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The Luxembourg trail in America's Midwest

The Luxembourg trail in America's Midwest

by György Földes 6 min. 07.02.2018 From our online archive
Luxembourg, home to more than 100 nationalities, has not always been a place of immigration – it was once just the opposite
Surely that's not right: Welcome to Belgium? (Katalin Halász)

György Földes traces some of Luxembourg's roots in America's Midwest – and even finds a bar serving Bofferding

The 19th and 20th centuries saw several waves of emigration from the Grand Duchy. In the early 1800s, laws introduced by the 'Code Napoléon' forced landowners to divide their properties equally among all children in the family. Within two generations, farms were parceled into units so small that owners could barely make a living. Luxembourg lost as much as 40% of its population at that time.

Before the Industrial Revolution, 80% of the population made their living on agriculture. Because the country had little else in the way of industry but farming at the time, many Luxembourgers emigrated, particularly to North America. Even after the advent of the Industrial Revolution, many poor farmers refused to work in the mines and steelworks, preferring instead to leave for transatlantic destinations, where they hoped to earn a decent living in agriculture. Apart from Luxembourg City and the South, the populations of most municipalities plummeted.

For many decades, the American Building at the corner of Rue Philippe II and Rue Notre Dame was a travel and emigration agency, which, between 1897 and 1937, logged the departure of some 20,000 emigrants. The promise of farmland, newly opened for settlement, attracted many Luxembourgers to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. New arrivals received assistance, food and housing from compatriots already living there. By the late 1910s, most of the 100 or so greenhouses in the Chicago area were owned by Luxembourgers, who mass produced vegetables all year round.

Home of the Luxembourgers

Although there is a town is called Luxembourg in the Green Bay Municipal Area in Wisconsin, the town of Belgium is 'Home of the Luxembourgers'. No, it is not a typing mistake. The first immigrants settled there in 1845. They arrived from Luxembourg and the Province of Luxembourg in Belgium. It was only six years before that the Province of Luxembourg was surrendered to the newly established country called Belgium, meaning that the new settlers were ethnically, culturally and linguistically Luxembourgers. When the time came to officially organise the township in 1848, the leadership of the settlers chose the name of their most recent country of origin. Thus, the Township of Belgium was born.

Sara Jacoby, executive director of the Luxembourg American Cultural Society, accompanied the author and his family around the Luxembourg American Cultural Center Museum's small but very rich exhibition. Half of the exhibition presents the homeland, while the other half is dedicated to the history of immigration and famous Luxembourgers. Between the two sections, the floor displays a 'world' map indicating the stations of the long journey.

Saint Nicolas Church (Katalin Halász)
Saint Nicolas Church (Katalin Halász)

Jacoby also showed us the small community of Dacada nearby, where the St Nicolas Church was established by Luxembourgers in 1848. The community is split between Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties. Local residents note that they were baptised in Sheboygan County (in St Nicholas Church) and buried in Ozaukee, at the cemetery across the street, where graves hold Luxembourgish family names.

The chapel has a special Madonna statue, taken by some Luxembourgers from home. During the perilous journey, the vessel was overloaded, and the captain asked the passengers to throw the statue overboard. The Luxembourgers sawed off the lower part of the statue, wrapped it up and threw that from the ship, saving the holy relic. It now stands on a wooden log in the chapel, covered by her robe. Visitors wanted to see proof of the story and always raised the dress to have a look. The Virgin Mary is behind glass now.

Ten minutes from Belgium

Driving south along Lake Michigan, Port Washington is only 10 minutes from Belgium. Uselding is running a tiny embroidery shop here, and the proprietor speaks of his Luxembourgish ancestors. The employees of Biever's travel agency believe that their boss is French. Maybe, but most probably not … The lighthouse of the village was renovated by Luxembourgish craftsmen and inaugurated by former minister of culture Erna Hennicot-Schoepges in 2002.

Sara Jacoby, executive director of the Luxembourg American Cultural Society, and Robert Földes, the author's son, on Luxemburg Lane (Katalin Halász)
Sara Jacoby, executive director of the Luxembourg American Cultural Society, and Robert Földes, the author's son, on Luxemburg Lane (Katalin Halász)

Further south on the lake, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has a population of 600,000, close to that of the Grand Duchy itself. Samantha Denner, general manager of Café Benelux, is glad to serve draft Bofferding to her guests from Luxembourg. She explains that they receive one pony keg – 27 litres – from Bascharage every week. The pub offers 100 different Belgian beers, and they ask the guests to vote the beer of the month. The November best was Bofferding.

Bofferding served up in the USA (Katalin Halász)
Bofferding served up in the USA (Katalin Halász)

Chicago's Luxembourg community was once one of the smallest yet most self-conscious ethnic groups. Many of those families, arriving here after 1842, moved to more westerly farming areas. After 1870, the city's Luxembourgers established a rich cultural life, seeking to distinguish themselves from the local German community. The Museum of Science and Industry displayed dozens of Christmas trees for the holiday season, including one richly decorated by the Luxembourg Brotherhood of America.

Minneapolis and St Paul, the latter being the capital of Minnesota, account for about 60% of the state's population of around 3 million. The city was once the flour capital of the US. The mill museum explains that, during World War I, flour was shipped from here to Belgium as a humanitarian act within the Millers' Belgian Relief Movement.

The Minnesota Viking's football stadium includes 3,000 tonnes of huge trusses produced in Differdange. The so-called HI-STAR, grade-65 steel can only be rolled in Luxembourg. This high-strength steel has saved 30% on the stadium's roof structure. The 100-m main truss, for the stadium, which hosted the Super Bowl on 4 February, is more than impressive.

The Sisters of St Francis

Within a one-and-a-half-hour drive from the Twin Cities of Minenapolis and St Paul, the world-famous Mayo Clinic is based in Rochester, Minnesota. It is not widely known, however, that the clinic was founded with the help of a Luxembourg Sister. Maria Catherine Moes was born in Remich in 1828 and emigrated to the US with her sister in 1851. Between 1852 and 1863, they lived in Milwaukee with the School Sisters of Notre Dame. While there, they took religious vows and assumed the names of Sister Alfred and Sister Barbara. Following a few years in Illinois, where a new St Francis Academy was built, Sister Alfred arrived in Minnesota, where she planned an even larger expansion of the academy. Mother Alfred was then assigned to go to Rochester to build Our Lady of Lourdes School.

The Sisters of St Francis began to open a series of successful schools. Following a devastating tornado in the young city of Rochester in 1883, Mother Alfred saw the need for a hospital in the town. She proposed to Dr William Worrall Mayo to establish a hospital. St Mary's Hospital opened with 27 beds on 30 September 1889. Mother Alfred's Sisters of St Francis supplied the money and nursing staff. Today, the hospital forms part of the Mayo Clinic, ranked one of the top hospitals in the US.