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Senior Reflections: Dutch immigrant reflects on war, move to America

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Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series highlighting the lives of seniors living in the Wausau area. To nominate a senior for a future spotlight feature, email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com.

By J.K. Olson, Wausau Pilot and Review contributor

Although it’s been over half a century since 83-year-old John Niemeyer left Holland, the old country slips out subtly in every conversation.

“You can go from city to city in Holland, and they each have their own dialect, just about,” the Wausau man said. “Some I could understand, some I couldn’t. Ours was the Drèents dialect. We were from the north, near the German border.

Q: How do you end up coming to America?

A: My aunt and uncle came to Wausau seven years before us. When we heard that he had a house and a car, we thought, how is that possible? My uncle said he would sponsor us. We were on a boat 13 days in 1957 getting here – my parents, brothers Fred, Harvey, and Neil,  and sister, Virginia. We took a train to Wausau, and when we pulled into a little station in Rothschild at the time, we saw Rib Mountain and hoped it was Wausau, it was beautiful. The day after we got here, my dad and I both had jobs. In two or three months, we had a house, and a stove and a refrigerator. For the whole first year, I gave what I earned to my parents.

Faith has always been important to my family. We wouldn’t have come if there hadn’t been a Gathering of Believers church. That is what we called them in Holland, it became the Plymouth Brethren.

What employment have you had over the years?

At 13, I started stacking peat in the fields. The peat would be harvested by these great machines, cut into pieces and get stacked to dry. I got one guilder if I stacked 100. I remember my parents would use about 5,000 of them to heat and cook through the winter.

I also worked for a butcher, I went house to house taking orders. Then for a baker. Two of my uncles had a fish stand and I worked for them cleaning herring — about 150 a day, every day. Do you know what I have to pay to get herring from Grand Rapids now? In Holland, they used to be two for 25 cents, now I get two for $7 to $8! It’s just too much.

When I was 17, my uncle told my dad that me and my brother needed to get training in the ship building industry. He and three of his sons were already working there, so we moved to Ridderkerk and started a new profession. We would get measurements from engineering and scratch a full-scale diagram of a ship on the floor of the shop. I worked for 33 cents an hour. The last year I was there, I took a test and moved up into the engineering department. I worked with a “mate,” they were called. His name was Munter. He taught me everything I knew. He was a great guy.

John Niemeyer painting in a field. Contributed photo

On the ship on the way (to America), I prayed to God, asking him to help me became a designer. And I got my start at Wausau Iron Works, even though I didn’t know English. I helped design and built snowplows. We had an order come in from Colorado, and no one knew how to build it.  Within hours, I had a model built. It was because I had experience with so many layouts in the ship-building industry.

On August 15, 1959, I started at Salvo Chemical, which became Zimpro. I came up with the new name and logo. I worked there for 41 years and ten months. For almost the whole time, I was a graphic designer. When I started, there were ten or 12 employees, that became 600.  I could tell you many stories of how the Lord helped me. From screws that wouldn’t go in, to help finding things, God answered my prayers.

What are some memories that stand out from your childhood?

John Niemeyer as a child during WWII. Contributed photo

I can still see a German soldier, coming around the corner, asking “Do you have a radio?” They went from house to house during (World War II). My uncle had one hidden in the shed under three layers of peat, I found out after the war. They would listen to news about the war and hear from the queen, who had gone to England. One night at about 12 o’clock, my dad came in and told us to get up and get dressed. We could hear the planes fighting overhead, and were ready to run if we needed to. Then the bombing started. One landed 200 meters from our house, but it didn’t explode. The next day, we helped take out the bombs that hadn’t gone off. I remember big holes in the ground, and the littlest detail afterward…the syrup that was dripping down everywhere in a teacher’s house that had been hit. Bloody chickens that were all over someone’s kitchen.

Another time, we were sitting on our benches at school, and planes were fighting overhead. The American plane hit the German plane and it went straight down into the peat. Afterward, when we ran over to look at it where it went down, we couldn’t even see the plane. It had totally disappeared into the peat.

We were never hungry during the war. People in the city, they were starving, making soup out of tulips. But we were never hungry.

John Niemeyer poses with a model ship he created.

That are three things that you’re thankful for?

First, being married to my wife, Marilyn. We were married August 1, 1959. My family, my six daughters: Nancy, Brenda, Linnea, Lisa, Denise and Janelle, and six sons-in-law, all believers. And my 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Then, my career at Zimpro.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We came seven from Holland, now we’re over 100. We just lost my sister in September. My three brothers, we all live on the west side of Wausau. We love it here. This is one of the best cities in the world, in my opinion.

A painting created by John Niemeyer Photo: J.K. Olson/Wausau Pilot and Review

J.K Olson is a freelance writer from Wausau. Follow her at https://wordpress.com/view/jkolson.blog.

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