Belgian Americans







The Belgian settlement in Gardner, Union and Brussels

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The following narrative of how the Belgian immigration started and how they came to locate in this part of Wisconsin, told by one of the original immigrants, is of great interest:

"In 1853 ten families, mostly from the commune of Grez Doiceau, County of Wavre, Province of Brabant, Belgium - all of them owning homesteads there, with more or less land, upon which they were able to support their families and provide a suitable education for their children - conceived the idea of emigrating to the New World. With that object in view, they held meetings at each other's houses to discuss what part of America would most likely improve their condition and that of their children. After due consideration, and before deciding what state they would settle in, they sold out their homes in Belgium and, bidding farewell to their relatives and friends in the fatherland, departed for the United States.

"They had contracted with a vessel from Antwerp, and the venturesome emigrants reached that seaport on May 14th, remaining there several days waiting for the departure of the ship in which they had agreed to take passage, meanwhile making preparations to supply their wants during the voyage. May 18th, they boarded the Queenebec, an old three masted sailing craft, which about noon set forth with its 325 passengers, toward the land of promise.

"The names of the heads of these ten families who formed the first Belgian settlement in the County of Brown, are as follows: Francois Petiniot, Etienne Detienne, Martin Paque, Phillip Hannon, Adrian Masy, Joseph Moreau, Jean Baptiste Detienne, Joseph Jossart, Lambert Bodart, and Jean Martin; with them were their wives and children. The passage from Antwerp to New York was long, tedious, and rough, attended with several terrific hurricanes, one of which carried off the mainmast of the ship. There were many hardships, such as hunger, thirst, sickness, and one death; but finally they arrived in New York harbor, July 5th, having been tossed on the troublous sea for forty eight days.

"Whenever on the voyage the weather was fine, the heads of the families would congregate and there exchange their views about the state likely to be the best for them in which to settle. From a little pamphlet in which several of the western states were well advertised, Wisconsin seemed to the most of the party the best and most suitable on account of its land, its water and its timber, and its climate. This last is nearly the same as that of Belgium, with the exception that the winters are longer in Wisconsin; but considering the purity of its atmosphere, and the large volume of snowfall during the winter months, facilitating traffic, the conditions were thought to be favorable in Wisconsin. A more hopeful little band of emigrants never set sail for America. For honesty, energy and perseverance, considering that they came from a rural district, they were good specimens of a country whose history shows its love for human progress, for self improvement, and for self government.

"It was on board ship that the majority of them decided to locate in Wisconsin; and upon their landing in New York, July 5th, 1852, they proceeded at once towards Wisconsin with the exception of two families, those of Martin Paque and Jean Martin, who remained in Philadelphia for a few months - arriving in Milwaukee the latter part of July. After a few days in that young city, spent in consultation and rest, they proceeded northward along the lake shore, until they arrived at Sheboygan, where they stopped, believing they had gone far enough. Here they began prospecting for land, and had almost come to the conclusion to settle near that town, having found a suitable location; but as none of them could speak anything but French and the Walloon (a Latin patois, said to be a relic of the Roman Empire), they were considerably annoyed by not being able to communicate with the people of Sheboygan. At this juncture they met a gentleman who could speak French, and he informed them that at Green Bay nearly half of the people spoke that language; and besides that, the land, the water, the timber and the climate were as good as in Sheboygan or anywhere else in the State of Wisconsin. Hence they at once decided to proceed to Green Bay, where they arrived the latter part of August. Here they found many French-Canadian families who could speak their language, and so they decided to locate permanently in the neighborhood of these folk.

"Leaving their families in what is now the City of Green Bay, the men went out of town in search of a suitable location for a settlement. After several days' prospecting they concluded to settle along the Fox River near Kaukauna, about twenty miles south of Green Bay; and were it not for an incident that occurred just at that time, the Belgian settlement would, in all probability, be today situated between Wrightstown and Appleton. But it happened otherwise. The death of a child in the family of Phillip Hannon caused a delay of a few days, and was the means of determining the locality of settlement of 20,000 Belgians who are now in the counties of Brown, Kewaunee and Door. The funeral of the child above mentioned occurred at St. John's Catholic Church, in Green Bay. Father Daems of the Bay settlement happened to be visiting the pastor of St. John's. Father Daems, himself a Belgian, was glad to meet some of his countrymen, and the little band were happy to make his acquaintance. They told Father Daems where they had concluded to settle, but he persuaded them to abandon their first selected location, forfeit the payments on the entries of land they had made near Kaukauna, and settle on sections 1, 2 and 3, towsnhip 24 north, range 22 east; also sections 34, 35 and 36, township 25 north, range 22 east, which sections are adjoining From that time on this district has been called 'The First Belgian Settlement.' (Fr., Aux Premier Beiges.)

"Here the little colony lost no time in hunting the deer and the bears, which at that time were in abundance in the neighborhood. Each having selected as much land as he wanted, paid the Government $1.25 per acre, and at once began to build small hewed log houses, which they covered with cedar bark, making benches with split blocks, beds with branches and leaves, using their trunks for tables. For several days and nights they were obliged to live and sleep in the open air, with nothing above their heads but the canopy of heaven. On the second night after their arrival, there came a terrific rain storm which drenched them to the skin. Phillip Hannon and wife, both of whom are yet living, informed the writer that all they had to protect themselves and their goods from the pouring rain was one umbrella.

"The little party were ten miles away from any house, in a virgin forest consisting of a thick growth of pine, maple, beech, cedar, basswood, etc., many of the trees being five and even six feet in diameter, and some over a hundred and fifty feet tall, without roads of any kind, not even a trail; with no neighbors, no horses, no cattle; nothing but the occasional visit of a wolf, a deer or a bear, coming around their little huts, and on more than one occasion taking the pork they had brought with them. These and other hardships incident to frontier life of those days would have discouraged many people under the same circumstances, but not this brave little band. Their firm belief in Providence, and the desire for self improvement, gave them courage and strength to acquire a competence in the near future for themselves and their children.

"They had promised their friends and relatives at home that, as soon as they had settled in the New World, they would write to them the facts and circumstances of their voyage, their arrival and their settlement. This promise they kept, within a few weeks of their arrival; without encouraging any one to come and join them, they simply said, after telling the story of their migration, that they were satisfied with their new homes in America. These letters were pored over by thousands of people in Belgium, who would come from long distances to read them. Overlooking all the difficulties, which had not been dwelt upon by the colonists, the Belgians at home were delighted with the fresh descriptions of the primitive American forest, and their passion for acquiring land was thereby quickened. Many of them sold everything they had in Belgium, and hastened to join their former neighbors and friends in Wisconsin.

"In 1854-55 a large stream of Belgian immigrants - estimated at 15,000 - followed the trail of the pioneers and, locating on Government land in the counties of Brown, Kewaunee and Door, formed other settlements, naming them as follows: La Sucrerie, La Riviere Rouge, La Riviere des Loups, La Misere, St. Sauveur, Rosiere, Walhain, L'Union, Brussels, Thiry Daems, Aux Flamand, Granlez, A la Petite Baie. Everywhere that they could find land in the three counties, the Belgians founded their little colonies.

"The most of these men were tillers of the soil; a few were mechanics, such as masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, machinists, tailors, shoemakers, coopers; some came from cloth factories and other industrial establishments; but all seemed tired of their trades and wanted to become farmers on land that they could call their own. But many of those who came in 1854 and 1855 were doomed to bitter disappointment; for the tilling of the soil was one thing, while the clearing of the land of its heavy timber, in order that the soil might ultimately be tilled, was quite another. Those who had money enough to support themselves and their families for two years could at once go to clearing part of their land, so as to get a crop the second year; but those who were not so fortunate were compelled to work at very low wages, at anything they could find, so as to provide bread for their wives and children. As a result, in 1855, real hardship overtook hundreds of families; the want of work and the high prices for provisions, and no money, necessarily made them suffer for the want of food. Many families were without bread for weeks at a time, feeding on whatever they could find, such as fish, wild onions and roots. This was followed by a disease resembling Asiatic cholera, attacking nearly every family in the settlement; death resulted in a few days, sometimes in a few hours, the corpse turning black immediately after death. Not a few families lost as many as five of their members in a single week; most of them were buried on their own land and in great haste. This bad news soon reached the fatherland through letters written to relatives; a few returned home, carrying to their old neighbors sad reports of the calamities that had befallen the Belgian settlers of Northeastern Wisconsin; this at once checked immigration, and for the next five years very few families came over.

"During the first four years of the Belgian settlements, the people were struggling to keep body and soul together. Shut out as they were from the world outside, not understanding the English language, and thus far unable to obtain anyone to come and teach it to them, they felt that their lot was indeed a hard one. Nevertheless they were not discouraged; they taught the French language to their children; and held religious meetings in their log cabins, with an occasional priest to visit them and administer to their spiritual wants. Another difficulty against which they had to contend, was the cutting and building of roads, which had to be opened through dense forests, often threading deep ravines and crossing swamps over which they would lay 'corduroy,' which made travel difficult and even dangerous for man and beast. These roads, when cut and built, were less than twenty five feet wide, and on either side rose enormous trees which prevented the sun from drying them; so that the highways, full of stumps and stones and deep water holes, were in wretched condition all the year around."

After the first company of Belgian families had become settled in their new homes in the forest of Brown County they sent letters to friends in Belgium. These letters painted things in rather glowing colors, dwelling on the cheapness of the land, the magnificent timber and the superiority of the American form of government. As a result a very large number was induced to follow their venturesome friends to the New World. These people came, several shiploads of them, to America and then by canal boat and lake steamers to Green Bay. Here they scattered, some to work in Green Bay, while most of them settled in the vicinity of the first arrivals in Aux Premier Beiges. In order to secure the best lands many of them clubbed together and sent out a couple of experienced surveyors and land seekers from Belgium to hunt lands for them. These surveyors were named Celestine Thiry and ____ Mensart. These two men went north into Door County and first located a lot of land near the shore in the northwestern part of the present Town of Gardner. Here the first Belgians in Door County settled in 1855. These were Henry Gigot, Sr., John Debraux, John B. Tricot, John Balza, Martin Sacotte, John L. Dequier, Joseph and William Delsippee. These were followed the next year by E. J. B. Dalemont, John B., Christopher and Alexander Herlathe, Joseph Colignon, Jacques, Henry and Nicholas Neuville, Melchior Vranken, John Counard and Joseph Labigois.

In 1856 the same land surveyors also located several colonies of Belgians in Union and Brussels. Among these were Gabriel and his son Joseph De Keyser, Francois Degrandgagnage, Jacques Charles, Guillaume Delwiche, Alexander Everard, Thomas Desmond, Pierre Martin, Chas. Derondal, John Englebert, Leopold Lefevre, Clement Bassine, Joseph Gaspart, Theodore Rouer, Charles Dewit, Antoine Mohemont, Antoine Beaugent and quite a number of others. Most of these people walked in on foot from the Bay settlement - a distance of twenty miles - without roads or trails of any kind. They plunged through the deep forest, crossing swamps and creeks and climbing over the rotting windfalls with their scant possessions and perhaps a baby on their back. One company of them whose lands were near the bay took passage on a small steamer which had just started to navigate the waters of the bay. They were heading for Sugar Creek in the southwestern corner of Gardner, but just before they reached this point the steamer was thrown on the beach. This company had a large supply of potatoes with them for their winter supplies and Melvin Haines, whose father had settled there the preceding spring, tells of how the Belgians toted potatoes on their back up through the woods for weeks. The Belgians, however, are a very patient and thrifty class of people and they did not bemoan the great hardships they had to go through in making a home or a living in such a distant savage wilderness. Hastily making a little den of logs and brush where their wives and children could stay for the time being, most of them left their homes for distant cities where they could find work. Being competent mechanics, artisans and weavers, they thus made their living for the first few years. Now and then they would make pilgrimages on foot, even from Chicago, to see their families.

After a few years of this the work of clearing their farms began in earnest. While doing this they supported themselves by making shingles by hand. In this the whole family helped. The father and the mother sawed the bolts, the father shaved them and the children split and piled them. The best grade was eighteen inches long and one half inch thick. For this $4 per 1,000 was paid in Green Bay. In order to get them there it was necessary for the Belgian pioneer first to make them, then to carry them on his back for miles down to the beach, then watch his chance to load them on a passing vessel and finally pay the freight to Green Bay. However, by everlastingly keeping at it the Belgians made money with their shingles. In 1868 four million hand made shingles were shipped out of Brussels. By this time most of them had obtained a cow or two, which were used both for hauling shingles and plowing.

By incessant toil mingled with good cheer they gradually forged ahead until the wilderness by 1871 was converted into a pleasant settlement with snug log houses and barns. Then one Sunday in October. 1871, an indescribable calamity overtook them. A terrible tornado of fire swept over this section and laid the whole region in utter desolation. Their barns and granaries filled with the fruits of a summer's toil were destroyed in an instant. Their homes were wiped out, their cattle burned to a crisp while fleeing through the woods - even the green timber itself for township after township was totally destroyed. Nothing having wood in its construction escaped. The plow handles were burned in the furrow, the logs in the corduroy roads were consumed, the swamps themselves were burning four feet deep. The people fled in terror to the middle of their plowed fields, thinking that judgment day had come. Yet even here scores of persons were overtaken and burned to death by the all consuming fire.

It was a dreary thing to return to where once were their homes after that nightmare of horrors. The sheltering woods were now all destroyed and nothing was to be seen but the charred stumps of trees. Scarcely a house was left standing in the devastated district which was found to be eight miles wide and thirty miles long. All food and shelter were gone and to the calamity of the dead were added the distress and suffering of the living.

But the human mind is remarkably buoyant, and even this tragedy was met and conquered. The Belgians reared their homes anew and converted their blackened woods into fertile fields. Long since all evidence of the fiery tornado has been removed. The observant traveler will note, however, that the region is strangely open for having been a wooded country. The timber that now stands has all grown up since the fire.

The Belgians are very religious and very soon after the first pioneers came they built little log churches where mass was celebrated by visiting priests. The first was St. Mary's in Union, which was built on the site of the present church in 1860. The second was St. Michael's in Brussels. The third was St. John the Baptist, which stood on the farm of David Laviolette. When this church was built and land set aside for a cemetery in 1866 it was found that the soil was too shallow to permit the digging of graves. However, the cemetery tract was consecrated and seeing there was no soil for graves the good Belgians proceeded to bring it in. A stone wall was built to the height of six feet enclosing the cemetery. Thereupon they scraped the hills and knolls of soil and proceeded to fill up the enclosure to the top of the stone wall. Now this "handmade" cemetery stands up above the level of the surrounding fields in a most conspicuous manner, like the first story of an Egyptian pryamid.

In 1871 the adjoining church was destroyed by the great fire. A large part of the congregation did not fancy the idea of burying their dead "up in the air" and a new church was built about a mile to the north, where the soil was sufficiently deep. A few of the congregation, however, particularly John Joseph Robin and the priest, the Rev. Mr. Paradis, insisted upon building on the old site. As arguments failed, Mr. Robin, with the moral support of the priest, proceeded to build and equip the church, paying the entire cost out of his own pocket.

This affair caused much discussion among the people and was a source of great annoyance to the worthy bishop at Green Bay. Delegation after delegation, first from one church, then from the other, wended their way to Green Bay to lay their case before the bishop and claim the episcopal sanction for their church. At first he recognized only the church built by Mr. Robin, but as the delegations did not cease their pleadings he finally after some years recognized the other also. In his comments he observes that he had more trouble over the church quarrel in Gardner than in all the rest of the diocese combined. As a result there now were two rival churches only a mile apart which became the cause of much

About this time there was a Belgian saloonkeeper in Green Bay by the name of John B. Everts whose wife was very ill. After trying several physicians in vain he was finally directed to a spiritualistic medium who claimed the gift of healing. Mrs. Everts was greatly improved by the treatment she received from the spiritualist and soon recovered. When Mr. Everts paid for the services rendered the spiritualist looked at him in a searching manner and said impressively: "You, too, have the gift of healing. And you also have the gift of prophecy. If you will stop your business of selling rum and permit the spirits to work through you, you will become a great speaker, bringing messages of power to a people hungering for light!" Greatly impressed by this unexpected greeting, Mr. Everts, who had hitherto been a sordid saloonkeeper, renounced his former business and became a great medium.

Soon after this Mr. Everts came to Gardner to visit relatives. While there he held seances in private houses and many were interested. This came to the notice of the priest, Father Stevnard, who in a moment of righteous but unguarded zeal declared that no medium could hold converse with the dead if he (the priest) interposed. This remark caused great developments, as will be seen from the account given below, printed in the Advocate at the time the events took place.

"A religious war is imminent in this town (Gardner) between the Catholics and the spiritualists. A medium from Green Bay named J. B. Everts and the priest who some time last winter came to this part of the county from Canada, are the two leaders in the factional fight which was inaugurated here recently and the indications are that all 'temporal' affairs will have to take a back seat, so to speak, until this 'question is settled. Some weeks ago, so the story runs, the priest is quoted as having made the remark that it would be impossible for the medium to hold converse with the departed ones if he (the priest) was present and he should ordain otherwise. One of the medium's enthusiastic supporters, a gentleman by the name of Duchateau, residing at Green Bay, offered to wager his reverence a cool $1,000 if he was capable of performing what he claimed. The challenge was accepted and the 22d day of last June (1885) at 10 o'clock in the forenoon, was designated and a seance arranged to take place at the residenec of a certain person in the town. At the appointed time several hundred people had assembled to witness the strange and singular performance. Ten o'clock came and went but no priest. After waiting some time longer a horse and buggy was procured and a messenger dispatched in quest of him. Upon the arrival of the latter at the priest's home his reverence refused to accompany him, alleging that he was not fully prepared, but he was finally persuaded, in view of the exigency of the case, to visit the appointed place of meeting. When the priest finally did put in an appearance he positively declined that which he had previously boasted of; but on the contrary denounced and berated those present in unmeasured terms. This, however, did not satisfy his own people, about forty families of whom forthwith renounced all allegiance to the church and joined the ranks of the spiritualists."

The spiritualists thereupon built a church between the two Catholic Churches in Gardner. Their church is still in use and is supported by about fifty families. They have a resident medium who serves as pastor and is reported to have the gift of healing. The also have frequent visits from other mediums such as trumpet mediums, materializing mediums and others whose supernatural powers are in high repute.

At this time there came to Gardner a very enterprising French Episcopalian minister by the name of Villatte. As the term Episcopalian was not familiar to the Belgians he represented himself as Old Catholic, a term which is sometimes used synonymously and has a more commendable sound to Catholic ears. He preached here for some time and organized a congregation. With outside assistance a large church was built in 1888, also a large guild hall and parsonage. This made the fourth church on the "church road" of Gardner. Having succeeded so well in proselyting, which is not often indulged in by Episcopalians, he developed ambition to be a bishop and forthwith assumed that title. He also started to collect money to build a college in Gardner which he intended to make his episcopal see. However, his brethren and superiors in the ministry failed to discern his merits and summarily excommunicated him. The church, guild hall and parsonage still stand very prettily among the trees that surround them and there is also a resident pastor. However, lie complains that the congregation is a hollow mockery without any religious interest and that in the five years lie has livd there he has not had a single call from one of his church members. Down among the Catholics the situation is different. There the priest and his Belgian church members get along most fraternally together.

Owing to the many different congregations in Gardner there is no very strong church in that town. However, just across the line into Brussels is a magnificent temple of worship, St. Francis'. This makes the fifth church on the church road (one having been burned and not rebuilt).

Besides the many churches in the Belgian settlement there are also a number of wayside shrines or chapels. These are very small places of prayer fitted out with an altar and other sacred adornments where the neighbors go to make their devotions, particularly in the month of May.

One particular characteristic of the Belgian settlement is that a saloon is usually to be found next door to each church. Superficial observers have concluded from this that the Belgians are so given to drink that they cannot attend mass without taking a drink before and after the ceremony. This, however, is not the true explanation. The Belgians are a very sociable people, loving nothing better than to get together in a throng and gossip. As the church is held too sacred for such indulgence, the natural result is the nearby tavern, where people can be protected from the heat of the sun or the cold blasts of winter. There are now six saloons in Brussels and the seventh and largest is just across the road in Kewaunee County. Here the people after mass gather in great numbers, talking, gesticulating, laughing and treating each other to a mutual glass of beer. There is, however, comparatively little drunkenness among the Belgians.

In early days, before there were any big saloons, there used to be scores of little ones. This was a result of the same companionship. People used to gather in each other's houses, and as the owner could not afford to treat the company regularly he bought a barrel of whisky. There was no license to pay then. Whisky was only twenty five cents a gallon. All that was needed besides was a short plank, one glass and all were happy. Almost every one then sold whisky.

The Belgians have many customs which are not often found in American communities. One is the Kermiss or Harvest Festival. These begin the last Sunday in August, after the harvest is completed and people are thankful. They are held Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights in each week for six weeks. Each week they are held at a different saloon and dancehall so that each patient distributor of the foamy lager may get his share of the proceeds. At these gatherings immense throngs gather together to eat, drink, dance and talk Belgian. While the Belgians do very well in English, their mother tongue is invariably used by young and old at their social gatherings

"Where resounds the Belgian tongue,
Where Belgian hymns and songs are sung,
This is the land, the land of lands
Where vows bind less than clasped hands."

At a recent Remiss there were no less than 2,000 people gathered in one immense dance hall, 104 feet long. Three hundred couples can dance with ease in this hall.

Another custom is the planting of the Maypole. On the first day of May, after a hotly contested town election is disposed of, the people come to do honors to the successful candidates. They bring with them an immense pole, usually balsam, with a tuft of green in the top and gayly ornamented with ribbons and streamers After this is firmly planted at his front gate they go to shake hands with the officeholder who stands wreathed in smiles and flanked by beer kegs.

Another very pretty custom is the church processional. There are several processionals held during the year, the most common being the one in spring held just before Ascension Day. This is called the Rogation procession, so called because people walking in procession are supposed to sing litanies of special supplication. The order of the procession is as follows: First comes the cross bearer in surplice and cassock bearing the cross. If the cross is not too large this is done by one of the acolytes of the altar. Then follow little girls in white strewing flowers on the wayside. Then comes the priest in sacerdotal robes of dignity, carrying the blessed sacrament on a throne. He is followed by' the choir singing hymns. Next come the women and finally the men. These processions start from the church and go to the nearest wayside chapel or around the cemetery and back. The first generation of Belgians were very musical and often used to play many beautiful selections of sacred music. The present generation, however, are reported to know only dance music, and as a two step or turkey trot does not fit very well in a stately church procession the music has been largely dispensed with.

Besides these processions held at most of the churches there is also a special procession held each 15th of August at the Church of the Blessed Virgin a few miles south of Door County. This is a church which is held in the highest veneration by most Belgian Catholics and many miracles are said to have been performed there. On the spot now occupied by this church a young woman many years ago had a vision. It was on the 15th of August. 1858, as she was on her way home from church. As she came to this spot she suddenly saw. the Virgin Mary standing between two trees. As the young woman, Adele Brice by name, kneeled in worshipful humility, the Virgin addressed her, commanding her to give all her time to the dissemination of the Catholic faith and to build a chapel on that sacred spot. The report of this strange apparition spread immediately to all parts of the great Belgian settlement and people came in large numbers to view this "holy ground." The clergy of the diocese, however, stamped the apparition as a myth and an imposition and the holy sacrament was refused to the girl because she persevered in her assertion of the vision. The people, however, believed her and multitudes used to gather there to worship with Sister Adele, who on certain days would even say mass. The same year a chapel was built. Within five years this was succeeded by a large chapel, a church, a schoolhouse and a convent in which boys and girls are educated and boarded for a nominal consideration. Now each 15th of August, many thousand people come in cars from all over the Belgian settlement and even from distant states to worship there, also to seek relief from illness and to take part in the great procession. Many from Door County make the pilgrimage on foot in order to approach the sacred spot in a more humble and devotional frame of mind.

The Belgians of Door County are an excellent class of people. They are very thrifty and farm lands are sold for a higher price there than anywhere else in the county. For this reason they are also assessed higher. They are a sociable, pleasant people, frank and generous to people of like mind They are also very public spirited. They have several of the best schoolhouses in the county and are very progressive in building good roads. The Town of Brussels has no less than fifteen miles of macadam road, being in this as well as other respects one of the leading towns of the state.