Originally published August, 2014.
An estimated 200,000 Belgians immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1975, with the greatest numbers arriving before 1910. The majority of Belgian who came to the U.S. between 1850 and 1924 settled in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. The largest Wisconsin populations were concentrated in Door County, but Superior welcomed its fair share as well. Superior’s Belgians set up housekeeping in the shadow of the Great Northern ore docks, where many of them found employment as unskilled laborers. Bounded on three sides by water—the Nemadji River, Bluff Creek, and Allouez Bay—the neighborhood was named for Father Claude Jean Allouez, a Jesuit missionary believed to have camped at Bluff Creek in the 1600s. Between two- to five-dozen Belgian families lived in Allouez between 1912 and 1923, and together they formed a club.
In 1912 Superior’s Belgians formed a club called Nut en Vermaak, or “benefit and pleasure,” to help non-English readers of the Belgian immigrant community maintain ethnic ties and assimilate to life in America. It was incorporated three years later. Many of the Belgians immigrating to the United States came from their county’s French-speaking region of Wallonia, earning them the nickname “Walloons.” The Allouez Belgians came from the northern Flemish speaking region and refer to themselves as “Buffalos” for having made their way to Superior from Buffalo, New York.
At first Nut en Vermaak served mostly as a library of sorts. Organizers Stan Laureys and Con Shears intended to obtain a collection of reading materials in Flemish. At the group’s first meeting, they gathered 31 of their fellow Belgian immigrants in Paul Hendrick’s saloon on East Itasca Street. The men agreed to send for the works of Hendrik Conscience, the most well-known Flemish-language writer of northern Belgium.
The members all chipped in for the cost: $28. But when a $30 duty fee was imposed on the books in New York, it caused the club’s first rift. At a special meeting, six of the group’s 31 registered members refused to pay the extra amount. Those six were asked to leave the meeting. The remaining carried the club’s first official motion, excluding the shirkers from the organization and stipulating that, “None of those six men shall join the organization at a later date, unless having one-hundred percent of the votes of all members.” Many tried subsequently to join, but only one succeeded—and it took him ten years.
The Club’s 300-book library helped members gain their U.S. citizenship, as did the civic studies held twice weekly in Shears home. New Belgian immigrants studied American history and the duties of United States citizens. Between 12 and 18 Superior residents of Belgian descent received their citizenship each court term.
Club members met for business twice monthly. Early meetings were held in the basement of Achiel Missini. When membership increased meetings were moved to the basement of Jules Bleyenberg, which was larger and had the advantage of a separate outside entrance. By 1919 the group’s ranks had swelled to 72 members—and need for more space became a great concern.
Reasoning that Superior’s Belgian population would continue to increase, the group purchased a vacant saloon at 3831 East St. Croix Street, financed by selling shares to members. At the same time the group changed its name to the Belgian Club. remembering their first stop n America, they hung a mounted buffalo head on the wall as a mascot. Over the years, the club grew to be recognized as a social center for Allouez.
This new clubroom also housed the Pigeon Club, a group formed around the sport of carrier pigeon racing—a sport that was very popular among Flemish Belgians at the time. Many an Allouez Buffalo spent Sunday afternoons, sitting on their front porches, waiting for pigeons to return from places as far away as Texas.
Around the mid-1920s, the club experienced it second major dispute. Some wanted to purchase an organ to provide some entertainment, perhaps even some dancing. The rest of the club was against it. Eventually the “pro organ” members broke away from the Belgian Club—membership dropped to 57. Those who left formed the Organ Club and built their own facility at 3931 East Second Street; they held a dance every Saturday night. After a few years, however, the Organ Club ran into financial trouble, and the Belgian Club bailed them out by purchasing its hall and assuming all of its debts. At the same time the Belgian, Pigeon, and Organ clubs were all incorporated as the Belgian Club. The organization moved into the building built by the Organ Club and sold the old facility
The club’s early civic lessons continued in the hall until they were no longer necessary. Besides these civic lessons, the clubrooms were also used for concerts, plays, dances and games that were open to the public—it still hosts a popular bingo night.
The site has also hosted many family celebrations over the years, including wedding and anniversary receptions, bridal and baby showers, and other private functions. In 1938, after a remodel that included a full bar, the group began renting out the club to non-members for these same events. In 1973, a second addition on the building’s south side expanded the seating capacity and provided additional restroom facilities for events.
The longest standing tradition of Superior’s Belgian Club is Smear Day, an annual kermis—Flemish for “fiesta” or “celebration.” It dates back to 1913 when a Catholic High Mass was held in honor of the first member of the club to die.
Held annually on the day after Easter, Smear Day is part fun, part solemn. It begins with members gathering outside the clubroom at 8:00 a.m. to walk as a group to St. Anthony’s Church and attend the 8:30 mass offered for the deceased. St. Anthony’s was established in 1914 as Sts. Anthony and Margaret; its first pastor, Fr. Rudolph Hanssens, came from Belgium. In the church’s early days, he celebrated mass in Flemish.
After mass, the men would gather at the club to play Smear, a trick-taking card game, and their tournament would last well into the late afternoon. Lunch was prepared by the wives and daughters of members (as was dinner). When the cards were put away, the wives and children would join the festivities, which included a visit from the Easter Bunny for the kids and dancing the schottische and the mazurka to traditional music. Smear Day attendance was once a requirement of membership—with an associated $1 fine for absences. Members recall the Great Northern Railway being forced to close various parts of its ore dock operations because Smear Day created a lack of manpower. Smear Day remains a Belgian Club tradition to this day.
The Belgian Club recently celebrated its 100th Anniversary. Today, membership in the club stands at about 140. Members must be male, at least 18 years old and have at least some Belgian ancestry, or “Belgian blood,” as club members say. Men who marry a Belgian woman may become members as well. There are only one or two full-blooded Belgian members still living in the area, and many of the families are now located outside of the old neighborhood. Still, members remain a tightly knit group in large part because their club and the activities held there continue to bring them together.
With younger families moving from the area and less interest among the younger generations in maintaining ethnic traditions, members are not sure how much longer the club will remain viable. Still, even though Allouez is not quite the bustling community it was a century, or even half-century ago, for now the Belgian Club remains a social anchor in Allouez.
Each month on Zenith City Online Judith Leibaert explores the history of Superior, Wisconsin; catch up on all of her stories here. Thanks to Belgian Club recording secretary Butch Liebaert for providing full access to the Belgian Club’s archives for this article.