Belgian-American Research Collection

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One of the country’s largest concentrations of Walloon-speaking Belgians is found in northeastern Wisconsin, resulting in a unique cultural and social flavor. The largest wave of Belgian immigration to Wisconsin occurred in the mid-1850s. While the 1850 U.S. Census lists only 45 persons of Belgian nativity in the state, by 1860 the number had increased to 4,647. The 1890 U.S. census also shows that 81% of Belgians in the state lived in the northeastern counties of Brown, Kewaunee, and Door. The Belgian immigration into northeastern Wisconsin came to an abrupt halt in about 1858, when word reached the homeland of the physical and economic hardships and the cholera epidemic sweeping the settlement.

The first Belgian settlers made a living making shingles and farming small plots of land. This changed in the fall of 1871 when a major fire (the same that devastated Peshtigo on the same day as the great Chicago fire) swept through Belgian settlements and virtually destroyed the shingle industry. After the fire, farming became the major industry, but because the farms were small, income was often supplemented in the winter by commercial fishing. Some men also migrated to the lumber camps in northern Wisconsin at Thanksgiving time and returned home in April; during this period, the women and children assumed responsibility for feeding and caring for the livestock.

Barriers of language and rural poverty tended to isolate and insulate the Belgians from their neighbors. While Belgians from both the Flemish and Walloon provinces have settled in Northeastern Wisconsin, the Walloons have remained a more homogeneous, readily identifiable ethnic group. The Belgians in this area generally believe, erroneously, that Walloon is only an oral (not written) language, and because it has been passed down orally in this part of the country, it may be regarded as a folk language. Walloon is a French patois. French was used in church records, correspondence, mourning cards, etc.

Today, many Belgian descendents still reside in the 35 square mile area settled by their ancestors. In many cases, farms have been in the same family for over 100 years. Fourth and fifth generation Belgians still speak together in Walloon, and continue such customs as the celebration of Kermis (a harvest festival held in early fall) and the erection of a “maypole” in the yard of a winning political candidate. The presence of small wayside religious shrines also illustrates Belgian influence.

Collection Background

A pilot project was undertaken in 1975-1976 to establish a Belgian-American Ethnic Resource Collection in the Special Collections Department of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Cofrin Library. The objective was to record the undocumented historical, social, and cultural legacy of this unique ethnic group. Funding was provided by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, Wisconsin American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The guidelines for the project were as follows:

  1. Collect original documents reflecting the character of the Belgian Community, including legal papers, diaries, letters, papers of organizations, and local governmental records. Such materials would be organized by the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
  2. Visual material such as photographs were also collected.
  3. Record oral histories (on audio-tape when appropriate or in a written report). Document the Walloon language spoken in Brown, Door and Kewaunee Counties.
  4. Conduct an architectural survey to identify typical Belgian architecture including log, stone and brick houses, small chapels, outdoor ovens, and summer kitchens.
  5. Compile an annotated bibliography of resources, at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and elsewhere, relating to the Belgians of northeastern Wisconsin.
  6. Prepare traveling exhibits of material collected to be displayed in schools, libraries, and other public places.

The goals of the initial project were successfully met. Materials relevant to Belgian-Americans in northeastern Wisconsin are still collected.

Explore the collection with Google Earth

In addition to the architectural survey, local governmental records were collected that help identity the parcels of land on which those structures were located. Now these materials can be examined in a way that couldn’t even be imagined when the project began more than thirty years ago. Google Earth enables researches to view the parcels of land superimposed over a satellite image of the land itself. At a glance it’s possible to see how land use has changed (or stayed the same) over time. The locations of the structures themselves are marked with virtual thumbtacks. Click on one to see a photograph of the building right where it stood! Click on the link to see additional views as well as other items in the collection. Decide you want to visit the location? Get directions directly from your home or office. Download the Google Earth data file for the Belgian-American Research Collection.

Image Source:

Charles Massart farm