Belgian History

Starting in the 1850’s, Belgians left the economic hardship of their homeland and ventured to the United States and northeast Wisconsin for better opportunity. Here, they faced the hardships of settling a new frontier with determination and persistence. They cleared the land and made their livings as farmers, lumberjacks, fisherman, merchants and cheesemakers.

Belgians settled communities near the waters of Green Bay that were named to commemorate their homeland – Brussels, Rosiere, Walhain, Luxemburg – and to this day, their descendants constitute a high proportion of residents in those areas, continuing the culture, language, architecture, faith and family traditions of the early Settlers. A portion of this settlement, the Namur Historic District, has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark– the first rural community in the United States to achieve this distinction.
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Historic Timeline

Settlement History
1600

1675

First Belgian to visit Wisconsin, Father Louis Hennepin sails the Great Lakes with Robert LaSalle aboard the Griffin. Very few, if any Belgians follow him for almost 200 years.

1856

More settlers arrive and find vast wilderness. Land is cleared; shelter and furniture is built. Potawatomi Indians teach the settlers to tap trees for maple syrup, hunt animals, cook and preserve meat and tan hides. Heavy bags of grain must be taken long distances on foot to the grist mills and the flour brought home, avoiding wild animals along the way.

1858

First Kermiss (“Churchmass”) is held in Rosiere. The Kermiss is a three day harvest celebration starting with a Mass of Thanksgiving and followed by music, dancing, singing, card-playing and traditional Belgian food and drink. A Kermiss is held in each Belgian community – a tradition that continues to the present day.

1861

The Civil War begins. Belgian settlers respond and as men leave to fight the war, women join the men who were not called to the war to work the farms. Women are seen driving teams to harvest or plow the fields.

1865

After the Civil War ends, there is a period of prosperity as large tracts of primitive forests are felled, creating employment in saw, planing, lumber, shingle and grist mills. Settlers can afford threshing machines, reapers and other farm implements so they enlarge their farms, increase their stock and build more substantial homes of lumber instead of logs. They also build better schoolhouses, churches and parsonages.

1872

Mitchell Joannes, born near Brussels, Belgium, joins his brothers and becomes president of Joannes Brothers Company, a wholesale grocery business serving Wisconsin and northern Michigan which will later become Super Valu’s Green Bay Division. He is recognized as one of Green Bay’s most enterprising and public spirited citizens.

1893

St. Mary of the Snows parish rebuilds the church that was destroyed by fire the previous year. This building is now home to the Belgian Heritage Center.

Green Bay Bishop Messmer requests that the Norbertine Abbey in Berne, Holland send priests to help serve the Belgian community. Father Bernard Pennings is one of the first priests to arrive and serves five years at St Mary of the Snows, Namur. He will go on to serve at St Joseph’s in DePere and found St. Norbert College and the Norbertine Order of Priests in DePere.

1853

Ten small farmers and their families leave the Brabant province in Belgium for the New World; they are the first of more than 15,000 that will arrive in Northeast Wisconsin before the start of the Civil War. The settlers, motivated by crop failures and industrial decline in their homeland, are drawn to land in Wisconsin at the government price of $1.25 per acre.

The settlers follow Father Daems, a French speaking Belgian priest, to the Bay Settlement area ten miles northeast of Green Bay. They settle in deep, primeval forest naming the first Belgian settlement “Aux Premiers Belge” – the First Belgians.

1859

The first Chapel is built at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help on the site near Champion where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to a young Belgian woman, Adele Brice. Sister Adele will devote her life to teaching children and inspiring the faithful in the Belgian settlement. In 2010, the apparition is decreed worthy of belief by the Catholic Church, one of about a dozen such sites in the world and the only one in the United States.

1864

The first convent and school are built near Champion at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. Sister Adele’s work serving the children of the settlement area will continue for almost 100 years.

1871

The Great Fire (Peshtigo Fire) also burns an area 10 miles by 60 miles in the Belgian Settlement, destroying farms, homes and woods. More than 200 people are burned to death and over 5,000 are made homeless and destitute. The fire destroys large sections of the forest, facilitating a transition to a more agricultural economy.

The Belgian population in Green Bay grows following the Great Fire as poorer Belgians abandon their plan to farm and move to the city to find employment. Many prominent organizations in Green Bay are established by Belgian settlers. 

Rebuilding after the Great Fire gives rise to a distinctive architecture - two-story homes with brick or dolomite veneer, arched-brick lintels and a bulls-eye window (full or half) under the roof peak. Materials are reminiscent of the Belgian homeland in addition to providing fire resistance.

1907

Dr. Julius Bellin, born of Belgian immigrant parents in 1870, converts a small house in Green Bay into what will become Bellin Health System.

1919

Earl “Curly” Lambeau, whose grandfather came to Wisconsin from Belgium, founds the Green Bay Packers.
Heritage Preservation - Key Dates
1950

1964

The Peninsula Belgian American Club forms and establishes its clubhouse in a former convent and parochial school built in 1894 and used by the Norbertines. In 1972, the Club begins exchange visits with members of the Wisconsin-Wallonie Club in Belgium. A tradition of biennial visits between the two countries continues to the present day.

1989

Namur Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the US Department of the Interior.

1990

Namur Historic District approved as a National Landmark by the US Department of Interior.

2010

The St. Mary and St. Francis Parish decide to sell the former St. Mary of the Snows church. The Namur Belgian Heritage Foundation is organized to acquire the building and establish the Belgian Heritage Center.

1987

Dr. William Tishler completes a historic architectural survey of the Belgian settlement in NE Wisconsin. He concludes that “…. The Belgian vernacular buildings form a regional architectural expression that is perhaps the largest and most intact concentration of ethnic-related buildings surviving from any of the more than 30 nationalities who have settled in Wisconsin.”

Contact Information

Belgian Heritage Center
1255 County DK/PO Box 173
Brussels, Wisconsin 54204
920-825-1199 or 920-825-1328

Hours of Operation

The Belgian Heritage Center is open by appointment. Please contact us at least one week in advance of your visit to make arrangements.