Historically Speaking: Original Breuckelen

By John B. Manbeck
A Brooklyn Historian
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle

Deep in the pages of the original Brooklyn Daily Eagle dated September 7, 1884, an article was printed from a “special correspondent” traveling through Holland. The dateline and the topic was the Dutch town of Breuckelen, our namesake. Here are some choice observations.

Breuckelen, our correspondent noted, is a quaint old Dutch town that lies between the towns of Utrecht and Haarlem, both familiar names to New Yorkers. The town did not impress him — “one would not care to tarry long here” — but he observed the dykes [sic], the old European costumes (wooden shoes, headdresses for women with a distinction among married women, widows and young girls) and the ever present windmills. Narrow, slanting houses also drew his attention. He reported that he had “seen many persons who were exact representations of the early settlers of New Amsterdam.”

The windmills, with their huge sails over 60 feet long, were still used to grind corn, saw logs, furnish power and pump water from the farms into canals. The Dutch settlers who emigrated to our Brooklyn two centuries earlier made the same use of windmills here.

Again he made a comparison between the canals of Holland and those of Brooklyn. “Even little Breuckelen has its waterways which put to shame Gowanus and the Wallabout.” Whereas those of the Netherlands were created to protect the land from inundation of the sea and flood control, here they were used for transit and as an industrial dumping ground.

The Eagle reporter seemed surprised about the cleanliness of the Hollanders —“the everlasting scrubbing, washing and polishing” — and the fact that the natives spoke better English than he spoke Dutch, but he was not astounded about the quality of the artwork and many museums. He left Breuckelen and traveled around Holland from the borders of Belgium and Germany to France on the opposite side.

In his travels he felt he had been short-changed by merchants but owned that because he could not count the florins in the Dutch currency, he occasionally gave a clerk more than was requested. After worrying about this topic for a while, he surrendered to common sense and let the clerks choose from his handful of coins. “It is extremely mortifying after you have worked a half hour trying to make a Dutchman understand what you want for dinner to have him address you in English.”

He traveled to Rotterdam, Antwerp, Utrecht and Delft, which he noted was where William of Orange, the Taciturn, was assassinated, and to Amsterdam, the country’s metropolis and commercial center. There he counted 300 bridges but didn’t comment whether he crossed them all. The town of Utrecht became the namesake for one of Brooklyn’s original towns, New Utrecht, which we know today as Bensonhurst, named after another Dutch-American burgher, “hurst”meaning “farm” in Dutch.

One of his last stops was at The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government, the residence of its royalty and home of its legislature. As with the currency, he surrendered to ignorance admitting that the laws there were “all Dutch to me” even though they might be the basis for our laws.

On the positive side though, he found that the cigars of Holland are significantly better than those found in our Brooklyn.

The original Brooklyn Eagle was published for 114 years at two major locations near the waterfront in Brooklyn, at one point rising in fame to be the most popular afternoon newspaper in the country. As a major New York City publication, it prided itself on its travel department with staff members and offices in major cities in America and throughout the world.

Today’s Brooklyn Eagle publication, with its staff of 25, must restrict its coverage to events in America’s Brooklyn.

(This column was originally published in the Brooklyn Eagle on Nov. 4, 2010).
© 2010 John B. Manbeck

February 8, 2012 - 1:04pm


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