Maintaining the Windmill Island Gardens with Matt Helmus
Episode 10414th April 2023 • Total Michigan • Cliff Duvernois
00:00:00 00:27:53

Share Episode

Shownotes

Windmill Island Gardens really is the face of Holland, Michigan. Maintaining the centuries-old windmill to ensuring that the tulips and other plants always look pristine is the challenge for Matt Helmus and his team.

In this episode, we talk about:

  • The Different Events That Take Place in the Windmill Island Gardens
  • Managing the Pressure and Expectations of the Windmill Island Gardens with Visitors
  • Working with the Dutch in the Netherlands to Maintain The Proper Dutch Heritage

Links:

Windmill Island Website

Transcripts

Speaker:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: And the best compliment we can get

Speaker:

is when people say, you know, really felt like a little slice of home.

Speaker:

It looked kind of like the Netherlands here, the way you have the garden set

Speaker:

up and the canals and the windmill.

Speaker:

And I think they appreciate, as do we, that we're not, again,

Speaker:

we're not trying to do it as a kitche thing, as a tourist trap.

Speaker:

We want to give ' em a little bit broader picture of the Netherlands

Speaker:

as well as Holland, Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois:

Hello everyone and welcome back to Ordinary

Cliff Duvernois:

People, Extraordinary Things.

Cliff Duvernois:

I'm your host, Cliff DuVernois.

Cliff Duvernois:

Today we are continuing our exploration of the city of Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

And I am speaking with the Windmill Island Gardens Development

Cliff Duvernois:

Manager for the City of Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

Cuz it's hard not to think about Holland without thinking

Cliff Duvernois:

about the Windmill Garden.

Cliff Duvernois:

So today's guest, Matt Helmus, is gonna share with us a brief history

Cliff Duvernois:

of the place and, Matt, how are you?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: I'm doing great, Cliff.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's a great day.

Cliff Duvernois:

thanks for taking time to talk with us today.

Cliff Duvernois:

Tell us a little bit about where you're from and where you.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: I'm a native boy here from West Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois:

I grew up, here in Grand Rapids in Jenison, just down

Cliff Duvernois:

the road in Ottawa County.

Cliff Duvernois:

So not too far from Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

Had never really ventured here a whole lot, especially during tulip time.

Cliff Duvernois:

I had one of those dads who said, we'll take, we'll go there 50 weeks

Cliff Duvernois:

out of the year, but those two weeks of Tulip Time, we're not gonna visit.

Cliff Duvernois:

So close enough to know what's going on, but far enough to not go all the time.

Cliff Duvernois:

Where did you go to college?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: I went up to the center of the

Cliff Duvernois:

state, up to Alma College and got my undergrad there in history.

Cliff Duvernois:

And then came back to West Michigan for a master's at Grand

Cliff Duvernois:

Valley in Public Administration.

Cliff Duvernois:

So how did you make the leap from a degree in

Cliff Duvernois:

history to working for the city?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Well, it was one of those openings I saw.

Cliff Duvernois:

I had just finished up a master's degree, started looking around

Cliff Duvernois:

for jobs and saw this opening at Wind Island Gardens in Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

And I grew up as a, a Dutch kid locally.

Cliff Duvernois:

A lot of my family way back had come from the Netherlands.

Cliff Duvernois:

I love history.

Cliff Duvernois:

Just finished degree in Public Administration, so non-profit

Cliff Duvernois:

or MUN municipal work.

Cliff Duvernois:

And when I saw this opening, my wife kinda looked at me and said

Cliff Duvernois:

it's like you couldn't have written a better job description for me.

Cliff Duvernois:

The Dutch stuff, the history stuff, the public administration thing.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it was just an absolute godsend of a job.

Cliff Duvernois:

that's really interesting.

Cliff Duvernois:

What made you think that you were, because it's like quite a leap from

Cliff Duvernois:

having a degree in history to all of a sudden now having to maintain one

Cliff Duvernois:

of the key central points that people think of when they think about Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: It is, it's really the

Cliff Duvernois:

focal point of Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

It was in the city logo for years and still in there.

Cliff Duvernois:

People think about the windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

They come to Holland and they say, where's your Dutch stuff?

Cliff Duvernois:

And we point 'em to, our windmill, we point 'em to

Cliff Duvernois:

wooden shoes, things like that.

Cliff Duvernois:

Tulip Festival.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it really, I'd gotten enough management experience and they were really looking to

Cliff Duvernois:

tighten up the administration down there.

Cliff Duvernois:

We'll talk a little bit about, I'm sure.

Cliff Duvernois:

Financially, it wasn't in the best of straits.

Cliff Duvernois:

Dutch people are known for being, pretty good, pretty frugal, good with money.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we've really tightened things up over the years.

Cliff Duvernois:

So with some of the experience I've had there, really paid off at the island.

Cliff Duvernois:

What I'd like to do is take a step back in

Cliff Duvernois:

time to how the Windmill Island Gardens, even came into, existence.

Cliff Duvernois:

And from what I was researching online, this was something that was started back

Cliff Duvernois:

in the fifties or sixties timeframe.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yeah.

Cliff Duvernois:

Back in the forties, fifties, folks around town, some of the city fathers

Cliff Duvernois:

were banding about the idea of, how do we show off the Dutch heritage?

Cliff Duvernois:

At that time, the city had been around for about a hundred years,

Cliff Duvernois:

was still pretty Dutch heavy.

Cliff Duvernois:

And you had tourists coming into town saying, You know what,

Cliff Duvernois:

again, where's that Dutch stuff?

Cliff Duvernois:

What's Holland, Michigan all about?

Cliff Duvernois:

So they got the idea to get, something, an area or a park

Cliff Duvernois:

or something to send folks to.

Cliff Duvernois:

And obviously being Dutch, the idea was what if we could get one of these

Cliff Duvernois:

windmills from the Netherlands, get the, get it over here and show it off?

Cliff Duvernois:

So they reached out, to some places in the Netherlands to the Dutch

Cliff Duvernois:

government, the Dutch Mill Society.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that was the point really, when people were just beginning

Cliff Duvernois:

to value their heritage items.

Cliff Duvernois:

So in the Netherlands, they had a law that said you were not allowed to, take these

Cliff Duvernois:

down or let 'em leave the country anymore.

Cliff Duvernois:

But The windmills.

Cliff Duvernois:

The windmills, yes, exactly.

Cliff Duvernois:

They had about, 10,000 left.

Cliff Duvernois:

And a lot of 'em were deteriorating because they didn't

Cliff Duvernois:

really use windmills anymore.

Cliff Duvernois:

They had modern factories.

Cliff Duvernois:

But the city of Holland basically got an exemption that if they could

Cliff Duvernois:

find a windmill, the Dutch government would allow them to bring it over.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that happened in 1964.

Cliff Duvernois:

They had sent a delegation over and they happened to find a

Cliff Duvernois:

privately owned windmill that was in deteriorating condition.

Cliff Duvernois:

They were able to buy it from the owner and got permission to bring

Cliff Duvernois:

it here over to West Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois:

That's absolutely incredible.

Cliff Duvernois:

And I say that because it would be very easy to just say,

Cliff Duvernois:

Hey, we got tons of pitchers.

Cliff Duvernois:

Let's just build one of our own.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yeah, and that's happened subsequently.

Cliff Duvernois:

There was one mill, another mill actually allowed to lu leaf to Aruba,

Cliff Duvernois:

which was a Dutch colony at the time.

Cliff Duvernois:

And, there's other Dutch American spots here in America where they've

Cliff Duvernois:

done exactly what you described.

Cliff Duvernois:

They've built a brand new windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

They're beautiful.

Cliff Duvernois:

They're great.

Cliff Duvernois:

They don't have quite the historic status that ours does the story

Cliff Duvernois:

way back in the Netherlands.

Cliff Duvernois:

But they're neat to see.

Cliff Duvernois:

Where did the idea come about to you start planting

Cliff Duvernois:

because this is another thing that, you not see a photo of tulip.

Cliff Duvernois:

whenever there's a photo of Holland as well.

Cliff Duvernois:

You got the windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

You've got the tulips.

Cliff Duvernois:

So where did this expanding of creating a garden come from

Cliff Duvernois:

and planting of the tulips?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: I think that's just natural.

Cliff Duvernois:

If you've been to the Netherlands, they are one of the world's leaders

Cliff Duvernois:

in horticulture and flora culture.

Cliff Duvernois:

And the most, common flower associated with them is the tulip.

Cliff Duvernois:

Tulip Time, it started just, a couple decades before the windmill got here.

Cliff Duvernois:

So in town they were plant tulips all over.

Cliff Duvernois:

But there's always this desire to have large planted tulip areas.

Cliff Duvernois:

And there's a couple places, the NES family had a tulip farm as

Cliff Duvernois:

well as some other places in town.

Cliff Duvernois:

But they thought we have 36 acres around this windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

Why not make it into gardens?

Cliff Duvernois:

So build some Dutch buildings and then plant some Dutch gardens.

Cliff Duvernois:

So tulips were here.

Cliff Duvernois:

Tulip Time had existed for a little bit before then.

Cliff Duvernois:

But really they thought this could be a focal point for the festival.

Cliff Duvernois:

Now, one of the things that I do want to talk to

Cliff Duvernois:

you about is that typically tulips are not something that blooms year.

Cliff Duvernois:

There's like a very short window of time that the tulips are in bloom.

Cliff Duvernois:

Hence the reason why you've got the Tulip Festival in tulip time.

Cliff Duvernois:

So talk to us about what happens during the rest of the time, when we're outside

Cliff Duvernois:

of that window of tulips, what's the major draw to the Window Gardens?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: First I'm really proud

Cliff Duvernois:

of you for knowing that.

Cliff Duvernois:

Because we get a lot of phone calls and visitors who come in August or call in

Cliff Duvernois:

July and wonder where those tulips are.

Cliff Duvernois:

But, like you mentioned, we plant a wide variety of tulips.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we try and extend that tulip season as long as we can.

Cliff Duvernois:

So usually from about mid-April through, we hope mid, mid-may, end

Cliff Duvernois:

of May, we'll have tulips in bloom.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we also, when those are done, we actually pull them and re.

Cliff Duvernois:

most of our gardens with all annuals.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we have a number of perennials.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're actually of a two season gardens because our park is open from April,

Cliff Duvernois:

middle of April till early October.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we have flowers through that whole time.

Cliff Duvernois:

We tell people if you wanna see tulips, obviously come in the spring, come

Cliff Duvernois:

to around the Tulip Time Festival.

Cliff Duvernois:

But otherwise you can come, anytime June through September and see a great

Cliff Duvernois:

number of flowers, probably 80 plus different varieties of annuals and

Cliff Duvernois:

perennials and trees and things like that.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we've really focused on that garden area.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're, we'll, we're still there six months of the year.

Cliff Duvernois:

Tulip Time Festival is about half our visitors for the year.

Cliff Duvernois:

We usually see 50 to 60,000 people over nine days.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we get, lately our numbers have been about 120 to 150,000

Cliff Duvernois:

people for this season.

Cliff Duvernois:

Yeah.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's busy place during Tulip Time and a nice, comfortable, beautiful

Cliff Duvernois:

place outside of Tulip Time.

Cliff Duvernois:

When you're going in there and working in the garden and you're

Cliff Duvernois:

talking about, pulling out all these other plants and putting these things in

Cliff Duvernois:

here, why don't you talk to us a little bit about the management of that process.

Cliff Duvernois:

How does that work?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: It's really cyclical for the year.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's interesting because if you imagine yourself here for the festival, you

Cliff Duvernois:

see all the beautiful tulips in bloom.

Cliff Duvernois:

That's actually the time when our horticulture staff is beginning

Cliff Duvernois:

to plan for the next Tulip Time.

Cliff Duvernois:

We put in as a city our tulip order, in the summer.

Cliff Duvernois:

So they're planning out, do we want to expand any areas?

Cliff Duvernois:

Do we wanna try any new tulips?

Cliff Duvernois:

They need to figure that out in June.

Cliff Duvernois:

We put the tulip order in, so the tulips, be, are done blooming.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have a tulip dig where we invite folks to come and dig a lot of

Cliff Duvernois:

those tulips out, locals, anybody.

Cliff Duvernois:

And then we replant with annuals.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that's then again, in September, we still are looking pretty good.

Cliff Duvernois:

The weather's nice, but by October we actually have to pull all those annuals

Cliff Duvernois:

out because by then our tulips from the Netherlands that we order every year.

Cliff Duvernois:

We need to plant those bulbs.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we have to pull everything out, plant those bulbs, and then put

Cliff Duvernois:

deer fencing up so our four-legged friends don't eat all of our tulips

Cliff Duvernois:

before next season's festival.

Cliff Duvernois:

When you put in an order for the Netherlands, how

Cliff Duvernois:

many tulips are we talking about?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: So the city as a whole puts

Cliff Duvernois:

in a large order altogether.

Cliff Duvernois:

Windmill Island plants about 150, 160,000 tulips depending on the year.

Cliff Duvernois:

The city does multiple times of that because they have lots of city

Cliff Duvernois:

parks that are planted, tulip lanes.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're talking a good size tulip bill, and hundreds of thousands of

Cliff Duvernois:

tulips, usually half a million or more.

Cliff Duvernois:

And when we're talking about this, what you mentioned

Cliff Duvernois:

before, these are all planted by hand?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: They're a lot of 'em are planted by hand.

Cliff Duvernois:

We do have a modified onion planter that we use for our

Cliff Duvernois:

large agricultural style fields.

Cliff Duvernois:

Nice.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we have about three or four acres that are the big fields that look like

Cliff Duvernois:

you're in a farm, or it looks like you're in the Netherlands, where you

Cliff Duvernois:

can get a great picture in front of the windmill with a big field of tulips.

Cliff Duvernois:

And then we have some smaller garden bed areas with some more unique varieties.

Cliff Duvernois:

Some more small plantings where you can put your kid down in

Cliff Duvernois:

front of and get a great picture.

Cliff Duvernois:

Or just some neat ones that some of them are very expensive, so we only buy

Cliff Duvernois:

maybe a hundred or 200 of them and we can of showcase them in those areas.

Cliff Duvernois:

What I'd like to do is take a step back cuz you were talking

Cliff Duvernois:

about before, and I believe the term that you used was frugal with the money.

Cliff Duvernois:

And I know that the Windmill Island Gardens is a major

Cliff Duvernois:

draw and it looks beautiful.

Cliff Duvernois:

How are you able to maintain this balance?

Cliff Duvernois:

Or how did you get the gardens to where they are today

Cliff Duvernois:

versus when they started out?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: That's a great question.

Cliff Duvernois:

So the park itself opened in 1965 and the city had really been, I don't

Cliff Duvernois:

wanna say talked into this, but there had been a study done by the state

Cliff Duvernois:

that said, man, if you get a windmill and if you're able to do gardens and

Cliff Duvernois:

Dutch buildings, you'll get a million people here a year to visit this place.

Cliff Duvernois:

That was obviously an overshot.

Cliff Duvernois:

We've never been near.

Cliff Duvernois:

We hit our record number last year and we were about 150,000.

Cliff Duvernois:

Those first several years were very busy.

Cliff Duvernois:

People came and saw the windmill, came and saw the gardens, checked it out.

Cliff Duvernois:

That, those numbers lasted for 20, 25 years and then our

Cliff Duvernois:

attendance started to go down.

Cliff Duvernois:

Cultural tourism wasn't really the hot thing back then.

Cliff Duvernois:

There's lots of competition.

Cliff Duvernois:

The Cedar Points and Michigan Adventures of the World.

Cliff Duvernois:

Kids liked to do that.

Cliff Duvernois:

So our numbers through the kind of late eighties and the end of the

Cliff Duvernois:

nineties went down to the point where we were only getting about

Cliff Duvernois:

40,000, 50,000 visitors a year.

Cliff Duvernois:

The, it was actually costing the city several hundred thousand dollars just

Cliff Duvernois:

to keep the place open for tourists.

Cliff Duvernois:

The city at that point had a decision.

Cliff Duvernois:

Do we just make this into a municipal park, allow it for free, not have as many

Cliff Duvernois:

attractions, or do we somehow redo this?

Cliff Duvernois:

Fortunately they, they gave it another shot.

Cliff Duvernois:

And with that, the, tourism's been back in the two thousands, has

Cliff Duvernois:

been doing a little bit better.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we cut everything we could at that point.

Cliff Duvernois:

Really analyzed all the spending we were doing.

Cliff Duvernois:

all the employees we had.

Cliff Duvernois:

Again, tourism numbers went back up.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it was a good Crosspoint where of the things we developed, some new programs,

Cliff Duvernois:

new events, a focus on, like you said, those gardens outside of Tulip Time.

Cliff Duvernois:

Tulip time's a blessing.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we knew we needed more people here in June, July, August, September.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we've continued to see that.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that's definitely a focus of ours.

Cliff Duvernois:

We've managed to turn the place around.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we we don't take any general fund money.

Cliff Duvernois:

We're self-sustaining with about 150,000 visitors a year.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have some great programs.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have things like weddings that we added.

Cliff Duvernois:

Those have been a nice revenue stream in about the last 20 years or so.

Cliff Duvernois:

So again, just looking at things consciously of how do we develop this

Cliff Duvernois:

place, keep it self-sustaining, keep it, a fun place for people to visit who have

Cliff Duvernois:

either never been here or who've been here before and wanna see something different.

Cliff Duvernois:

And for our audience, we're gonna take a quick

Cliff Duvernois:

break and thank our sponsors will be back in just a few minutes.

Cliff Duvernois:

If you are enjoying this episode, Well then let me tell you, there's plenty

Cliff Duvernois:

more interesting stories to come.

Cliff Duvernois:

Michigan is full of people doing extraordinary things, and you

Cliff Duvernois:

can get these great stories sent directly to your inbox.

Cliff Duvernois:

Just go to total michigan.com/join, enter your email address and join our community.

Cliff Duvernois:

When you do, we will also send you our top five interviews, the powerful

Cliff Duvernois:

lessons we've learned from these people.

Cliff Duvernois:

An invitation to our Facebook group behind the scenes stories and

Cliff Duvernois:

pictures as well as advanced notice of upcoming guests and events.

Cliff Duvernois:

Just go to total michigan.com/join.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's fast, it's free, and it's easy.

Cliff Duvernois:

Sign up today.

Cliff Duvernois:

Hello everyone.

Cliff Duvernois:

Welcome back to Ordinary People, Extraordinary Things.

Cliff Duvernois:

I'm your host, Cliff DuVernois.

Cliff Duvernois:

Today we are talking with Matt Helmus.

Cliff Duvernois:

He is with the Windmill Island Gardens Development Manager

Cliff Duvernois:

for the city of Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt, before the break, you had made a comment about sustainability.

Cliff Duvernois:

And what I would like to do is I'd like to talk about some

Cliff Duvernois:

of the programs that you got.

Cliff Duvernois:

Sustainability is one of like hot button items that people are

Cliff Duvernois:

really getting jazzed up about.

Cliff Duvernois:

So talk to us a little bit about that sustainability.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yeah, so that's a great thing, we can

Cliff Duvernois:

accomplish on Windmill Island was talking about sustainability as one of our themes.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it's really neat that we have the windmill as the center of our operations.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we talk to folks about, modern wind energy is really

Cliff Duvernois:

taking off with these newer style windmills that get electricity.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we can talk about that.

Cliff Duvernois:

That's been going on for four or 500 plus years.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we show in our windmill, it doesn't take power, it actually produces power.

Cliff Duvernois:

We catch the wind and we can grind grain in there.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we still do that to this day.

Cliff Duvernois:

Then we have an energy park, right across the park from us as a natural gas plant

Cliff Duvernois:

that was built just a few years ago.

Cliff Duvernois:

That's very modern that the city built.

Cliff Duvernois:

Very efficient.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we can say, that's how we get power today.

Cliff Duvernois:

This is how folks got power back in the 15, 16, 17 hundreds.

Cliff Duvernois:

We do a lot of talk with gardening, sustainable gardening, and we're also a

Cliff Duvernois:

absolutely beautiful natural area where we have a lot of wildlife friends out

Cliff Duvernois:

there, a lot of birds, a lot of mammals.

Cliff Duvernois:

So people like to come out there, go bird watching, just check out our park.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we try and do that all in the most sustainable way we can,

Cliff Duvernois:

gardening wise and just, tourism.

Cliff Duvernois:

What I would like to do is talk about outside of Tulip Time

Cliff Duvernois:

is I'd like to talk about some of the other events that you have going on

Cliff Duvernois:

in the gardens throughout the year.

Cliff Duvernois:

So if you would just share with us a couple of the things.

Cliff Duvernois:

that come to mind.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yeah.

Cliff Duvernois:

So every year we try and do a different theme, in our garden.

Cliff Duvernois:

So when we pull all those tulips and plant the annuals, we try

Cliff Duvernois:

and do it differently every year.

Cliff Duvernois:

So you don't come and see the same flowers in the same spot every year.

Cliff Duvernois:

So like this year, our theme is a celestial season.

Cliff Duvernois:

So our plantings will be planted around the theme of sun, moon, and stars.

Cliff Duvernois:

So some of the plants will have certain names that suggest that.

Cliff Duvernois:

There's one called Drops of Jupiter, which of course I can't

Cliff Duvernois:

remember what kind of plant that is.

Cliff Duvernois:

But a lot of 'em are name wise.

Cliff Duvernois:

Some of them will be artistic in the bed, might look like a

Cliff Duvernois:

moon or something like that.

Cliff Duvernois:

it's, so that's really neat so kids and adults can really go through

Cliff Duvernois:

the gardens and see that theme.

Cliff Duvernois:

With that, we'll have some associated programming.

Cliff Duvernois:

We're hoping to do some stargazing and that sort of stuff out there.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's great.

Cliff Duvernois:

Yeah, we're right on the edge of downtown.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we're far enough away that we don't have so much light pollution.

Cliff Duvernois:

So folks can come out and stargaze.

Cliff Duvernois:

We've also, this year, just this is last winter started a called Magic the Mill.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's a Christmas light event that we ran for three weekends around Christmas

Cliff Duvernois:

time and yeah, we lit up the park.

Cliff Duvernois:

We did keep our theme, so we didn't want to go completely out of our theme area.

Cliff Duvernois:

So the highlight of it was really about a thousand or a thousand l e d

Cliff Duvernois:

light tulip field that had a sound.

Cliff Duvernois:

Music basically to it.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it lit up sound and light show.

Cliff Duvernois:

I tell people, imagine if the Tulip Festival and the musical

Cliff Duvernois:

fountain in Grand Haven had a baby and it would be this tulip field.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it's, you got music, you got light, and you got tulips.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it was a, it was a big hit.

Cliff Duvernois:

We sold out, several of the weekends.

Cliff Duvernois:

Again, just a way to invite people down year round, down to Windmill Island.

Cliff Duvernois:

Now when you're talking about this light show that's

Cliff Duvernois:

being put on, is it something that people walk around and see or is it

Cliff Duvernois:

something that you do in your car?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yep, it's a walk around.

Cliff Duvernois:

So our park, doesn't have so much, we have a limited parking lot.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it's not like what they do in Grand Rapids at the White Cap Stadium.

Cliff Duvernois:

It is a walk around.

Cliff Duvernois:

But it's a great kind of, it's maybe about half a mile walk.

Cliff Duvernois:

But it's beautifully lit up outside.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we have things in our buildings.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have food available.

Cliff Duvernois:

Kids can visit Sinterklaas, who's the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus.

Cliff Duvernois:

They can hear our street organ playing, holiday favorite.

Cliff Duvernois:

They can ride the carousel.

Cliff Duvernois:

They can come in and get a cup of hot cocoa.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's, it was just a absolute hit for our community and for a lot of visitors.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that's another thing too that's seems to

Cliff Duvernois:

be really popular in the windmill garden is that piano organ thing.

Cliff Duvernois:

The thing is huge.

Cliff Duvernois:

Where did that come from?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: That's a whole nother, we call

Cliff Duvernois:

it our three Dutch treasures.

Cliff Duvernois:

So obviously the windmill is the heart of the island.

Cliff Duvernois:

Our, we have a carousel that we brought over in the seventies.

Cliff Duvernois:

But the street organ is the other third of our Dutch treasures.

Cliff Duvernois:

That actually predates the island.

Cliff Duvernois:

And it goes back to World War II when the Netherlands was devastated by Germany.

Cliff Duvernois:

And a lot of people in this area, being of Dutch extract sent food,

Cliff Duvernois:

money, clothing back to the homeland.

Cliff Duvernois:

And as a way to say thank you, in Amsterdam, the school kids raised

Cliff Duvernois:

money, bought an organ, and the city sent it over to Holland, Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois:

And so we've had that organ since 1947.

Cliff Duvernois:

And it's still, we for a couple decades it wasn't functioning.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we do work on it now every year.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it plays fun.

Cliff Duvernois:

Dutch songs, fun American songs, things like the beach Boys even.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's run like a player piano, if you've seen the back there.

Cliff Duvernois:

Yes.

Cliff Duvernois:

we don't play it like an instrument, we play it like a player piano.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it's a highlight for old, old folks.

Cliff Duvernois:

For young kids.

Cliff Duvernois:

They get to hear some favorites on there.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it's an absolute fun piece to have at the island.

Cliff Duvernois:

Now, typically when the garden is opened and en close.

Cliff Duvernois:

Is this something that's really set on a set schedule?

Cliff Duvernois:

Are you letting the weather dictate when this is open?

Cliff Duvernois:

How does that work?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: So our season is,

Cliff Duvernois:

mid-April through October.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we are open seven days a week in that season.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we will very rarely shut due to bad weather.

Cliff Duvernois:

Because the nice thing is we have great gardens to enjoy outside.

Cliff Duvernois:

But there's also a portion of it inside.

Cliff Duvernois:

You can still hear the organ inside the organ shelter.

Cliff Duvernois:

You can hear, you can go in into the windmill, you can visit our shops.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have movies that you can see on site.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have a conservatory.

Cliff Duvernois:

So really we are open, rain winds shine, we are there.

Cliff Duvernois:

Sometimes snow.

Cliff Duvernois:

We hope.

Cliff Duvernois:

No, we hope no snow while we're open, but happens on occasion.

Cliff Duvernois:

With regards to putting on the festival, maintaining the gardens,

Cliff Duvernois:

what would you say would be some of your biggest challenges that you have to face?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Weather would be one

Cliff Duvernois:

that we just touched on.

Cliff Duvernois:

Staffing is another.

Cliff Duvernois:

We are very fortunate.

Cliff Duvernois:

During the Tulip Time Festival, we staff up to about 75 people.

Cliff Duvernois:

During the rest of the season, we have anywhere between 40 and 50 staff.

Cliff Duvernois:

Just like everywhere these days, it's hard to find staff.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're, scrambling and hiring now to make sure we have enough

Cliff Duvernois:

people to greet visitors.

Cliff Duvernois:

Because we know if we're there, we wanna provide a good experience.

Cliff Duvernois:

We wanna make sure that we have people there to sell you your ticket.

Cliff Duvernois:

But as well as to greet you, to show you around the park, tell you

Cliff Duvernois:

all about what we have to offer.

Cliff Duvernois:

So that's always a changing crowd of folks there.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we have a lot of younger people and then some early retirees.

Cliff Duvernois:

So you can always find a, friendly, smiling face to show you're on the island.

Cliff Duvernois:

One of the things that we talked about with Mayor Bocks

Cliff Duvernois:

was the fact that all of this new manufacturing is coming into town and

Cliff Duvernois:

people are expanding their companies.

Cliff Duvernois:

How is that going to impact the Windmill Gardens?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: We hope it only helps us really.

Cliff Duvernois:

One really cool thing we can do at the island is we share different

Cliff Duvernois:

stories with all different people.

Cliff Duvernois:

Some people think we're this old, Dutch Heritage Park only if you're interested

Cliff Duvernois:

in Dutch stuff, would they visit.

Cliff Duvernois:

But actually it's neat.

Cliff Duvernois:

We say under this big Dutch umbrella, we can share a lot of stories.

Cliff Duvernois:

We can share agriculture, horticulture, engineering, music.

Cliff Duvernois:

Any sorts of things like that.

Cliff Duvernois:

So one of the most amazing things to us is when we connect with some of

Cliff Duvernois:

these business groups and you watch these engineers go up in the windmill,

Cliff Duvernois:

that's hundreds of years old, and they see the gears and they start geeking

Cliff Duvernois:

out about, the gear ratios and things like that and what kind of wood is

Cliff Duvernois:

used in those and how do they design this back in the 16, 17 hundreds.

Cliff Duvernois:

it's amazing to see.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we've seen several local companies actually partner

Cliff Duvernois:

with us on different projects.

Cliff Duvernois:

We had a scout group come in and was helping us do some

Cliff Duvernois:

metal work in the windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

Because it's an old way to produce food.

Cliff Duvernois:

We still get to deal with the agriculture department.

Cliff Duvernois:

And they say everything that food touches has to be stainless steel.

Cliff Duvernois:

Well, that was a little hard.

Cliff Duvernois:

Everything was wood.

Cliff Duvernois:

So they actually helped us take apart the machinery we had and

Cliff Duvernois:

put stainless steel on the inside.

Cliff Duvernois:

So the inside's very modern but the outside still has that wood, exterior.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it looks historical.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that was a local metal company that helped us do that.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're very fortunate to have such a thriving manufacturing

Cliff Duvernois:

business community in this area.

Cliff Duvernois:

I'm loving this synergy between the garden and the man and the

Cliff Duvernois:

manufacturing that's going on in the area.

Cliff Duvernois:

And you hinted on this before, is that the windmill is still producing food.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: It does.

Cliff Duvernois:

Yep.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we are currently training, new millers as we speak.

Cliff Duvernois:

The windmills turning, we are training some new folks to be able to grind.

Cliff Duvernois:

That that's a, an interesting process.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's not something you can go learn in the town next door.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're having some help from folks from the Netherlands and

Cliff Duvernois:

some other mills in the US.

Cliff Duvernois:

But yeah, we typically produce about 15,000 pounds of grain every year.

Cliff Duvernois:

it

Cliff Duvernois:

Sweet

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: to flour.

Cliff Duvernois:

Yeah,

Cliff Duvernois:

just from the one windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that's, that only takes a couple days a year of grinding.

Cliff Duvernois:

We can grind, two to 3000 pounds of flour in a couple hours.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it doesn't take that long.

Cliff Duvernois:

It takes a lot to package because your typical tourist doesn't want to

Cliff Duvernois:

take home a 50 pound sack of flour.

Cliff Duvernois:

Like we would've, usually way back given to people.

Cliff Duvernois:

They wanna bring home, maybe a pound or two bag of flour to be able to

Cliff Duvernois:

make cookies or bread out of it.

Cliff Duvernois:

So mostly sold right on site.

Cliff Duvernois:

Oh, that's, that was gonna be my next question is do

Cliff Duvernois:

you do baked goods with it as well?

Cliff Duvernois:

If somebody wants to get a loaf of bread, cuz this was made in a real windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: So we sell in the flour.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have done some cool projects in the past where people have made beers and

Cliff Duvernois:

baked goods and things like that out of, the things we produce in the windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

So some neat projects, some neat, yeah, good things to taste, good

Cliff Duvernois:

things to eat and drink as well.

Cliff Duvernois:

Now, how are you working with the actual city of Holland?

Cliff Duvernois:

Because as we're doing this interview right now, we're actually in city hall.

Cliff Duvernois:

So how are you working with the city to make sure that you've got this balance

Cliff Duvernois:

of people that can still come out and see the gardens versus being in town?

Cliff Duvernois:

Cruising the streets?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yeah.

Cliff Duvernois:

So the cool thing is we are municipally owned gardens.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we are set up what's called an entrepreneurial fund, kind

Cliff Duvernois:

of like, uh, city golf courses, cemeteries, parking facilities are.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're meant to be self-sustaining, that we don't suck money

Cliff Duvernois:

out of the general fund.

Cliff Duvernois:

We sustain our own budget.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we're really a benefit for the city and the city thankfully the

Cliff Duvernois:

city council's very they appreciate what we do out there because they

Cliff Duvernois:

know lots of people come to see us.

Cliff Duvernois:

We are city owned.

Cliff Duvernois:

That the city does have some control over what goes on out there.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we also can work with great partner organizations like Tulip

Cliff Duvernois:

Time, like our visitors bureau, like our Chamber of Commerce.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we're a little bit more entrepreneurial in that sense as

Cliff Duvernois:

well, that we can do some things that normal city governments don't do.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we do some of those fun projects.

Cliff Duvernois:

So I say, I probably have the most fun job out of any of the city employees here.

Cliff Duvernois:

I'm not, processing forms.

Cliff Duvernois:

I'm not in a police cruiser, things like that.

Cliff Duvernois:

My day job is running a heritage park, which really changes day to day.

Cliff Duvernois:

But it's really neat.

Cliff Duvernois:

It's a way for the city to draw visitors to welcome visitors,

Cliff Duvernois:

in a very unique setting.

Cliff Duvernois:

One of the things that I would like to discuss is that

Cliff Duvernois:

whenever, and we've brought this up several times, whenever we're looking

Cliff Duvernois:

at pictures of Holland, it is typically, like right now, I got a Shoreline

Cliff Duvernois:

magazine, and the very first photo is of the windmill, and it's above the tulip.

Cliff Duvernois:

So literally, this is almost like the face of the city of Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

Talk to us a little bit about having that type of pressure that y

Cliff Duvernois:

you've gotta maintain those gardens.

Cliff Duvernois:

Those gardens have got to be like spot on.

Cliff Duvernois:

So talk to us about managing that pressure on top of managing all

Cliff Duvernois:

these people to make sure that you are living up to this mental image

Cliff Duvernois:

that people have of the Holland area.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yeah, Yeah,

Cliff Duvernois:

it's, it's a, I typically look at it as a good thing is that, again, when folks

Cliff Duvernois:

are visiting, one of the first things they see is usually an image of the windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

Or they know they came to Holland and we, they heard about this

Cliff Duvernois:

old windmill that we have.

Cliff Duvernois:

So they ask to see us.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we have a readymade crowd.

Cliff Duvernois:

It helps with marketing that way.

Cliff Duvernois:

But like you said, it's also.

Cliff Duvernois:

we do wanna make sure we're doing a great job representing the whole

Cliff Duvernois:

community as well, so we're not just representing the Dutch community.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that's again, where we look at we're, it's not all Dutch people live in Holland.

Cliff Duvernois:

There's just a chunk of us now that, that are Dutch Americans.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have a lot of other folks here with us too.

Cliff Duvernois:

So the city really values that.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that's why we've looked at those different ways.

Cliff Duvernois:

Some STEM ways.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have a new, water exhibit area that we're developing.

Cliff Duvernois:

Again, you can come, you don't have to give a rich a rip about Dutch

Cliff Duvernois:

heritage to enjoy a water exhibit.

Cliff Duvernois:

And you learn how the Dutch have dealt with it in the past, but how

Cliff Duvernois:

we're dealing with it currently.

Cliff Duvernois:

But we just wanna connect with everybody who visits in any way.

Cliff Duvernois:

And for our local community, we have walking and biking trails

Cliff Duvernois:

out there that folks will come out and just enjoy that area.

Cliff Duvernois:

We have, free access to folks who live in Holland, Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois:

We.

Cliff Duvernois:

We provide free access to them, cuz the last thing we want is to be

Cliff Duvernois:

seen as a tourist trap or something that, you only bring, you only go

Cliff Duvernois:

there when your grandkids are here or you got friends from out of town.

Cliff Duvernois:

We like people to go down there pretty often.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we don't love to hear, I've never been there.

Cliff Duvernois:

I've only been there in third grade on my field trip.

Cliff Duvernois:

We like when Hollands come and visit, city of Holland, folks come and visit as

Cliff Duvernois:

well as just anybody who comes and visits.

Cliff Duvernois:

But, the Visitors Bureau tells people go visit.

Cliff Duvernois:

Magazines tell people go visit.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it is nice that we have a already built crowd.

Cliff Duvernois:

We just try and do our best to make sure we're looking

Cliff Duvernois:

our best when they get there.

Cliff Duvernois:

Certainly, and a couple things that you've mentioned

Cliff Duvernois:

in this interview is the fact that it seems like between, Holland,

Cliff Duvernois:

Michigan versus Holland, Netherlands.

Cliff Duvernois:

It seems like there's been like a lot of the times where the people

Cliff Duvernois:

in the Netherlands have actually come over here and helped out.

Cliff Duvernois:

Talk to us a little bit about that relationship there.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Yeah, that's, again, we value that

Cliff Duvernois:

I think as a city and definitely at Wind Island Gardens as the park.

Cliff Duvernois:

we realize that we have to keep a connection there.

Cliff Duvernois:

We're trying to show off a piece of Dutch heritage and the windmill

Cliff Duvernois:

and the organ and things like that.

Cliff Duvernois:

So the city actually sent me over to the Netherlands about three

Cliff Duvernois:

years ago, prior to the pandemic, and I connected with a lot of these

Cliff Duvernois:

people who have similar jobs that.

Cliff Duvernois:

showing off, older Dutch heritage.

Cliff Duvernois:

But doing it in a modern context.

Cliff Duvernois:

So we really brainstormed and said, I was trying to learn from

Cliff Duvernois:

'em, how are you doing this?

Cliff Duvernois:

you're a multicultural nation at this point.

Cliff Duvernois:

So how do you tell everyone's story?

Cliff Duvernois:

And how do you make everyone feel included?

Cliff Duvernois:

And what stories are you telling that aren't just old history.

Cliff Duvernois:

I love old history.

Cliff Duvernois:

But I know I'm a, I'm a unique guy that a lot of people don't love to just read

Cliff Duvernois:

history all day and learn about old stuff.

Cliff Duvernois:

They want something relevant to them.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that's what we found some great ideas.

Cliff Duvernois:

That's where we got the idea for our water exhibit.

Cliff Duvernois:

And they were really falling over themselves to help us because they

Cliff Duvernois:

thought it was so neat that people are telling a bit of Dutch culture and Dutch

Cliff Duvernois:

history here in America, the Midwest.

Cliff Duvernois:

And they're doing the same thing over in the Netherlands.

Cliff Duvernois:

So they've been very helpful providing materials, translations,

Cliff Duvernois:

trainings, kind of anything we want, they've been helpful with.

Cliff Duvernois:

And the neat thing is, even the town of the windmill came from, we bought

Cliff Duvernois:

that windmill from a very small town.

Cliff Duvernois:

And that windmill was the heart of the community.

Cliff Duvernois:

And they've since rebuilt their own windmill that just opened

Cliff Duvernois:

about the time I visited.

Cliff Duvernois:

So it was really neat to go and connect with them.

Cliff Duvernois:

And now we have a good relationship, working relationship.

Cliff Duvernois:

We call it our sister mill over in the Netherlands.

Cliff Duvernois:

So they're happy to help us do training, happy to help us do marketing as well.

Cliff Duvernois:

Nice.

Cliff Duvernois:

Because I can imagine from their standpoint it's, cuz those original

Cliff Duvernois:

settlers that came over here were now four or five generations past.

Cliff Duvernois:

So to still be able to cling that heritage has got, it's got, probably

Cliff Duvernois:

gotta make them pretty proud.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: it.

Cliff Duvernois:

It is.

Cliff Duvernois:

And one of the neatest compliments we can get is, we'll get some Dutch visitors and

Cliff Duvernois:

we'll see 'em going through the park and sometimes we'll get told, Hey, I think

Cliff Duvernois:

that person I heard a little accent.

Cliff Duvernois:

They might be from the Netherlands.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we'll talk to them and say, how did, how'd you hear about us?

Cliff Duvernois:

And then what did you think?

Cliff Duvernois:

And the best compliment we can get is when people say, it really

Cliff Duvernois:

felt like a little slice of home.

Cliff Duvernois:

It looked like the Netherlands here, the way you have the garden set up

Cliff Duvernois:

and the canals and the windmill.

Cliff Duvernois:

And I think they appreciate, as do we, that we're not, again,

Cliff Duvernois:

we're not trying to do it as a kitche thing, as a tourist trap.

Cliff Duvernois:

We don't want to just, pull out our windmills, wooden shoes, tulips,

Cliff Duvernois:

and just show 'em the stereotypes.

Cliff Duvernois:

We want to give ' em a little bit broader picture of the Netherlands

Cliff Duvernois:

as well as Holland, Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt, if somebody's listening to this interview and they

Cliff Duvernois:

wanna connect with you or follow what it is that you're doing online, what would

Cliff Duvernois:

be the best way for them to connect?

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: The best way to go to our

Cliff Duvernois:

website, windmill island.com.

Cliff Duvernois:

And again, our park is open.

Cliff Duvernois:

We open here April 15 and we'll be open through the early part of October.

Cliff Duvernois:

We are $12 for adults.

Cliff Duvernois:

$6 for kids with group rates as well.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we're there seven days a week.

Cliff Duvernois:

Come at tulip time or come summer or fall and we'll be looking beautiful.

Cliff Duvernois:

Excellent.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt, thanks so much for taking time to, chat with us today.

Cliff Duvernois:

Matt Helmus, Windmill Gardens Holland Michigan: Thank you, Cliff.

Cliff Duvernois:

And for our audience, you can go to total michigan.com, click

Cliff Duvernois:

on Matt's interview and see all the links that he shared with us above.

Cliff Duvernois:

And we will catch you next time with another great interview.

Follow