Spaarndam: adopted home of Dutch legend, Hans Brinker

The story of Hans Brinker, the silver skates, and plugging a hole in a dike by a Dutch boy’s finger saving the town from a flood is not real. It’s folklore. But the historic village of Spaarndam has capitalised on the story’s fame popularized in the book ‘Hans Brinker; or, Silver Skates.’

This children’s classic was written by American writer Mary Mapes Dodge, who didn’t visit the Netherlands until after her book was published in 1865.

Born in New York (formerly New Amsterdam) in 1831, Mary was fascinated by Dutch history and culture. She obtained firsthand knowledge about Dutch life from her neighbours who were emigrated from the Netherlands.

The story of Hans Brinker

The novel revolves around a poor Dutch boy named Hans, age 15, who wants to enter a speed skating contest with his sister. They only have homemade wooden ice skates. So, to increase their chances of winning, Hans earns money to buy themselves steel skates. However, his father is injured and ill from a fall while working on a sea lock and needs medical attention. Hans offers the money set aside for his skates to the doctor treating his father. The doctor is so moved by this gesture that he treats Hans’ father free of charge. Hans is unable to enter the race, offers the skates to his sister, who triumphs and wins a pair of silver skates.  

In the meantime, in the chapter “The Hero of Haarlem,” a village was about to be flooded, resulting from a hole in a dike. A boy then uses his finger to plug the hole. In Mapes Doge’s novel, the hero is unnamed but often assumed to be Hans. The dike stayed plugged until early morning when villagers saw the youth shivering from the cold. They unplugged the boy’s finger and repaired the dike. The famous finger and Hans were connected in a translated version of the book years later.

The real history of Spaarndam

Spaarndam is a small village in North Holland at the mouth of the Spaarne and IJ rivers near the North Sea. It was founded on a dike built by Count Floris V of Holland in 1285. Nicknamed “God of the Peasants” by the elitists of the day, Floris erected the dike to protect the peasant class from the sea’s onslaughts. It was also used to protect farmland around the city of Haarlem. The villagers made their living from fishing and from collecting tolls from merchants crossing the Spaarndammerdijk.

No more holes in these dikes. Image: ©Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

The Spaarndammerdijk, later just called the “IJdijk,” was a terrific barrier for protecting the village, but it prevented ships from reaching its wealthy neighbour, Haarlem. The merchants weren’t having any of that. Eventually, during the Middle Ages, two locks were constructed to allow ships from the North Sea and from inland to sail to Haarlem. Haarlem’s city fathers and business leaders locked in some financial support for the project.

READ MORE | Why I love Haarlem: a local’s guide to the Spaarnestad

The locks created a small lake (kolksluis) and with shipping came sailmakers, mast makers, grocery stores, and cafes. Eel fishing also played an important role in commerce, earning Spaarndam the slithery title of “Eel village.” In 1927 the oldest and most historic part of the village was incorporated into the municipality of Haarlem. Now the ‘Hero of Haarlem’ story in the book made more sense for Spaarndam’s embracing of Hans Brinker.

Silver skates takes over the USA

After WWII, the book about Hans, the silver skates and his finger gained popularity in the United States. The story about sticking his finger in the dike to save a village from a flood became legendary. As American tourists started visiting the Netherlands after the war, they kept asking where they could see the dike and Hans Brinker’s village. Never letting an opportunity to attract tourists go to waste, the Dutch Bureau for Tourism decided to place a statue of Hans Brinker in Spaarndam in 1950. The statue was sculpted by the Dutch sculptor Grada Rueb of Breda.

The hero in action. Image: ©Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Spaarndam became one of the first protected townscapes in the Netherlands. Take a day and visit the village that adopted Hans Brinker as their own. It doesn’t take long to walk around the small lake or kolksluis squeezed between two locks.

Stop at Café Spaarndam, which dates to 1571, and sit on the terrace with a view of the kolksluis. On a small square under the IJdijk is the reformed Oude Kerk, rebuilt in 1627 after a violent storm. The church is one of the first in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands built especially for Protestant services.  

READ MORE | 12 World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands: the best monuments of Holland

Oh, and along the way stop at Hans Brinker’s statue and take a photo to share with family and friends. The town’s tourist bureau will appreciate that. 😉

Had you visited Spaarndam? If not has this tale inspired you to go? Let us know in the comments!

Feature Image: ©Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer is a public relations consultant. Born in Amsterdam, he’s lived in California for most of his life. Currently living in the Netherlands with his wife, he looks forward to writing, photography, traveling throughout Europe and exploring more of the Netherlands and his Dutch family heritage going back to the 16th century in Noord Holland. He’s always been fascinated with how such a small country as the Netherlands has had such a large impact on the rest of the world.

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