Tastes of a Belgian Settlement

Jim Baudhuin has lived in the same home for most of his 76 years. He milks his cattle, waters his garden and occasionally entertains tour groups that spill out of busses parked on the side of County Road DK.

Since Baudhuin’s farm was named a historic place and adorned with a small plaque, many visitors have stopped to marvel at the masonry and photograph the old barns and outdoor kitchen.

The structure of Baudhuin’s home is similar to many in the Brussels region of Southern Door County, an area that has held tight to its Belgian roots.dclv10i03-habitats-wooden-sign-in-namur-baudhuin-homestead-LV

Southwestern Door was settled and farmed by Belgians in the 1850s. When agriculture could no longer support whole families, some left to work manufacturing jobs in Sturgeon Bay, Green Bay, Kewaunee and Algoma. Because the factories were close to home, family members never really had to leave the farm.

Thus, the Belgian heritage of Southern Door has remained strong.

“The Belgian community is the most persistent of all the ethnic islands in Wisconsin,” said Bill Laatsch, a retired University of Wisconsin – Green Bay professor. “It has eroded less than any of the other islands and it retains its culture to a greater extent than any of the other ethnic groups in the state.”

Tastes of the original Belgian settlement can still be seen in Namur, where Baudhuin lives. A fleet of Belgian beers is for sale at the local bar, roadside chapels dot the county roads, some locals speak Walloon and much of the original architecture has been preserved by families passing homes from generation to generation.

Traditional Belgian homes are modestly sized, square, two stories and topped with a peaked roof. They have four windows on either side of the house and are marked by a whole- or half-circle window at the front peak. Those circular windows vary slightly from house to house, and are unique to the mason who built them.Len Villano

The homes built by the original Belgian settlers were lost to the Peshtigo fire of 1871, which ravaged the wooden housing stock.

The fire burned the foliage off of the trees in its path, but left a supply of easily salvaged building material behind. Belgian settlers used the remaining wood to build more log homes in the late 1870s, which were eventually covered with brick.

The bricks provided some insulation and fire resistance, and were more fashionable at the time. Some houses have since been covered with vinyl. And most, if not all, of the homes have been updated for modern life with heating systems and basements.

As Laatsch said, they are folk houses, inspired by the traditional culture of those who built them, not necessarily by functionality.

“They are not architecturally inspired, they are evolved by the subconscious feelings of people as to what a home should be,” Laatsch said.

So as brick and vinyl exteriors became popular, the community adapted. Still, most homes have held up for almost a century with little repair.Len Villano

“The Belgians are awfully good stewards and caretakers of what they have,” Laatsch said.

Baudhuin’s house doesn’t stick to the pattern of most Belgian homes. His is larger than most and has a windowless wall where a barn would have traditionally been built. But, he said, his great-grandfather decided to build the barn out back, and it wasn’t feasible to install windows.

“How do you put a hole in the wall with stone that thick?” Baudhuin asked, gesturing to reflect the impenetrable walls of his home.

Unlike most Belgian homes, Baudhuin’s house isn’t made of logs or bricks, rather it was built by his great-grandfather out of large, tawny cut limestone dug on the property for a total cost of $80.

“You wouldn’t get one stone for $80 now,” Baudhuin said.

Baudhuin’s great-grandfather never saw the house finished and died of injuries sustained from building the house.Len Villano, chapel

“One of the bigger [stones], I used to remember which one but I forgot now, coulda been the one in the corner – he hurt himself lifting it up there and he died of the injury.” Baudhuin said. “In those days you’d get a hernia and didn’t know what it was.”

The home has another feature that sets it apart from most Belgian homes in the area. An extra structure outside once served as an outdoor kitchen, though Baudhuin said his aunt was the last one to use it that way many years ago. It now stores some tools and holds the plaque marking Baudhuin’s home as a historic place.

But it’s not all about preserving the past. Some families, like Barb LeGrave’s, have combined distinctly modern elements into homes almost 100 years old.

On the south-facing wall of LeGrave’s home is a stretch of solar panels that were installed in the 1990s. The panels are an economical way to heat the home, she said. But outside of installing solar panels, LeGrave has had to do little to the house once owned by her grandparents.

Len Villano

Built by Jean Joesph Baudhuin in 1880.

“It was built well and it keeps in the heat,” LeGrave said.

LeGrave and her husband Norbert are of Belgian descent and have four children and many grandchildren who live in the area. Her home may stay in the family.

The future of Baudhuin’s historic home, however, is less sure. He never had children; neither did his younger brother who lives down the road.

“I guess I’m the end of the line,” Baudhuin said. “My brother should last longer than me, but you never know.”

Although his house is now recognized by visitors and Belgian cultural enthusiasts, living in a historic Belgian folk house doesn’t make much difference to Baudhuin. He’s just happy to work the land his great-grandfather farmed, to milk cattle in the barn still sturdy after years of housing livestock, and rest in the favorite part of his home – his easy chair – at the end of the day.