Riches to Rags | Ep. 229

Download Audio
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Ever heard the expression, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”?

It’s a way of saying that what one person might see as useless, another person might see as priceless. And in today’s story, this saying doesn’t just come to life; it sprouts to life!

Our story is “Riches to Rags.” Versions of this tale come from the European country of the Netherlands.

Voices in this episode include Ryan Dalusung, Tom Bodette and Roxanne Roberts. Tom and Roxanne are veteran panelists on Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, the NPR news quiz. In fact, Roxanne appeared on the very first episode ever! She’s also a longtime journalist and columnist for The Washington Post.

Tom Bodett is a regular contributor to The Moth storytelling series. He’s written oodles of books, including "The End of the Road," "As Far As You Can Go Without A Passport: The View From The End Of The Road," and "The Big Garage on Clear Shot: Growing Up, Growing Old, and Going Fishing at the End of the Road."

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Sofie Kodner. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

GROWN-UPS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so please share your picture on Facebook and Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRoundPodcast. To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Now it’s your turn!

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

What’s something in your life that’s “so valuable, it’s invaluable… so precious, it’s priceless”?

It could be a person, an animal, a prized possession…it could even be something like quality time with your favorite friend, or a warm hug from your favorite grown-up! Or perhaps it’s an idea – like kindness, imagination, or peace.

Whatever it is, find someone you have fun with and tell them all about it. Then when you’re done, ask them to tell you about something they truly treasure!

Musical Spotlight: Barrel Organ

The barrel organ belongs to the “automatophone” family: i.e. instruments that produce music by mechanical processes. (Image used under license from
The barrel organ belongs to the “automatophone” family: i.e. instruments that produce music by mechanical processes. (Image used under license from

The barrel organ belongs to the “automatophone” family: i.e. instruments that produce music by mechanical processes. So unlike other organs – which require a keyboard to be played – the barrel organ has a barrel inside, with notes decided by an arrangement of pins.

To play the barrel organ, you turn a crank. The barrel then rotates, and the pins inside lift "keys" that open valves. The open valves let in air from the bellows; the air activates the organ’s pipes. It’s similar to a simple music box, where the pins pluck a metal harp.

Barrel organs have been part of Dutch street life for centuries. To this day, if you travel to most villages and cities, you’re bound to come across a “barrel organ man” cranking his organ with one hand and shaking his money box with the other. You can find dozens of barrel organs on display at the Barrel Organ Museum Haarlem in North Holland.

Story Transcript:

NARRATOR: On the northern coast of the Netherlands lies a small, sleepy, seaside hamlet known as Stavoren.

But once upon a time, Stavoren was neither “small” nor “sleepy.” And it wasn’t just a hamlet! It was a hopping, thriving port city – a wealthy one, too.

With so many fishing boats and merchant ships bringing goods in and out of the harbor, Stavoren was brimming with prosperous people – all of them eager to put their wealth on display. Their mansions and manor houses boasted no less than a dozen chimneys apiece, and each grand abode was adorned with glittering gold: from the golden locks on the doors to the golden shingles on the roofs.

Among Stavoren’s very well-to-do was a woman named Frederika. Frederika’s wealth came from a large fleet of trading ships that had been in her family for generations. And yet, despite Frederika’s riches, her sole thought – day and night – was how she might further increase her bounty.

FREDERIKA: I want to be the envy of everyone in this town – and everyone in the world! I want to have the greatest fortune of all! (beat) And I know just how I’ll get it.

NARRATOR: The largest ship in Frederika’s fleet was helmed by a wise old captain by the name of Willem. Frederika invited Willem to her mansion, ushered him to one of her many spacious sitting rooms, sat him down on one of her many plush velvet sofas, then announced she was giving him… a mission.

FREDERIKA: First thing tomorrow, I want you to ready your ship and set sail out of the harbor and across the sea. When you come back, I want you to bring me the most precious treasure you can find. A treasure so PRECIOUS, it’s PRICELESS! So VALUABLE, it’s INvaluable! 

NARRATOR: Now, unlike Frederika and the other people of Stavoren, Willem came from humble beginnings. He spent his childhood on a wheat farm, before running off to the sea in search of adventure. But even though he now worked in a city where even the roof shingles were made of gold, he never forgot his modest roots.

WILLEM: My lady. I appreciate you giving me this rather intriguing assignment. It’s not every day you’re asked to bring back a treasure so PRECIOUS, it’s PRICELESS! So VALUABLE, it’s INvaluable! (beat) But if I may be so bold as to ask: why me? Why not pick some other captain in your fleet to do this job?

FREDERIKA: Because YOU, Willem, are the oldest captain in my service, and the most experienced! You have made more voyages, and longer voyages, than anyone.

WILLEM: That may be true… but how will I know when I have found “the most precious treasure”? How will I know what it is?

FREDERIKA: Oh, something tells me you’ll know it when you see it. And when you do, I order you to buy up as much of it as possible – fill your entire ship with it, if you can – then bring it back to me.

WILLEM: But… if I may ask… what happens if I don’t find what you’re looking for?

NARRATOR: Frederika paused and fixed Willem with an expression so icy, he actually felt a chill.

FREDERIKA: (cold, icy, dramatic) If you don’t find what I’m looking for, Willem, then the answer is simple. You need never to return to this port again. EVER. (beat) Now GO!

NARRATOR: What do you think:

Will Willem find the “most precious treasure”?

And if so, what might it be?

We’ll hear what happens next, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to Circle Round. Today our story is called “Riches to Rags.”

NARRATOR: Before the break, Frederika wished to be the envy of everyone in the wealthy port city of Stavoren. So she called on Willem, the captain of her largest ship, and gave him an assignment.

FREDERIKA: You must bring me a treasure so PRECIOUS, it’s PRICELESS! So VALUABLE, it’s INvaluable!

NARRATOR: Willem agreed to the mission, then he and his crew hoisted anchor, and set sail from Stavoren’s harbor. But not long after their ship reached the open sea, a vicious storm came rolling in!

NARRATOR: Thunder bellowed and lightning crackled as white-capped waves crashed across the deck. Sheets of rain poured from the ink-black sky, and gusts of wind rocked Willem and his crew to and fro.

WILLEM: Mighty fine time for a storm to roll in, isn’t it men? Best to stay calm and fold in the sails!

NARRATOR: The crew did as they were told. And come morning…

NARRATOR: …they were relieved to see that the rain had let up, the skies had cleared, and the sea had steadied. They were even more relieved when Willem looked through his telescope… and spotted land!

WILLEM: Look at that, men! A village! Let’s pull into port. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll find the precious treasure Frederika so desperately seeks!

NARRATOR: After striding down the gangplank, however, Willem felt his heart drain of hope. Because he soon discovered that this place wasn’t nearly as well-to-do as Stavoren was – not by a long shot! Instead of grand mansions and manor houses adorned with gold, he saw forlorn shacks and hovels covered with peeling paint.

WILLEM: Oh dear. How am I supposed to find a “precious treasure” in this woebegone place?

NARRATOR: But just as he was about to turn around and head back to port…

WILLEM: Wait! What do I see at the bottom of this hill? (beat) It’s… a farm! A wheat farm! With a big granary. And look! The granary is filled to the rafters with wheat!

NARRATOR: A smile dawned across Willem’s face. As you may recall: he had grown up on a wheat farm. And all at once, his brain flooded with childhood memories of harvesting wheat and milling it into flour with his family. Father used the flour to bake the most delicious bread, which Mother then took to the market to sell.

WILLEM: …Though more often than not, she gave much of it away! Times were hard in our village, and everyone was struggling to get by. Mother couldn’t bear to see anyone go hungry. “Bread is the staff of life,” she would say. “Simple… but precious.” (beat) (GASP!) Wait a minute… That’s it! 

NARRATOR: Willem took to his heels and raced down the hill. He tracked down the wheat farmer, and told her he wanted to buy all the wheat in her granary.

WILLEM: And please, deliver half of the wheat to my ship in the harbor. My crew and I will load it into the cargo hold. As for the other half, hand it out to the people of this town. As a gift from me.

NARRATOR: Later that day… with a hold full of wheat, and a heart full of hope… Willem waved goodbye to the grateful villagers who had gathered on the dock to see him off. Then he and his crew hoisted anchor and set sail.

When they reached Stavoren, the harbor was buzzing with the city’s wealthiest, all donning their fanciest frocks and jostling for a better view. Standing up front, with her bejeweled hands on her hips, was Frederika.

FREDERIKA: Welcome back, Willem! So…? What have you brought me…?

WILLEM: I have brought what you requested, my lady! A treasure so PRECIOUS, it’s PRICELESS! So VALUABLE, it’s INvaluable! (beat) Show her what it is, men!

NARRATOR: The crew grasped on to the hold doors. The moment they swung them open…

NARRATOR: … revealing the wheat inside… everyone in the crowd began to laugh.

NARRATOR: Well… everyone except Fredrika! She frowned, knitted her brow, then fixed Willem with a glare.

FREDERIKA: Willem! How dare you make a fool of me???? (beat) I order you to dump this ridiculous wheat into the harbor… then sail away forever! 

NARRATOR: The amused crowd gathered closer, eager to see the drama unfold. Willem threw up his hands.

WILLEM: But my lady! Don’t you see? Dumping this wheat into the harbor would be criminal! It can be turned into flour! Then baked into bread! The staff of life!

FREDERIKA: “Staff of life,” my foot! Wheat is common. Bread is common. And I have no place in my luxurious life for the common!

NARRATOR: Willem’s eyes scanned the crowd, in search of a sympathetic face. Finding none, he turned back to Frederika.

WILLEM: My lady. You’re right. Your life IS luxurious. You have a mansion, you have servants, you have an entire fleet of ships. (beat) But fortune is fickle, and fortune can change – for the better, or for the worse. And who knows? The day may come when your fortune changes. The day may come when you are so very poor… and your belly is so very empty… that you would view this wheat as anything but “common.” You would view it as precious.

NARRATOR: Frederika gave Willem a long look, silent and unblinking. Then, she held up one of her bejeweled hands, pulled a dazzling ruby ring from her finger, and with all of her might…


NARRATOR: … she hurled the ring into the sea!

FREDERIKA: So! ‘My fortune might change,’ you say?!?? And I might be ‘poor’?!??? With an ‘empty belly’?!?? (beat) Nonsense! I am as likely to become poor and hungry as I am of finding that ring again! (beat) Now dump your cargo into the harbor, Willem, and sail away. I never want to see you, or that silly wheat, ever again!

NARRATOR: Frederika spun on her heel and stormed off. Willem watched her go. Then as he and his crew sailed out of Stavoren’s harbor, he gave the fateful orders.

WILLEM: (a bit sad) Go ahead, men! Empty the cargo!

NARRATOR: And just like that, every single grain of wheat was dumped overboard into the depths of the harbor, and Willem and his crew sailed away.

A few days later, Frederika was pacing her bedroom, as she fretted over which of her many gowns she should wear to dinner.

FREDERIKA: I look so ravishing in the lace gown! But I look equally stunning in the silk! And the satin! Ugh. What to do, what to do?????

NARRATOR: All at once, the door flew open…

NARRATOR: … and in burst one of Frederika’s many cooks. His body was quivering like a leaf in a hurricane.

COOK: My lady!!!

FREDERIKA: What is it, cook?! What’s wrong with you? (beat) Are you still miffed that I scolded you for using the silver plates instead of the gold ones at breakfast? Because honestly, you should have known better!

COOK: No, my lady! It isn’t that. Something happened while I was preparing the fish for dinner just now! The plump mackerel I bought today at the market?

FREDERIKA: What about it?

COOK: Well… I laid the fish on the table so I could clean it before I cooked it up. I fetched my knife so I could slice it open. But the moment I cut into the fish’s belly, what should I see sitting inside… but THIS!

NARRATOR: The cook opened a trembling hand… and there… on his quivering palm… was a ruby ring. The same dazzling ruby ring Frederika had thrown into the sea!

COOK: I heard about what you said when you tossed this ring into the harbor, my lady. You said you were as likely to become poor and hungry – (gets interrupted)

FREDERIKA: (brusquely interrupting finishing the sentence) …as I was of finding this ring again! Yes, I remember what I said! (beat) But come now. Just because I said something like that, do you really think it could come true? My fortune is not going to change just because of some ring. Mark my words. 

NARRATOR: And yet… not long after that… Frederika’s fortune did change. She soon received news that one of the ships in her fleet had been wrecked at sea, and though the crew survived, the cargo was lost.


NARRATOR: The same thing happened with another one of her ships…

FREDERIKA: (more distressed) Oh no!

NARRATOR: …then another…

FREDERIKA: (even more distressed) Oh no!

NARRATOR: …then another!

FREDERIKA: (most distressed) Oh no, no, NO!

NARRATOR: Before she knew it, Frederika had no ships left – save for Willem’s, which by now was halfway across the world!

Not that it mattered. Because the people of Stavoren soon discovered that no ships – Frederika’s or otherwise – were able to sail into their port. Something under the water was getting in their way: a mysterious barrier that was blocking off the harbor from the sea.

Any guesses what that barrier was…?

If you said WHEAT, you are correct!

All the wheat that Frederika had forced Willem to dump overboard had taken root on the bottom of the harbor and was growing wild! And it didn’t just stop ships; it stopped tides! The tides could no longer flow freely, so the harbor silted up, a sandbar formed, and Stavoren’s thriving sea trade screeched… to a halt.

And thus it was that the prosperous port city transformed into a small, sleepy hamlet. The people became poor, and hungry, and longing for the wheat that could have been harvested and milled and turned into bread, the staff of life.

Among those people… was Frederika.

But although the haughty lady may have lost everything, there is one thing she gained: a place in history. Because to this very day, the sandbar beneath Stavoren’s harbor is known as “The Lady’s Sand.”

It’s her eternal reward – or punishment – for pouring scorn on something so valuable, it’s invaluable… and something so precious, it’s priceless.

Headshot of Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



More from Circle Round

Listen Live