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Land and Water Shaped Belgian Settlers’ Success

by ANN JINKINS, Belgian Heritage Center

In the heart of Wisconsin’s wilderness, Belgian immigrants found success through their resourcefulness and hard work. Their story, rooted in the fertile lands adjacent to the waters of Green Bay, illustrates how their new homeland shaped their future.   

Belgian settlers arrived in Wisconsin with little to their name, but quickly realized the potential of the land. They turned to trapping, hunting and fishing to stave off hunger, while also cultivating potatoes and utilizing trees for warmth and shelter. 

But it was a different use of the forested land that transformed the Belgians’ fortunes. They discovered that the pine, oak and cedar they cleared from their land could be made into shingles and sold. After the Civil War, a building boom increased demand for shingles and lumber – both of which Belgian settlers had in large supply. 

First, the settlers cut down trees, chopped them into sections and split the sections into shingles, all by hand. They made shingle benches, which were often used in the house at night, by the light of candles and whale-oil or kerosene lamps. 

All family members helped make shingles. Working together, a family could make 21,000 shingles in a single week.

They tied shingles into bundles of 250 and hauled them to Green Bay on their backs or shipped them in wagons drawn by oxen. In the winter, settlers loaded shingles onto sleds and pulled them to markets along the frozen shores of Green Bay. The shingles provided essential income, ensuring the settlers’ survival in the harsh Wisconsin environment.

Docks and piers were springing up along the bay shore in the Belgian settlement area, so instead of hauling their products on their backs or by wagon load to Green Bay, settlers could haul shingles and other agricultural products to these closer shipping centers. New shingle mills were built near these operations, offering many Belgians employment. 

This steamer, The Denessen, ferried passengers to and from Green Bay. Its stops along the bay shore included Chaudoir’s Dock. Bundles of shingles can be seen on the dock. Photo courtesy of the Belgian Heritage Center.

One of the earliest was developed by F.B. Gardner, who in 1854 purchased the Increase Claflin homestead on Little Sturgeon Bay and developed the waterfront with several businesses including a sawmill, a shingle mill, a boarding house, a blacksmith shop, a warehouse, a shipyard and piers.

Chaudoir’s Dock helped the Belgian community prosper too. Antoine, Alexander and Justin Chaudoir, who arrived from Belgium in 1856, were authorized by the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly to build and maintain a dock and pier in the Town of Union in 1874.  This bustling hub facilitated the export of goods to and from Green Bay.From sugar beets and potatoes to lumber and hay, the dock served as a conduit for commerce, connecting the settlers to broader markets and opportunities.  

Today, Chaudoir’s Dock County Park and Boat Launch (10865 Cty N in Union) marks the historic site, which stands as a reminder of the resilience and ingenuity of the Belgian settlers. Their ability to harness the resources of the land and leverage the nearby shipping routes of Green Bay paved the way for their success and the enduring vibrancy of their communities.  

References
• “The Walloon Immigrants of Northeast Wisconsin: An Examination of Ethnic Retention” by Jacqueline Lee Tinkler, 2013.

Door County Advocate, 1871

The Laws of Wisconsin (Chapter 184), 1874.

History of the Belgian Settlement, Door County, Wisconsin: The County Beautiful by Hjalmar R. Holand, 1917.

History Hub is a column by members and friends of the Heritage Alliance of Door County, a group of museums dedicated to promoting history throughout the peninsula. This year’s theme is “surrounded by water,” so all articles this year will be maritime-related.

“The interior towns along the east shore of Green Bay we have now been traversing to this point is settled by a Belgian population numbering probably 10,000 persons, who have for years been engaged in making shaved shingles. These industrious people manufactured millions of shingles annually, sending them by land and water to Green Bay city for sale and shipment, and it is to them that Green Bay is indebted for making it what it is – the largest shingle emporium of the world. They were pioneers in this work, but their hand labor is being superseded by the steam shingle mills multiplying so rapidly all around this region of country.”

– Excerpt written to the editors of the Wisconsin Press Association regarding a tour of the waters around Green Bay, published in the Door County Advocate in 1871.

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