Agnes Tuinstra (1885 - 1921)

Agnes “Aggie” Tuinstra
(1885 – 1921)

My great-grandmother, Agnes Tuinstra, was born to Frisian-Dutch immigrants, Geert Tuinstra and Doetje Wiersma, on September 1, 1885 in Grand Rapids, Kent County, Michigan.  She was most likely born at home, and it is possible that “home” was 2 Fifth Street, the residence of her parents and paternal grandfather, Auke Caspers Tuinstra.  In 1914, the houses in West Grand Rapids were renumbered, so this house--if it still exists--is probably located either at the 900 or 1000 block of Fifth Street.  Aggie appears to have been named for her maternal grandmother, Akke Dirks (Renema) Wiersma, who was also nicknamed "Aggie".

Agnes was possibly a triplet.  One family source claims that two other children were born in 1885 to Geert and Doetje:  Assar, who apparently died that same year; and Anke,  who died in 1891.  I have not been able to prove or disprove this information.  Doetje did state in the 1900 Federal Census that she had given birth to nine children, and only eight were living.  This would certainly account for Anke.  It is likely that Assar was a stillborn, and thus was not counted as one of her children born live.

At any rate, Aggie was the eldest surviving child of a family of nine children, the rest of whom were boys.  Her younger brothers were William (1887 - 1963); John (1888 - 1952); Jacob (1890 - 1970); Auke (Oscar) (1891 - 1965); Dick (1893 - ?); Geert (George) (1895 - 1970); and Herman (1900 - 1939).  Another brother, Ale (Allen), died at almost four years old.

By 1900, when the Federal Census was taken, 14-year-old Aggie, her parents, and six of her younger brothers were living at (what was then) 454 West Leonard Street.  Two years later, she was working as a cigar maker for the Johnson Cigar Company, and the family was at 222 Alpine Avenue, along with several other members of the extended Tuinstra family.  In 1905, their home was at 506 Crosby Street, and by 1907, it was located at 520 West Avenue (present-day Valley Avenue).

Also working at the cigar company were two sisters, Jennie and Gertrude Valk.  Perhaps they introduced Aggie to their brother William.  On July 1, 1909, Aggie and William James Valk were married in Grand Rapids by officiant J. J. Hiemenga.  Jennie Valk and a friend, John Doornbos, were witnesses.  William was residing in Grandville (Kent County) at the time; it may be that he and Aggie spent the early months of their marriage there.  However, by May 15, 1910, when their first son, James William “Jim” Valk was born, they were back in the Grand Rapids area.  Their second son, George William Valk, was also born there on July 27, 1911.  When my grandfather, William “Bill” Valk, Jr., was born on October 30, 1912, the family was living at 1242 Courtney Street, a home that had long been occupied (if not owned) by various Tuinstra family members.

Three more sons quickly followed: John Chester “Chet”, born February 7, 1914; Oscar William, born February 2, 1916; and Theodore William “Ted”, born August 12, 1917.  A daughter--Barbara Dorothy Valk, named for her grandmothers--was finally born on July 18, 1918, along with her stillborn twin brother, John.  See the bottom of this page for more information on these children.

These last children were born during World War I.  The pandemic influenza plague then took its toll on the war-torn world, and affected the Valk family as well.  Jennie Valk (Aggie's sister-in-law), who was three months pregnant, lost her husband Gerrit John Heidema, Sr. to the flu.  Aggie also succumbed to influenza; but although she survived physically, she was never again the same mentally.  When the 1920 Federal Census was taken, the devastation to Aggie’s family was evident: she was living at Mitchelt Cottage at Kalamazoo State Hospital (Kalamazoo County).  William was living alone at their home at 1006 White Avenue.  Ten-year-old Jim was living at the home of his Valk grandparents at 1315 West Leonard Street, along with his widowed Aunt Jennie and her son Gerrit Heidema, Jr.  George, Chet, Ted and Barbara were living at Blodgett Children’s Home.  My grandfather Bill was living at the home of Gerrit and Jennie Jarstra at 1149 Pine Avenue.  Perhaps they were relatives or a foster family.  And Oscar, whom I have yet to find on that census, apparently was living in a foster home, where he spent most of his childhood.

Interestingly enough, Aggie was enumerated twice during the 1920 census.  As well as residing at Kalamazoo State Hospital (on January 31st), she is also shown living at 1006 Twelfth Street (on January 7th), just around the corner from the Jarstra family and her son Bill.  Her marital status is listed as widowed (in those days, it was common for divorced or separated persons to pass as widowed, because of the stigma associated with that status).  My theory is that her normal residence was at 1006 Twelfth Street.  She may have been committed to the state hospital between January 7th and 31st; or perhaps she had been in Kalamazoo for a while, and the enumerator simply recorded her regular residence on Twelfth Street, using information obtained from a landlord or neighbor (the mysterious Jarstra family?).  Was she divorced?  Probably not.  William states his status as married on the same census, and Aggie’s death record also states she was married.  It is possible they were separated, due to Aggie’s poor mental health.

On August 25, 1921, Agnes Tuinstra died at Cutlerville Psychopathic Hospital in Gaines Township (Kent County) from myocarditis (heart infection).  She was only 35 years old.  Her funeral was held on August 29th at the Twelfth Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids; her body was buried the following day in Greenwood Cemetery (Block S, Lot 284, Sub-block A, Space 1). (obituary)

There are so many questions I have about Aggie: did she truly suffer from mental illness due to influenza (as did the patients in the film Awakenings), or was her mental health poor before?  Was it possible that she suffered from Parkinson's Disease, as have several of her descendants; and if so, was that the reason she was institutionalized?  Why did she die so young?  Who were the Jarstras?  A Richard Jarstra is buried in a cemetery lot very near Aggie’s.  It’s very likely he was the 21-year-old Dick Jarstra living in the home of Gerrit and Jennie Jarstra at the time they were caring for my grandfather.  Were they related to Agnes?  What is their connection?  I hope to someday resolve all these questions.


James "Jim" William Valk was born 15 May 1910 in Grand Rapids, Kent Co., Michigan.  On 14 June 1941, he married Thelma Lawrence (c. 1913 - 2001 [obituary]) in Sault Ste. Marie, Chippewa Co., Michigan.  He served in the U.S. Army.  He died 19 June 1997 in Kent Co., and was buried two days later in the Floral Memorial Gardens, Kent Co., Michigan.  He and Thelma did not have any children. (obituary)

George William Valk was born 27 July 1911 in Grand Rapids.  He died 30 September 1973, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Walker Twp., Kent Co., Michigan.  He never married or had children. (obituary)

William "Bill" Valk – my maternal grandfather

John Chester "Chet" Valk was born 7 February 1914 in Grand Rapids.  When he was born, his name was entered as William Thomas Valk on his birth certificate.  It may have been a transposition error – in other words, he may have originally been named Thomas William Valk.  However, the family later decided on John Chester or “Chet” for short, but never had it recorded.  When he joined the U. S. Army during World War II and had to obtain his birth certificate for identity purposes, the name "William Thomas Valk" was discovered.  He had it legally changed.  Chet was a paratrooper for the 101st Airborne, U.S. Army, and was killed in action on 31 December 1944 over Foy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.  He was buried at Rosedale Memorial Park, which lies on the Ottawa – Kent county line, Michigan.  He had been married to Elfriede (Lomker) Valk (1920 - 1983), who was the first wife of his brother Bill; and was raising his nephew, James Frederick Valk (1939 - 1958), as a son. (obituary)

Oscar William Valk was born 2 February 1916 in Grand Rapids.  On 10 August 1938, he married Edith Seif (1917 - 1985) in Moline, Allegan County, Michigan.  They had eight children, including Oscar Valk, Jr. (1943 - 1944).  (obituary)

Theodore William "Ted" Valk was born 12 August 1917 in Grand Rapids.  He served as a corporal during World War II.  He married and had three children.  After the war, he and his family lived first in California, then in Boise, Ada County, Idaho.  He died of complications of Parkinson's Disease on 8 September 2002 in Boise, and was buried six days later in Dry Creek Cemetery, Boise. (obituary)

Barbara Dorothy Valk was born a twin on 30 July 1918 in Grand Rapids.  She was named for her grandmothers.  She served as a missionary in Africa for 38 years with Baptist Mid-Missions.  She died 13 January 2001 in Grand Rapids.  She never married or had children. (obituary)

John Valk, twin to Barbara, was stillborn, and is believed to be buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

More about my great-grandmother, Agnes Tuinstra, can be found in the AnceStories of her parents, Geert "George" Aukes Tuinstra and Doetje "Dorothy" Wiersma, her husband William James Valk, and their son William “Bill” Valk.

I would like to acknowledge the research help of Nancy Firlik and Susan McGaughey Barillas for this biography, as well as the wonderful information that my late grandfather, Bill Valk, shared with me shortly before his death.  Photo of Agnes Tuinstra, c. 1905, is courtesy of Karla Zeilstra Van Molen.  Photo of Agnes's grave is courtesy of Mark Smith of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness.


Detailed information on the above sources, as well as photocopies, are available by request.

Miriam (Robbins) Midkiff
created: 1 September 2003
updated: 11 November 2005

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