The History of DePree Chemical Company

Holland and Hope College owe chemists Con DePree and John Van Zoeren.

DePree was born in 1870. In 1906, working in Holland, he invented a fumigator that used formaldehyde. Then he opened his own pharmacy on the corner of Central Avenue and Eighth Street.

More story:The legacy of Anthony and Henry DeKruif

More story:The DeBruyns’ Final Chapter

More story:The first mayor of the Netherlands excelled in management

In 1907, he started the DePree Chemical Co. and built a three-story headquarters on Sixth Street and Central Avenue. There he produced an air freshener product under the San-Tox brand.

In 1912, DePree employed 15 street vendors who relied on pharmacists. He also had a laboratory and sales office in Chicago, run by his brother James. Prior to joining the company, James played football at the University of Michigan and coached baseball and basketball at the University of Tennessee.

By the 1920s, the DePree Chemical campus covered the entire block of Sixth Street between River and Central Avenue, and included a complementary printing and paper box manufacturing business.

With the help of P. Henry DePree, Edward DePree, Gerrit Diekema and Charles McLean, Con DePree formed DePree Laboratories. Among its chemists were James DePree, Andrew Hyma and John Van Zoeren.

Initially, they researched an antibody called arsphenamine, discovered during World War I to treat syphilis and other illnesses. Later, James DePree developed a vitamin B tablet made from wheat germ, which became a bestseller under the Wheatamin brand.

In 1923, Con DePree, Diekema and others served on the board of the Holland Maid Company, which manufactured an electric washing machine. The company was initially very successful, employing 200 men and operating 50 trucks and 28 branches.

Hope College Van Zoeren Hall

But the first machine turned out to be poorly designed. So in 1927, Holland Maid launched a new machine. But in 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression, the company went out of business.

In 1933, the DePree company was also broke. However, it reappeared with Willis Diekema, Gerrit Diekema’s son, as president. One of his successful products was an insecticide called Vermi-Tox.

In the late 1930s, the DePree company reintroduced San-Tox, later called Nurse Brand, a line of toiletries. In the 1950s, he introduced the deodorant tablet chlorophyll, which got a big boost when Paul DeKruif, from Zealand, wrote an article about the drug in Readers Digest.

In 1977, the Chattem Drug Company bought the company. The DePree Building at Central Avenue and Sixth Street still stands.

One of the DePree chemists was Gerrit John Van Zoeren. Born in Vriesland in 1884, he began attending Hope College in 1904, commuting on the Interurban, an electric railway that linked Holland to Grand Rapids via Zeeland and Vriesland.

Zoeren graduated from Hope in 1912, then studied chemistry at the University of Illinois.

In 1914, he married Anna Elizabeth Lawton, a graduate of Teachers College in Kentucky. Back in Holland, John took a job at the Holland Sugar Company. They later moved to Montreal, where John studied and taught at McGill University’s McDonald College, earning his master’s degree in 1917.

DePree Chemical Manufacturing Facility from the University of Calvin's Conrad and Dee Bult Postcard Collection

During World War I, John served in the Chemical Warfare Division, where he worked on explosives.

In 1919, Van Zoeren accepted a job with the Holland Aniline Company, a manufacturer of dyes. In 1922, he joined DePree Laboratories. When the company went bankrupt in 1933, the Van Zoerens moved to Noblesville, Indiana, where John conducted research on embalming fluid.

In 1935, the Van Zoerens returned to Holland. After turning down an offer to teach at Hope College, John rented a lab from the DePree Company. Later, with financial backing from Edward DePree, then working for Monsanto in St. Louis, Van Zoeren developed Carbromal, a mild sedative, for the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo.

Then Van Zoeren, DePree and Dr. Lucas Kyrides started Chemical Specialties Inc.

In 1940, the city of Zeeland enticed Chemical Specialties with 3.5 acres of land on N. Centennial Street, provided the company met a certain payroll target, which it exceeded.

Subscribe:Learn more about our latest subscription offers!

In 1947, the partners sold their business to Miles Laboratories, which earned Van Zoeren over 10,000 Miles shares.

In 1959, the Van Zoerens donated this stock—then worth $550,000—to Hope College for a library. It was the essence of their fortune.

Gerrit John Van Zoeren died in 1980.

Information on these stories comes from “Holland, Michigan” by Robert Swierenga, Hope College Digital Commons, The Zeeland Record, rpwrhs.org and Ancestry.com.

— Steve VanderVeen is a resident of the Netherlands and writes about local business history. Check out his book series at kickstarter.com/projects/holland-me/holland-and-me-the-series.

About Margie Peters

Check Also

The coolest back-to-school gear for elementary school kids

As they have done for decades, elementary schools are currently sending parents a list of …