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Winds of Change

Most people know Little Chute as “the city between Appleton and Kaukauna.” This year, the community has its sights set on the sails and vanes of a new downtown Dutch windmill. The new attraction, set to open to the public this summer, will heighten the village’s heritage and has the residents and business owners of this community buzzing with conviction for commerce.

A mere five blocks of downtown businesses, storefronts tucked between Monroe and Depot streets in Little Chute have seen sundry occupants while others have remained for decades. Today, a steady combination of both historic and first-time businesses line Main Street, and this year the winds of change fill the village with anticipation for its newest attraction.

“IF YOU’RE NOT DUTCH, YOU’RE NOT MUCH”

That’s the catchphrase of Peter and Mary Arts who emigrated from the Netherlands to America in 1960 to join Peter’s brother in Appleton. They moved to Little Chute a few years later and have remained ever since.

“We never looked back,” says Mary, sharing that her and Peter couldn’t speak very good English upon arriving to the Fox Cities area. “There were (other Dutch) people here we could relate to, others who had experience,” Peter adds. “We felt at ease.”

Mary worked as a nurse’s aid and raised their three daughters while Peter worked as a bricklayer and laborer. “I worked in Oshkosh at the time, and was often asked why I didn’t move [to Oshkosh],” he says. “But I loved Little Chute.”

In 2000, the Arts traveled to Holland with a group of about 50 other village residents. It was there the group saw several windmills.

Today, Peter serves on the Little Chute Windmill board of directors. After years (“and years and years,” as the Arts put it) of planning, the light at the end of the tunnel has Peter, Mary and the rest of the village in a cheerful tizzy.

“The windmill will mean so much to so many with Holland names,” Peter says. “It will bring an awareness to our heritage.”

PROPELLING A VILLAGE

For a uniquely Dutch village in the Fox Cities, a windmill extending 100 feet into the air on Main Street will denote high esteem for history.

Breaking ground this spring, the Little Chute Windmill and Van Asten Visitor Center is anticipated to be open to the public this summer.

Behind the project is the Little Chute Windmill, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to raising nearly three million dollars to build an authentic and functioning Dutch windmill. Still in the process of fundraising, a significant percentage – 88% – of Little Chute residents, organizations and businesses have already donated to the cause, says executive director Robin Dekker. “To get that much support from a small community is incredible,” she adds.

Since she was hired to work with the non-profit in April 2006, Dekker has dedicated herself to its fundraising efforts and educational worth of the project.

The 1850s Dutch-delineated gristmill is being constructed in the Netherlands by fourth-generation millwright Lucas Verbij, a man reputed for his flair for the structures. It will arrive in Little Chute piece by piece, and once assembled, the windmill will harness wind power to grind grain into flour.

“People are looking for authentic, out-of-the-box experiences and to be outdoors and walk around,” Dekker says. “They want to experience something unique and not mass produced.”

Promoting a movement of recreation and activity, the windmill will train approximately 60 volunteers as millers, tour guides and hosts. The flour produced will eventually be available for purchase by visitors and local businesses.

“Kids are naturally fascinated by processes,” says Dekker. “They’ll be able to go into the windmill and, whether they have Dutch heritage or not, have an educational experience.”

The Van Asten Visitor Center will house a museum and work with the Little Chute Historical Society to install programming and exhibits examining the history of the village.

OLD SPACES & NEW FACES

With roots in Holland, Michelle Mueller took over the historic Jack’s or Better supper club, located on the corner of Main Street and Grand Avenue, in May 2009. She gave the restaurant a new look and a new name – The Flying Dutchman. “I was trying to come up with a Dutch name,” Mueller explains. “An older local mentioned [The Flying Dutchman], and it stuck.”

She spent time brainstorming ways to get people in the doors, and came up with something the village prides itself on: history.

Historic photos decorate the interior walls of the eatery and lounge, such as a 1931 photo of the Little Chute Flying Dutchman, a semi-pro football team, and other shots of historic basketball squads, St. John’s graduating classes, and buildings like Looks Hardware. Mueller plans to work with the Little Chute Historical Society and locals to fill the remaining walls with snapshots and memorabilia.

“A local in her 60s saw her dad on the wall,” Mueller says. “She came back with her 90-year-old mom to share.”

When the windmill opens, Mueller hopes The Flying Dutchman can provide school tours with an extra “stop” on their visit by welcoming students to see the collection.

“I’m anxious for it,” she says. “The excitement will bring in new businesses downtown.”

Just a few months after Mueller took over the restaurant, Seth Lenz, a 22-year-old Little Chute native, opened a coffee shop across the street, a new business of its kind downtown. For this reason, it was hard to convince the village and investors that his business was worth the storefront.

But since opening last September, Seth’s Coffee and Bake Shop has received a warm welcome.

From downtown professionals to high school students, Lenz serves an array of guests in his renovated space, furnished with a coffee bar, “living room” area and series of booths.

He dreams that the windmill will pitch business opportunities to other people. “I hope [the bake shop] helps bring people to Little Chute and keep people here,” says Lenz. “But I also hope that the windmill will motivate people to take a risk, start a business here, and give people a reason to stay.”

Lenz would like to see the village become a destination spot. “Someday, I think downtown Little Chute will be a place that someone can spend an entire afternoon,” shares Lenz.

Setting an example for new businesses like Seth’s Coffee, Peggy Edmond’s King’s Variety Store has been part of downtown Little Chute for almost 60 years. Edmond grew up around the business while her family took care of it, but for the last 20 years she’s served as the owner.

What seems ideal for a small downtown district, the dime store carries a variety of general merchandise, from candy to toys, and party essentials to school supplies. Most of all, the store carries camaraderie. “The great thing about being in a small community is working with your customers who eventually become your friends,” Edmond says of Little Chute. “I don’t think in bigger areas there’s that togetherness and closeness gained.”

Over the last decade, Edmond has seen businesses come and go. “There has been a lot of growth in the last five years even,” she says. “I hope it continues to flourish like it has in the past.”

Longtime Little Chute business owners like Edmond have been puzzled by the village’s difficulty to maintain storefronts downtown. They hope new arrivals like The Flying Dutchman and Seth’s Coffee and sturdy shops like Simple Simon’s Bakery and Vanderloop Shoes, Inc., continue to flourish and demonstrate economic opportunity of owning a business in a small community.

Residents like Peter and Mary Arts, local business owners, and those driving through Little Chute are left dreaming of the windmill’s whooshing sails, sure to wave in neighbors from Kaukauna, Appleton and other cities far and wide.

—By Alison Fiebig

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