Rollebollen
Belgians in the USA.
In the census of 1980, more than 360,000 Americans stated to be from Belgian descent. That’s about 1.5 % of the total population. Most of them live in the Mid West, with a Flemish concentration around Ghent (Minnesota) and a Walloon concentration around Green Bay (Wisconsin). The next highest concentration is in California, but those Belgians immigrated mainly after WW II.

The first waves of Belgian immigrants started around 1850, when Western Europe was hit by a succession of bad potato and grain harvests. The rural communities were the most in trouble. It was the first time since the Mediaeval times that famine ran in Flanders, and Wallonia. For example: in 1847 the city of Bruges was under siege by roaming and looting gangs of starving people. For many in Belgium, the only way out of the misery was immigration to the ‘promised’ land, America.
The Belgian government promoted the exodus. The ‘Red Star Line’ offered transport on its ‘SS Belgenland’ ship for the crossing of the Ocean, out of Antwerp to New York, for $ 260 per person. All immigrants were ‘unloaded’ on Ellis Island, where a rude screening and testing was executed on the hundreds of thousand immigrants. From there almost all Belgian immigrants moved immediately further to the Mid West
A second large wave of Belgian immigration to the USA is situated in the first decade of the 20th century, with 1907 as the top year. Passenger lists of the ships show that 81% of the immigrants were Flemings. A third wave started right after WW I, when most people, who’s farmland was completely destroyed by the battlefields, choose for a fresh start overseas. On August 13, 1914, a Flemish Newspaper was started in Detroit. The Newspaper still exist as a bi-weekly, under the original name “Gazette van Detroit”. Today, some articles are in Dutch and some are in English.

The Belgian farmers imported a huge strong horse, that is known all over the world as the ‘Belgian horse’. You can find pictures of this type of horse on some Belgian beer labels. MORT SUBITE pictures the same horse with the Flemish icon ‘lamme goedzak’ on top. On the market place of Lennik (Payottenland - Flanders) you can see a huge statue of such a Belgian horse. One of the most famous studs, was ‘Farceur’ (the joker), who was bought in Belgium for $ 47,500 in 1912. At that time you could buy 200 acres of the best Farmersland for the same amount of money. A census in 1940 revealed that 75 % of Belgian horses in the USA had ‘Farceur’ as an ancestor. This horse was called ‘the king of Belgium’. Was it because the late king Leopold II was well known at that time for his sexual appetite and his fathering of many children out of wedlock, we don’t know. Today, the Amish are still using the Belgian horse to work on their farms on a daily basis.

The largest and the oldest Belgian concentration, and now we talk again about people, is in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers were founded in 1919 by the son of Belgian immigrants from the city of Waver in Wallonia. Their stadium is named after him: ‘Louis Lambeau’.

Very ‘West Flemish’ is the area around Ghent, Lyon county, in Minnesota, which was created in 1881 by Angelus Van Hee, coming from Merkem near Ypres. His brother was Canon (a high ranked function in the Catholic Church) in Liverpool in the UK, and he sent his brother a letter from the Bishop of Minnesota asking for Catholic immigrants. Angelus moved together with 50 young families out of Merkem. 35 of these families stayed behind in Chicago, but the other 15 families continued for Minnesota to create Ghent. Until now, it is not explained why they called their village Ghent. They came all from West Flanders, thus one might expect that they would have chosen Bruges, the West Flemish capital, instead of Ghent, the East Flemish capital.
Belgians integrated in the American culture and the way of life in one generation. One old Flemish folkloristic sport is still alive in these communities, in the Detroit area and in Minnesota. It is called ‘rollebollen’, where players roll a heavy wooden flat-ball like piece to a certain mark on the field. The closer to that mark you manage to roll your ball the better, but the competition is allowed to kick away your ball.

(Based on an article in the Gazette van Detroit, Dec. 25 1997)

Newsletter September 1998