avenue — once owned by Jacob Den Herder and partners — and replaced it with a modern refrigeration and cold storage operation, which helped them supply produce to army camps throughout the United States.
German prisoners of war, held in Allegan, were shuttled to Zeeland to work in the warehouse under armed guard.
When the war ended, Evie married Dick Van Dorp of Zeeland. She and Dick raised four children — Ann, Gwen, Richard and Mary. While at home, Evie obtained a securities license and sold investments.
In 1971, during the busy spring shipping season, immediately after he was promoted to Secretary-Treasurer of Michigan West Shore Nursery, Dick died of a heart attack. After his death, Evie was offered his position, which she accepted — but only temporarily.
Prior to his death, Dick and 49 other business people had invested in an upscale women’s clothing store called The Duchess Shop. The store was located at 144 E. Main Ave. — a two-story building previously home to the Boonstra family's store. The investors wanted Evie to manage the shop.
She took the job. But after a year, she asked herself: “Why am I working 80 hours a week for someone else?” So, she offered the stockholders 75 cents on the dollar for their shares and they obliged.
When she began selling women’s career clothes, the business took off — so much so that she opened a second store in Holland at the Warm Friend Hotel. Later, she moved the Holland store to Zeeland, across the street from The Duchess Shop, calling it “Career Plus.” Her daughter, Ann, and her son-in-law, John Query, worked with her.
In the 1980s, on a trip to Germany, she ran into a man with a familiar face. The man recognized her, too. They didn’t know how they knew each other, but eventually they discovered they had met when he was a prisoner of war.
In 1989, at the age of 72, Evie sold her business. She managed the Zeeland Hospital Gift Shop for three years, and passed away in 2011.
— Community Columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of Holland. Contact him through start-upacademeinc.com.
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Steve VanderVeen: The story of Evelyn DeBruyn