Ralph S. Ondersma
(Romke Sybrens Ondersma)*

Grand Rapids, Michigan
May 17, 1967

Off and on I will try to write something of things I remember of my youth and later, if my life is spared, I will give a little history of my life in Europe and America.

My grandparents from both sides were from old Frisian stock. As far as I know our parents and other relatives left no record of what they knew of their forebears, so I have to go by what I heard them talk about. My grandfather Romke Rienks Ondersma** was born in Hallum in about 1820 or thereabouts. When he was 16 years old he made a package of a couple of shirts and walked to Harlingen, which is on the North Sea, and began life as a sailor. He did not want to work in the fields on the farms, so I was told. There he married, and our grandmother’s name, so my father told me, was Antje Vander Woude***.
She came from Oudkerk, Friesland. So my father, my uncles, and one aunt were all born in Harlingen.

My grandparents died in Harlingen when my father and his brothers and sister were young children****. They were then sent back to Hallum in the county of Ferwerderadeel for that county to take care of them, and some of them landed in the poor house. It was the custom to send orphans back to the counties in which their father was born.

So it came about that my father, who was born in 1845, and my uncles, were all born in the Frisian harbor city of Harlingen, and that is why they did not speak Frisian too well, and it shows too how poor the social system was in the way they took care of their poor, when they sent children to a poor house to live amongst old people and the feeble minded.

My father first had a substitute “father” at the orphanage by the name of Pete Bloomsma whom he liked, but later, not too long before he left the orphanage, Peter Bloomsma died, and the new “father” he then acquired was hard, and cheated him of some of his earnings. My father then went to work at age 16 as canal-boat hand, a “skipper’s knecht”.

Now on my mother’s side my grandfather’s name was Folkert Feikes Ackerhof, who was born in about 1830. His father was Feike Folkert Ackerhof, who was born in Hallum in about 1805. Our mother was born in Hallum in 1855. My grandfather on my mother’s side lived outside of our village. He did a little farming in later life, but worked for another farmer when mother was at home. And they were very poor.

One of my cousins from mother’s side claimed that my mother’s people on her father’s side had come originally from Denmark, but whether that is true or not I don’t know.

Now I will write a few things that I remember from my own life, and perhaps later put down something about our family. My mother as I can figure it, if I am correct, was 30 years old when I was born, and my father was 39 years old. The farthest I can remember was when I must have been maybe 2 or 3 years old. We took a walk to an uncle and aunt, and they had to help me up the steps. Also I remember that at age 4, I was going to what in the Netherlands they call a Kleuter school, and when I had my fifth birthday my sister made me a broom with brush (reeds) which she picked from the side of the water. When I was I think 5 years old my mother took me to what we called the big school where I learned reading and writing and numbers.

When I was I think 8 years old I had to go and make a little money twice a week. I had to go with a man who sold wholesale groceries to stores in the neighboring villages. I had to watch the horse while he was taking care of customers, because the law said there had to be somebody by the horse. The reason I remember my age at that time is that I remember a man stopped and said to me, “how old are you, jongen?” and I told him I was 9 years old. The reason he asked was, I think, he thought I was some caretaker, not too big to begin with. But I brought home ten cents at night which in those days meant a loaf of bread.

At 11 years I was through school, and mother did not like the idea of me working in the fields, so I was taken to a cake baker to learn that trade, but that lasted only a couple of weeks because I could not reach the bench where I was supposed to mix dough.

I was then taken to a blacksmith to learn that trade, but I could not turn the big grindstone, so blacksmithing was out too, and so I landed in the only place there was left, in the fields, to hoe and milk cows and work with horses. Some of that was not too bad, because I did like to work with horses, so I stayed for some 5 or 6 years by the same farmer, first by the father and later by the son. In 1960 Ralph D. and I visited on this same farm. A son of the man I worked for now lives on this farm.

I forgot to mention that before I settled down to farm work mother made one more effort to keep me away from poorly-paid farm work. She asked me if I would stay in school if the headmaster would take me as a student to study to be a teacher, and I said I certainly would. So we went to the man and asked him if he thought I could learn well enough to stay in school. He said that would be all right and mother was all excited, but before he let her out the door he asked her whether she knew it would cost money, which she did not have, and, disappointed, she walked home.

I have mentioned that I got to working on the farm when I was 12 years old. That meant in the winter with the long nights I would go out on the dark dirt road, and go walking through the sleeping village at 5:30 a.m. and return again at 6 in the evening, 6 days a week, and sometimes on Sunday too. And people always talked about spooks, and unless there was moonlight I was scared stiff walking the dark road alone. Now father and mother both were always afraid I might roll in the water and drown, so father gave me a stick so I could feel my way by the water, but at the first morning I took it I imagined I saw something by the side of the road, and I was going to hit whatever it was but my weapon flew all to pieces against the side of the ditch.

* Romke Sybrens Ondersma, born in Hallum on August 23, 1886 as a son of Sybren Romkes Ondersma and Antje Folkerts Akkerhof.
** Romke Rienks Ondersma, born on January 26, 1813 in Hallum, died in Harlingen on December 21, 1872 at the age of 59 years. Son of Rienk Romkes
Ondersma and Antje Halbes van der Woude.
*** In order to avoid misunderstanding: this is not correct. Antje Halbes van der Woude was his father's grandmother. Romke Rienks Ondersma married Jetske Sybrens van der Ploeg, viz. on May 20, 1841 in Harlingen.
**** Jetske Sybrens van der Ploeg passed away in Harlingen on January 21, 1859 at the age of 44 years. Perhaps her husband was at sea at the time and could not be contacted as a consequence of which the children were sent to Hallum (Ferwerderadeel) as "orphans" ?

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