From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest ...

The initiative to hold an exhibition about Belgian emigration to the United States, both in Washington D.C. and Belgium, was taken by Minister Bourgeois who entrusted the organisation of this event to the Agricultural Counsellor in Washington, J. Van Mullem. Thanks to the generous support of the Belgian-American private sector this project became a reality during the last week of July 1996 in Washington D.C..

The current exhibition contains the exhibits shipped from Washington D.C. to the Castle of Bouchout to which have been added newly collected pieces describing the contribution of the Belgian immigrants to American agriculture.

The immigrants brought with them a small piece of Belgium when they came to America. They created, especially in the Midwest, typical ethnic enclaves where the Flemish or Walloon languages are still spoken, where churches and organisations play their part as social or religious centres, where farming techniques, architectural elements, recipes, folklore and entertainment are expressions of their heritage.

Many of those who left for the "New World" were hardy and experienced people. Their ability to make do with very little during times of hardship made them stayers.

From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest... illustrates a page from our history and carries the following message : "The emigration to America of Belgians (Flemish and Walloons) during the 19th and 20th century was a success thanks to the immigrants' unwavering attitude towards work, their professional skills, down-to-earth approach, feel for organisation and adaptation, qualities which can still be found in Belgium today. This proves that during difficult periods in our economic history, there existed courageous men and women who were willing to travel across the globe and dedicate their lives in areas where their capabilities have performed wonders." The exhibition mirrors the cooperation of many organisations and institutions, as well as the efforts of a great number of individuals on both sides of the Atlantic.

From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest ...

As a result of demographic and industrial revolutions during the 19th century, agriculture in Europe, the "Old World", quickly lost its dominant position as means of existence. Belgium too experienced a large labour surplus in the rural workforce. Initially home and seasonal labour, as well as employment in the budding industries, managed to limit final overseas emigration.

Circumstances which help to stimulate emigration (so-called "Push" factors) and others which stimulate immigration ("Pull" factors) are the foundations of a Belgian emigration to America which started halfway the previous century and ended about one hundred years later. Walloon and Flemish farmers settled for the most part in the American Midwest.

The decision to emigrate is influenced by the perception of available information and the network of sea transport.

The Belgian contribution to American agriculture is highlighted in two Belgian-American agricultural settlements. The first started during the 1850's with Walloons settling in "Door County", Wisconsin. A second followed thirty years later during the 1880's with a few farming families from West Flanders putting down roots in "Lyon County", Minnesota.


The Belgian population doubled in number between 1846 and 1947 and grew from 4.3 to 8.5 million people. During this same period the agricultural population dropped by 62 % from 1,075,031 to 412,026 head.

In contrast to what was happening in our neighbouring countries Belgium was still characterized by small unproductive farms which were not always able to ensure an adequate food supply.

A continuing fragmentation of the farms meant that the farming lots become smaller and smaller and the variety of the crops larger. Many members of large farming families could no longer find employment on the farm, thus causing a considerable surplus in the labour force.

During the 19th century the potato became the staple food of the people as it helped to fill empty stomachs better than bread. In the months of July and August 1845, aided by damp weather, an extremely virulent form of the fungus Phytophtora Infectans, resulted in a very unpredictable harvest, first in Belgium (around Kortrijk ?) and The Netherlands, followed by the rest of Europe. Estimated losses amount from 1/4 to 1/2 of the crop. In the provinces of West and East Flanders this figure reached more than 90%. The disease reared its head again in July 1946 and turned the crop black in two to three weeks time. The disaster became complete when the barley crop also failed.

People in Flanders and parts of Brabant, Namur and Luxembourg were faced with famine, something which had not happened since the Middle Ages. The looting of a bakery in Brughes on 2 March 1847 gave the starting shot for a famine riot. In 1848 35 % of the population in West Flanders had to rely on public welfare. The exhausted people of the closely populated provinces of West Flanders, East Flan-ders and Brabant became easy victims for the rapidly spreading typhoid epidemic of 1847-48 and cholera in 1848-49 and the most devastating epidemic of 1866.

Between 1830 and 1844 about thirty thousand Belgians left for France, The Netherlands or Germany. About one in ten left Europe altogether. It is no surprise that the emigration to the United States only really got moving after the food and flax crises.

Belgium, just like Great Britain, soon turned to industrial development. During the period 1856 to 1870 industry gradually replaced agriculture as the main activity.

On the tiny family farms the agricultural revenues were ridiculously small. In order to survive additional income had to be found and the rural population tried to earn something extra by working from home. This lasted until 1842 when the linen industry in Flanders became mechanized and the production of home-made linen ground to a halt.

Work outside the farm was another possibility to ensure some extra income during a few months of the year. Many Flemish people left the countryside to work in Northern France especially, where the textile and coal-mining industries were experiencing a growth period. The people found work in the brick ovens, chicory and flax industry, beet and hop fields.

In the meantime the Belgian agricultural sector became stagnant. The growing imports of grain from the United States after the American Civil War at first helped to support the failing production. However these imports soon took on the appearance of an Agricultural invasion . During the 1880's almost 100,000 people left farming and more than 20,000 left for America.

Towards the end of the 19th century independent farmers and tenant farmers did not need to leave their land. They were still able to offer employment to labourers who worked the land on a day to day basis.

During the crisis years of mid-19th century the authorities attempted to bring some order to emigration. They saw emigration as a possible solution to the unbearable burden placed on social welfare. Indeed, it appeared that subsidizing emigration to North America would be less expensive than having to pay welfare for one year. However not a single project got off the ground. During the following decades the government wisely refrained from intervening directly in the emigration and limited itself to passing on information on emigration possibilities or dishonest practices.


The abundance in America of good and, more importantly, cheap agricultural land, which in addition required very little capital investment, had an especially strong attraction for the European farmers. To become owner of a vast tract of land is the ultimate dream of every small tenant farmer. A dream which could be realized thanks to the American legislation which offered each immigrant a number of incentives to purchase land.

After Wisconsin was admitted to the Union in 1848 the State organised a large scale publicity campaign to promote the sale of its inexpensive farming lands, even in Belgium.

Another important motivation were the letters which immigrants sent to family and friends in Belgium. Because of the frequent exaggerations these letters are often described as "come-on" letters. One letter from a Belgian immigrant in Wisconsin reads as follows "In America it is easy to save money, the food is better, there is no military service, taxes are lower, employer and employee are equal and the way of life is easier and healthier"


Between 1820 and 1975 about 200.000 Belgians emigrated to the United States. Up until 1840 Belgian emigration to the U.S. remained limited. From 1830 to 1840 some 300 farmers from Luxembourg left for mainly Ohio and Michigan. Emigration reached a first peak in the 1840's and the period 1850-1856, when thousands of Belgians left for Wisconsin. The largest Belgian-American settlement around Green Bay, Wisconsin dates from this wave of emigration.

Between 1861 and 1880 Belgian emigration fluctuated around 7,000 people per decade. From 1880 to 1893 some tens of thousands of Belgians left for the United States - Walloon weavers and glassblowers to Pennsylvania and Flemish farmers to Minnesota, creating a settlement around Ghent in South West Minnesota. The Belgian exodus to the United States reached a peak in 1892 with 4,297 emigrants.

The Belgian trek to America reached its height between 1901 and 1913 with approximately 3,472 people leaving each year. More than two thirds of the emigrants between 1901 and 1913 are from Flanders, mainly from the provinces of East and West Flanders. About 25% came from Wallonia, the rest from Brussels.

The 1980 census showed 360,277 people of Belgian origin living in the United States. Of these 122,814 were persons with single descendance and 237,463 with multiple descendance. The largest concentration of Belgian immigrants can be found in the Upper Midwest. 31 % lives in just two states : Michigan and Wisconsin.


The improved means of transportation of the second half of the 19th century created a stimulus for the development of Antwerp and the organisation of emigra-tion. Towards the end of the 19th century the shipping companies became invol-ved in a price war. The cost of a ticket for a transatlantic crossing was greatly reduced and became affordable to the less wealthy. The rapid crossing, the more comfortable journey and the lower prices made sure that a return to Belgium was possible, just in case the American adventure should prove to be disappointing. As a result of unemployment in the States July 1904 saw more people returning to Belgium than leaving.

The Red Star Line transported 2,312,791 people to North America during the 50 years following its foundation.


Brother Claude Allouez set up the Saint Francis Xaverius Mission in 1669 for French-Canadians and half-blood Indians, this became Green Bay in 1839. This makes it the oldest town in Wisconsin. Nowadays Green Bay is not only known for its many Belgian descendants who still live there but is also famous because of its American football team, the "Green Bay Packers" who won the Super Bowl Championship in 1996. The team dates back to 1919 and was created by Louis Lambeau, son and grandson of Belgian immigrants who left Waver in about 1870. The stadium which bears his name keeps his memory alive.

On the eve of the American War of Secession the Belgian emigration ground to a halt. Nevertheless the manner in which the settlement from Brabant grew into a farming community is an important aspect of the region's history.

In 1871 great fires destroyed more than half a million hectares of forest. The fires also destroyed most of the log cabins. The new houses were built differently and constructed of wood faced with a layer of bricks, a period of transition before the houses were built entirely of brick. The use of construction methods from the homeland came at a time when the settlement was starting to adopt a more perma-nent character, money had been earned and saved and families had become larger.

A Belgian farm (1905) was built in Heritage Hill State Park (a living open-air museum of 20 hectares) using parts of original Belgian farms. The homestead (built in 1871) and the summer kitchen (1902) are from the farm of John Baptiste Massart from Rosič re, Wisconsin. A cheese factory was incorporated in an original structure from 1894 donated by the Zellner family and brought from Kewaunee County not far from Slovan. Both the interior and exterior are still exactly as they were in 1905.


In contrast to Green Bay, the oldest town in Wisconsin, Ghent in Lyon County, Minnesota is of more recent age. After the great uprising of the Dakota Sioux in 1862, when more than 500 white colonists were killed in South West Minnesota, the Indians were removed from Minnesota. Large amounts of fertile land became available for immigrants. The Winona and St Peter railway was laid in 1872 creating a link with Dakota and opening up the markets along the Mississippi river to South West Minnesota.

The beginnings of the Flemish settlement in Lyon County can be traced back to a circular from the Catholic Colonization Bureau published in 1880 by the State of Minnesota, "Catholic Colonization in Minnesota, Lyon County, Southwestern Minnesota" which also arrived in West Flanders.

In 1881 Angelus Van Hee from Merkem in West Flanders purchased 129.5 ha of land in Lyon County and brought with him to America, 50 young families whom he had convinced of the many opportunities to be had in this new country.

Right from the early years the settlement in Lyon County became a remarkable symbiosis of Flemish people, largely from West Flanders and the (catholic) Dutch from Zeeland. On the other hand there has always been animosity between the Flemish and the French Canadians. In 1895, 23 % of the population of the Township Grand View was of French Canadian origin. Fifteen years later their number had been reduced to 5%. One may assume that the way of life rather than farming methods played a role in reducing their number.

Property ownership and for some, large landownership, still remains a vital element in the farming life of the Belgians , the farmers of Flemish descent in Lyon County.

Farming life in Lyon County was very soon modelled on the American way : mechanisation, purchase of material, use of tractors, monitoring of soil erosion, use of improved grain, suitable cultivation of the land, popularization. The farmers became specialized in the production of dairy products and poultry. The school curriculum includes an option : Future Farmers and Future Homemakers of America.


From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest ...



Castle of Bouchout

National Botanic Garden of Belgium

Domein van Bouchout

1860 Meise


From October 15, 1997 until November 16, 1997