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History - Our Belgian Settlement in Namur, Wisconsin

History of the Peninsula Belgian American Club
History of Belgian Settlement
Historical Marker
School in Namur (Club House)

In the News
En wallon dans les deux langues!
Photo at King's Palace in Brussels
Keeping Belgian Heritage Alive (written by Mary Chaudoir)
A new day may be dawning...(Door County Advocate)


History of the Peninsula Belgian-American Club
The Peninsula Belgian-American Club was started for the first time on July 6, 1964. Officers were Kenneth DeDecker, President; Harry Swoboda, Vice President; Wallace Charles, Secretary; and Leonard Lampereur, Treasurer. After a period of time the group became inactive.

In 1968, several people approached Harry Chaudoir about re-organizing the club. Officers for this newly formed club were Harry Chaudoir, President; Austin Allard, Vice President; Laurence Chaudoir, Secretary; and Leonard Lampereur, Treasurer. The club began their first year with 12 to 20 members with the purpose of honoring their forefathers, to salute their efforts and recreate that era in history when good fellowship was prime, to promote social and charitable functions, and to communicate and assist all incorporated Belgian Clubs that included Canada and Belgium.

Other people who filled the position of Secretary after Laurence Chaudoir were Irene Conard, Grace Lemense and Mary Ann Defnet. After Leonard Lampereur, the position of Secretary and Treasurer was combined and filled by Elmer DeDecker in 1977.

After Austin Allard passed away, Louis DeJardin and then James Lampereur filled the position of Vice President.

In 1972 Harry met Dr. Joseph Binnard, a doctor in Manitowoc and with his help, the first trip to Belgium was started. At that time they had about 150 members in the club. During their first trip they ended up in the Flemish sector of Belgium. Of course, their Walloon friends wanted to know why they were not staying with them. So, in 1974 with the help of Lucien Leonard of Namur, Belgium the club went on their second trip to Namur. The Walloon people were overjoyed to see them and they were all excited about meeting their relatives for the first time. They had about 170 members on this trip that was organized by Austin Allard and Harry Chaudoir. Their number increased to 180 for the 1976 tour.

The Peninsula Belgian-American Club members went to Belgium in 1972 and 1974. The Belgians started coming to the U.S. for the first time in 1975 with approximately 200 people, making it necessary for them to travel on two planes. Mr. Lucien Leonard was the first President of the Wisconsin-Wallonie Club and he also organized the trips to Wisconsin with his officers. This tradition of biennial visits continues until the present day.

Present officers are Harry Chaudoir, President; James Lampereur, Vice President; and Kim Potier Davis, Secretary-Treasurer who took over from Elmer DeDecker in September 2000. 

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History of The Belgian Settlement
(Excerpts from The History of Our Belgian Settlement in Door, Kewaunee and Brown Counties by Math Tlachac)

Between Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin is a region along the bay which is populated almost exclusively by people of Belgian origin. It is the largest rural settlement of people of this nationality in the United States and covers an area 20 miles wide and 50 miles long.

Four generations of Belgian people have lived and toiled there since this land was reclaimed from the wilderness and up to three decades ago there were a few old men and women who remembered how this region appeared when they and their parents penetrated into the vast primeval forest to start a new life.

The first Belgian known to penetrate this region was Father Louis Hennepin, a missionary who was born in Ath in the province of Hainault, Belgium. He came to America in 1675 and took a prominent part in exploring this region. As he traveled by canoe on the waters of Green Bay he stopped at a site where the Village of Dyckesville now stands. Upon recall to his native country, not a Belgian set foot in this region for almost 175 years.

In order to better understand what motivated the Belgians to leave their mother country for the New World, we must turn back the pages of time to the year, 1853. We are in the province of Brabant, which is located in the center of Belgium from which the first emigrants came. It was a crowded and thickly populated area. 

In the early part of 1853, a young and small farmer by the name of Francois Petiniot from the commune of "Grez-Doiceau" made a trip to the City of Antwerp to transact business.

Upon reaching his destination Petiniot was thirsty and sought an inn. Stopping in, he ordered a glass of beer to quench his thirst. While sitting at a table sipping his beer he spied a pamphlet on another table nearby. 

While reading the pamphlet, he became extremely interested in what it said. It told of the fertile land in America which stretched for hundreds of miles with no one living on it; all of this land was awaiting the settlement of the white man. When Petiniot read that this land could be purchased from the American government for $1.25 an acre, his interest was aroused to a high pitch. To own land to cultivate it, plant it and reap the harvest for himself was the most coveted hope of most every European peasant for centuries. To get a share of this rich land in America became the dominant hope of most rural Europeans who heard about it. Then he folded the pamphlet and tucked it into his pocket.

Petiniot headed for home filled with a burning desire to eventually own some of the cheap land in America. In the New World he could obtain a hundred times as much land for the price of his few hektar in Belgium.

Soon Petiniot spread the word amongst his neighbors in the commune of "Grez-Doiceau" and it became the subject of discussion. Within a few days some were talking about the advisability of emigrating to America. All one could hear in the commune of "Grez-Doiceau" was talk of America, the cheap land, the opportunity of the New World and freedom which it offered to newcomers.

Nine of Petiniot's neighbors emigrated to America, leaving their home land where human roots went down deep into the land of their forefathers. These nine farmers sold their homes and land and with the proceeds took a chance on fortune's gifts in America. 

On May 18, 1853, the vessel sails were hoisted and the creaking ship slowly moved out of the harbor, making its way into the North Sea. As it did so, men, women and children stood on deck watching the receding shore line, some with heavy hearts at the thought of leaving the home of their birth. By leaving their homeland they became the predecessors of more than 15,000 Belgians who came the following 10 years.

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Historical Marker Erected 1993 in Namur, Wisconsin
Dedicated July 9, 1994

"Wisconsin's and the nation's largest Belgian American settlement is located in portions of Brown, Kewaunee and Door counties adjacent to the waters of Green Bay. Walloon-speaking Belgians settled the region in the 1850s and still constitute a high proportion of the population. A variety of elements attests to the Belgian American presence: place names (Brussels, Namur, Rosiere, Luxemburg), a local French patois, common surnames, unique foods (booyah, trippe, jutt), the Kermiss harvest festival, and especially architecture. Many of the original wooden structures of the Belgian Americans were destroyed in a firestorm that swept across southern Door County in October 1871. A few stone houses made of local dolomite survived. More common are 1880s red brick houses, distinguished by modest size and gable-end, bull's-eye windows. Some houses have detached summer kitchens with bake ovens appended to the rear. And the Belgians, many of them devout Catholics, also erected small roadside votive chapels like those in their homeland."

The dedication of the Historical Marker at Namur was a long-awaited event. It was the culmination of hours, months, and years of work on the part of many people. Many individuals and businesses donated funds, materials, and labor to the project. Finally, the area selected for the marker was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Emile Massa, Belgian Consul General at Chicago, took part in the Dedication ceremonies, as did our Club officers, members of the State Legislature, and representatives of the Wisconsin State Historical Society and the Door County Historical Society. Reverend Pius Cotter spoke for St. Mary of the Snows Parish on whose grounds the marker is located, and gave his blessing to the marker.

Dr. William Laatsch, professor of Geography and Regional Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, composed the marker's text as shown above.

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School (Club House) in Namur, Wisconsin    

During the summer of 1889, the trustees of the school district in the Town of Union, Door County, Wisconsin applied for a teacher.  They had just completed a new one-room building and proposed having the Sisters live at the rectory as there was no resident priest; the place was at this time a mission of Rosiere.
    Sister Claire was appointed for this school and as she needed a Door County Certificate she went to Sturgeon Bay in September and wrote the examinations at the County Superintendent's office.  This certificate is dated September 14, 1889.
    Sister Claire was accompanied by Sister Pius and they stayed for two days at the Hahn Hotel, the proprietor and his family being friends of the Sisters.  They returned to Green Bay by boat as there was no railroad at this time.  Some time later one of the church trustees called at the convent to inform the Sisters that the house was now ready....
    Sisters Pauline and Claire were accompanied by Miss Elise, a former French housekeeper who at the time was making her home at the convent and who would teach French in the parochial school. This was a room which had been built adjoining the sacristy of the church.
    On their arrival the Sisters found the following furniture:  2 home-made tables, 3 beds, 6 chairs, 1 box stove, 1 cooking stove, 1 wash basin and a few dishes including a coffee pot.  The pillows and mattress of one bed were made of cat-tails which had been made of the ripened spike of a marsh plant.  There was scarcely anything for bed clothes.
    The second floor was one room with a rough board partition about four feet high extending across the middle of the room to the stairway making it resemble the stalls in a stable.
    A few days later, October 2, the two schools began.  The teacher's contract for eight months was signed by Sister Claire and the District officers on October 19, 1889.
    The school room had new slate blackboards and during the next few weeks, new furniture was bought, including desks, physiology and reading charts, maps, and a box of mathematical blocks.  Toward the end of the spring term the school board decided to continue the school for another month.  They paid the teacher thirty dollars per month.
    Many of the school children, not only the beginners but first and second grade pupils could neither speak nor understand English.  Their former teacher spoke Belgian to them in school when he found it difficult for them to understand.
    The beginners in the parochial school had as much difficulty in learning French.  When Miss Elise tried to teach syllables from their French primer, they would look at her and repeat; and when she said "Regardez votre livre" ("Look at your book"), they repeated that also.
    Some weeks later Rev. Charles Vanier was appointed to take charge of this parish.  At first he resided at Rosiere but later had a sleeping room at Evrards' the next house and had his meals at the Sisters.  He also attended the missions at St. Francis, Brussels and St. John Baptist and St. Joseph at Little Sturgeon.
    During March 1890 there was an epidemic of flu and Miss Elise became sick and died without the last sacraments while Rev. Vanier was at Little Sturgeon....Her remains rest in the cemetery near St. Marie ad Nives under a cross marked Sister Elizabeth. Sister Pauline then taught in the Parochial school.
    The next summer Sister Claire went to the Teachers' examination at Forestville to write on the subjects for a second-grade certificate.  This certificate is dated August 12, 1891.
    Sister Pauline taught in the parochial school and Sister Elizabeth (not Miss Elise) was the housekeeper.  During the summer of 1891 it was voted to hire an assistant teacher for four months in the winter.  As there was no Sister who could be spared, a lay teacher was hired.  The fall term began September 15, 1891 and the contract was signed October 11.   Arrangements were made with the church trustees to have the assistant teacher use the parochial class room for the primary grades.
    During Lent of 1892 Stations of the Cross took place Friday after school.  A fire was made at noon in the box stove which heated the church.  Some wood on the floor near by caught on fire but this was not discovered for some time and had then gained such headway that the frame building both church and school soon burned to the ground.  The vestments, candlesticks and sacred vessels were saved but it was with difficulty that the rectory where the Sisters lived was saved.
    For the rest of the winter term the two teachers for the district taught in the same room.  Sister Pauline had classes for the parochial children on the second floor of the rectory and church services were held in the public school.
    Friday afternoon a clothes basket with the necessary articles was brought to the school.  Sister Claire with the help of a few pupils put up a temporary altar covering the rough boards with sheets before putting on the altar cloths, candles, etc. and this continued for the remainder of the year.
    As the teacher had the sweeping of the school and the yard and roads were often very muddy it was no easy task to have the room in order for Monday morning.
    The pastor and trustees at once made plans for a new church which was blessed by Bishop Messmer.
    In August 1893 it was decided to give up the District School but there was some difficulty in finding a teacher so the same Sisters returned and Sister Claire signed a contract on Sept. 4, 1893, to teach for three months.  School began the next day.  About this time Rev. C. Vanier was transferred and in November Very Rev. B. Pennings and Brother Servatius arrived from Holland.   
    Sister Claire returned to Bay Settlement with Mr. P. Jennings, Dec. 4, 1893, but the other Sisters remained.  Sister Pauline stayed there until 1895 when she went to Ahnapee and Sister Angela went to Delwiche.
    The farmers in the parish had no funds for a new school but eventually they contributed sacks of grain according to their means.  These were sold and the proceeds used to build a new school and convent in 1894. As might be expected it was constructed along the lines of a simple farmhouse, although a slight touch of distinction is found in the front door with its curved panels and transom.  The doors are very narrow as though to make amends for this bit of extravagance.
    Four rooms on the first floor were used as a school room, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen.  The second floor was one large room used as a dormitory for both Sisters and those children who lived such distances away they could not return home for the night.  Approximately two dozen children were enrolled.
    The school was discontinued in 1925.  For many years it was vacant and falling into disrepair but in 1956 the Bishop gave it to the Belgian-American Club.  George Baudhuin gave $4,000 to pay the cost of moving it a short distance to its present location and a few basic repairs.  The Club uses it as its headquarters.  The interior has not been altered in any way except to provide modern cooking and other facilities.  Eventually it may become a museum of Belgian history and culture.  When the building was moved, Ralph Baudhuin contributed a supply of paint, and ten years later the previously white school was painted yellow, Belgium's national color.

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In The News

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

During a recent trip to Belgium, Door County residents celebrated their heritage with their European cousins at Bellevue Museum, which focuses on cultural exchanges between Walloon Belgians and their American relations. Participating in a state dinner at the museum are, from left, Kim Potier Davis, Secretary-Treasurer, Peninsula Belgian-American Club; Jacqueline Jacqmot, secretary, Wallonie-Wisconsin; Baron Herman Vanden Berghe, president, King Baudouin Foundation, which manages the museum; Harry Chaudoir Jr., president, PBAC, who was knighted for his work to preserve the Walloon culture, Luc Tayart de Borms, finance administrator, KBF; Jacques Jacqmot, president, Wallonie-Wisconsin.

by Mary Chaudoir (Special to the Advocate)
Friday, August 16, 2002


Vers L'Avenir
Mercredi 26 Juin 2002

by Ruth Ott
Advocate Staff Reporter

New day may be dawning for Belgian-American Club

Longtime member elated to turn over office to another generation

    Sturgeon Bay, WI, December 27, 2000......It was a relatively simple changing of the guard for the Belgian-American Club of Door County, but a meaningful and symbolic one for the older generation member who passed the torch.
    Elmer DeDecker, 75, turned over the position of club secretary-treasurer to a young Belgian-American woman, Kim Davis, 42, in October. The change gives DeDecker new hope for the future of the club, and along with it hope that the areas Belgian traditions will live on with the younger generation.
    DeDecker had held the office for the past 23 years. He has been a member of the club since it began in 1960. His concern is that, as the membership of the club ages, its Belgian traditions, Walloon language and cultural history may all be lost.    Davis, a Sturgeon Bay resident, had been working on her family's genealogy when she met DeDecker. Davis said DeDecker persuaded her to join the club and accompany him and other members on a recent, biannual trip to the home country. 
    Davis' research motivated her to accept the invitation.    While in Belgium, Davis met some of her distant relatives, including a cousin who she had contacted over the internet.    She returned in September with renewed interest in her Belgian heritage and accepted the position of secretary-treasurer of the local Belgian-American Club the next month.    Davis, who also works with the Door County Historical Society said she loved the trip to Belgium, but she also sees the club as having the potential to do other things - one of which is to preserve the life histories of the people.    "The members of the club have so many interesting stories," she said. "I just wish I could get some of them on tape before they are lost."    Still, the trips to Belgium - and alternating-year visits from Belgians to America - comprise an important part of the club's activities, Davis said.     Organized as an informal cultural exchange program, the Americans go to Belgium one year, and the next year the Belgians come to visit the Americans.    According to DeDecker and his wife, Florence, the exchanges make for some interesting vacations.    The trips were started in 1972 by Dr. Joseph Barnard, a physician of Belgian descent who had a practice in Manitowoc. He organized the first trip when he discovered a community of Belgians in Door County who spoke his native dialect of Walloon.    Walloon is spoken in the southern part of Belgium near the French border, and Flemish is spoken in the northern part of that country, Elmer said.    "Walloon sounds a lot like French," he added. Elmer and Florence DeDecker both speak Walloon, which they learned from their parents. It helped them communicate when they traveled to Belgium that first time 28 years ago, along with 112 other people.    Florence told of a memorable experience she had on that first excursion.     On that first trip, everyone stayed at a large vacation home with housekeeping units. On subsequent visits, they have stayed with friends and relatives, trimming the cost of the trip, Elmer said.     On Elmer's first visit, he was most surprised by the way the houses were built.
    Florence said she was surprised to see that all the highways were lighted.     Elmer mentioned the Belgian pies. "They are a lot bigger over  there," he said, holding out his hands to display their size, like a man measuring a fish.    A photo in the couple's album showed a celebration dinner. The pies are indeed larger than those found around Door County.    The first trip was so successful, the group went on a second one the following year.
    Elmer said that after the second trip to Belgium, the Americans told their newfound relatives: "We came here twice; now it's your turn to come and visit us."
    Over the course of the years, the Americans took the Belgians to see the sights: Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Niagara Falls.
    "We might take them to Canada next time," Elmer said.    What did the Belgians think of America when they first visited?
    "They couldn't believe we had such wide-open spaces," said Elmer.
    "Belgium is heavily populated," he added. "In town, their houses touch each other. Even in the country, everything is close together. You could fit 3-1/2 Belgiums into Wisconsin. It's a tiny country."
    Elmer went to get a map of Belgium and pointed to a tiny country bordered by Germany, France, the Netherlands and the North Sea.    This proximity to other European countries has made it convenient for the American visitors to take side trips, too.    The couple flipped through pages of their photo albums, relating memories of 14 trips to Belgium and subsequent side trips to France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Holland and Switzerland.    We learn different ways of cooking on our trips," said Florence. "And every home in Belgium has a wine cellar. They have beautiful grapes to make wine. And, oh, the gardens! What beautiful flowers!"
    Of the many trips to Belgium, one stands out from the rest. On the trip in 1986, Elmer received a very unusual honor. The nations'  monarch - then King Beaudoin - knighted the Door County native.    The distinction was in appreciation for Elmer's efforts, as an officer of the Belgian-American Club, in "furthering close ties between Belgium and the United States."
    Elmer has the pictures, the medal, the certificate - written in Belgian - and the memories to prove it.    As husband and wife mention names of people and towns, it's hard to tell if they're talking about Belgium or Door County: Brussels, Namur, Luxemburg, Rosiere; Chaudoir, Jeanquart, Neuville, Pichette. The names of settlers and settlements in both Door County and Europe tell of Belgians who came to America generations ago, yet who wanted to remember their homeland.
    As future generations become more forgetful of their Belgian heritage, Elmer worries that the old traditions - like "kermiss" parties - and the Belgian-American Club itself are "going to come to an end."
    He flips through his membership cards, which shows more than half of the members have passed away.    Not too many young people are interested in their Belgian heritage, or speak Walloon anymore, said Elmer - not even his own children.
    If anyone would be interested in Belgian heritage, you could expect it to be the children of someone who was knighted by the king of Belgium. But Elmer said that none of his three children has ever gone to Belgium or takes much of an interest in the subject - which explains why Elmer was so glad to welcome Davis to the club and to pass the torch on to the newest, youngest member.
    "I wish more young people would joint he club," Davis said. "if more people knew about it, it would make a difference."
    Davis hopes to make more people aware of the club, and one way may be by putting together a Web page. Then, information can be posted to a wider audience and Belgians and Americans can communicate even more freely than before.
    Over the Internet, Belgians may find Brussels, Belgium, just as close as Brussels, Wisconsin.
    With the new ideas that Davis will bring to the club, it may pick up enough speed to carry it well into the 21st century. And that would make Elmer DeDecker very happy.

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