In 2017, I traveled to the Netherlands, land of my ancestors, where Yvette Hoitink, Dutch genealogist extraordinaire, me and my husband visited the city of Venlo in the southeast corner of the Netherlands.
I’m not ready to publish articles about those ancestors just yet, but suffice it to say that Yvette’s in-process research brought us to this lovely old city.
In the Netherlands, you park wherever you can, and then you walk – enjoying the lovely historic buildings and shops along the way. Everyone walks and bicycles everyplace, and it’s wonderful. It’s a Dutch thing, although you won’t find me on a bicycle.
The old Venlo market square, town hall, and churches, thankfully, survived WWII.
Venlo is not a small town, currently sporting a population of just over 100,000.
Venlo, a historic Hanseatic league city, is located on the Meuse River which meanders its way to the sea. The old medieval market square and town hall is located at the left arrow and the church at the right arrow. You’ll notice a red pin in-between. Keep that in mind for a minute.
Here’s a lovely map of the walled-city of Venlo in 1652 where you can see the same old-town region. We know that my ancestor was indeed living here just a couple of years later.
You can see the same streets on the current map, although they have changed some.
An earlier map of the 1586 siege of Venlo indicates that this area was significantly built up between 1586 and 1652. However, there were structures standing in 1586, although the 1652 map shows more substantial buildings, along with adjacent fields within the gated city.
We walked those same streets.
This particular street where I was standing right about that red pin/star, led to the church where my ancestors baptized their children.
The church is massive and ancient, one of Venlo’s oldest structures.
The stud reinforced doors of the churches and town hall speak to sieges and mariners past. Pretty much all of the Netherlands is maritime and my ancestor was born dead-center in the midst of the Thirty Years War. A gated city was the safest place to live anyplace in Europe.
We tugged on the church door handle and found it unlocked – not uncommon in European cities during the day.
We entered the sacred space reverently, with great anticipation.
The engulfing silence separated us from the bustle of the city and transported us back to an earlier time. Medieval churches feel timeless.
Seeing no one, we walked in the very footsteps of my ancestors.
Those young parents, almost 400 years ago, may have stood before this window baptizing their second child who would eventually leave for the new world, but never arrive. That baby eventually baptized his own children standing right here.
A tradition, we lit candles, paid homage and absorbed the silence of the ages.
What were they thinking and feeling? Did they have any clue what the future would bring?
The Antiquarian Bookshop
Upon leaving the sanctity of the church, retracing our path back down the curves of the street, Yvette and I noticed an antiquarian bookshop.
Truth be told, we actually noticed it during our arrival, but that church was calling loudly to us so we hurried past.
On the return trip, the bookstore was screaming at us!
We could see those vintage books, beckoning us with a crooked finger. Come hither ladies…
Maybe there would be old maps too. We both love maps. Poor Jim. I have no idea what he did, other than guard our bags outside and stand ready to carry packages if need be. He was such a good sport.
This building was obviously old too. My ancestors probably passed this very building as they walked to church every Sunday. Perhaps they went inside, crossing the same threshold we just stepped over. Did they know the residents? Was it a shop they frequented?
Yvette and I could see the books piled high on tables, the ultimate flea market. Dusty bins to look through, searching for treasures. How could we possibly resist?
Our eyes adjusted to the dim light casting the room much as it would have looked centuries earlier, minus the tables stacked with books of course. There were no windows in the sides or rear of the building, so the further back in the building you ventured, the darker it became.
The inside of this shop still resembled a home, with a steep, narrow stairway in the rear. Families and merchants in medieval times had shops on the street level of the house and often lived upstairs or in the rear, as did animals. This building is actually 5 or 6 stories high, plus that tiny door at the top. That small door at the very top suggests a pulley arm hoist that extended outside over the street, possibly to hoist either feed for livestock, merchandise, or furniture.
A house on the street by the church would have been prime real estate back in the day.
I can’t even begin to explain what happened next.
I noticed an old Dutch plate or shallow bowl hanging on the dimly lit back wall. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, but I was mesmerized by this plate. I don’t collect plates. I’ve never bought a plate as a souvenir, before or since.
But this plate, this plate, was different.
I asked about the plate and the owners knew nothing about it. Had been there a long time, they said. Didn’t remember how long and seemed entirely disinterested. I asked if I could take the plate off the wall to look at it. “Of course,” they said, waving the question off.
Indeed, when I took the plate off the wall to look at the back, it was covered with layers of grime that suggested no one had paid it any attention in years. Maybe decades.
The finish was cracked by years of age and wear and the back was signed in some way, probably the personal monogram of the ceramic Delftware potter.
I wondered if the plate might have been in Venlo at the time my ancestors lived there, maybe on some merchant’s dinner table. It appeared to be old enough and quite worn.
I hung the plate back on the wall and walked away.
The last thing I needed was a fragile plate, and besides, what would I DO with it anyway. Maps and books were much easier to transport and not in danger of breaking. If I actually wanted a plate, I could buy a stunning new beautiful Delft plate anyplace in the Netherlands.
I walked back to the front of the shop and began looking through the bins and boxes with Yvette.
That old plate called relentlessly to me, begging, and refused to leave me alone.
I finally turned around and walked back to the plate again. There was no price tag. Was it even for sale?
I asked the shopkeeper how much it cost – or rather – Yvette did. No price marked on the plate, but yes, they would sell it. Hmmm, was that a bad sign that the plate would be quite expensive? I was leery about the situation.
Yvette said to make an offer. I was way, way out of my league here.
I had absolutely NO IDEA what to offer. It was old and probably valuable, but that’s not why I wanted it. Actually, I had no idea why I wanted it, but I simply had to bring that plate home with me.
It was refusing to be left behind.
Yvette offered something – a small amount. They accepted. Transaction done. As we exited the shop, I was ecstatic. Like I had scored the prize of the century and won the ancestor lottery – although I still can’t explain this way “out of proportion reaction.” Jim was quite surprised and said, “You bought a what???”
I told him I had no idea why. He chuckled, shrugged, and proceeded to discuss ways to pack the plate safely in the carry-on luggage somehow.
Yvette has continued to research my ancestors. Before the lockdown, she returned to Venlo to sort through information in records not available digitally.
She was working with the old maps to see if she could figure out if my ancestors owned property, and if so, where.
She posted on Facebook after one of her trips to say that indeed, she HAD found a house.
Wow! Talk about a needle in a haystack. Her work is truly amazing!
She was kind enough to send me a picture she had taken.
I was SOOOO excited!
It’s the old bookshop, of course! Yes, that exact same building with the plate on the wall.
It seems that in our excitement about the contents of the bookstore and the plate on the wall inside, we had overlooked something on the wall outside, on the bricks, just above that bicycle.
The plaque says this is the van Oeyen – Boener house, via Google translate:
Renaissance – façade. 1588. With family crest of Oeyen – Boener. Restoration in 1921 and following.
Both the date of construction and the crest are embedded in the front of the building.
Of course, now we need to unravel this thread.
Is this the home of my family or connected to my family? We know they were living in Venlo and baptizing their children at the church within sight, just down the street.
We don’t know for sure if or where my family fits in with this house yet. It’s possible the name is similar but not the same family at all. Fate pulls tricks like this, especially on me.
Of course, all of these people with the same or similar surnames are all attending the same church, at the same time, in the same city, naming children the same names.
We have the Y DNA of our ancestral line, and a Y DNA test of any male descended directly paternally from and carrying the Oeyen, Oijen, Van Oeyen or derivative surname from the various Venlo lines would answer the relationship question definitively.
These unresolved questions are why I’m not publishing the ancestor article now.
Rest assured that Yvette will sort this out as soon as she can travel again.
In the meantime, I’m loving my plate, now hanging on my “Dutch” wall in a place of honor!
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