I got to know Christine DeSmet over this past year as a fellow member of the Blackbird Writers group. I was particularly intrigued by her descriptions of Namur, Wisconsin. You see, I used to live near the town’s namesake, Namur, Belgium, for about eighteen months when I was nine-years-old. We still have family friends that live there. Christine’s Fudge Shop series is set in the Wisconsin town. Today, she describes what you’ll find if you visit there.
If you leave Green Bay, Wiscosnin, and travel Highway 57 northeast through Door County, you’re going to end up like thousands of tourists who flock to the area north of Sturgeon Bay known as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.”
But if you do that, you’ll miss tiny Namur, Wisconsin, and a key piece of U.S. history!
Namur is near Brussels. Belgians had a major influence on the founding of both Wisconsin and our entire country.
By the 1600s, the region between Virginia and New England was named “New Belgium” or “New Holland.” Belgians landed at the Eastern ports, then traveled to places such as Wisconsin, which still has the largest rural population of Belgians in this country. The U.S. Census notes major Belgian populations in these states, in descending order with the largest numbers listed first: Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, California, Minnesota, Florida, New York, Indiana, Texas, and Ohio.
Before I wrote my Fudge Shop Mystery Series, I was aware of the Belgian influence in my state because I’m half-Belgian, but it was only after a visit and tour of the Belgian Heritage Center and its historic buildings in Namur that I appreciated the mark on our country.
Have you ever been to a Belgian kermiss—a harvest festival? Get ready for a dozen or more types of pies and chocolate cookies, bars, and candies. And yes, there will be beer because Belgians are good at making it.
The next kermiss in Namur is at the Belgian Heritage Center on August 15. Visitors are welcomed for a day of music and good eats. The kermiss features ice-cream made with a tractor doing the cranking—which kids love to watch.
The influx of Belgians to this state began with 10 farm families coming to Wisconsin in 1853.
There were 15,000 Belgians in Wisconsin by the start of the Civil War. Today, there are over 360,000 Belgians recorded in the U.S. 2000 Census, with very large populations in the New York City area, Detroit, and Moline, Ill.—where I was born before my family moved to a Wisconsin farm.
Many states and cities have Belgian organizations that have Belgian waffle breakfasts (in Moline). Namur, Wisconsin, sells booyah (a tomato-based stew) in gallon pails in drive-up fundraisers. My booyah recipe is in Book 2 of my series, Hot Fudge Frame-Up.
U.S. Belgian history took hold when about 30 Belgian families arrived in 1624 at Manhattan Island, where today a monument in Battery Park gives a nod to the founders. The families spread out to build forts in areas including Hartford, Connecticut. Hoboken, New Jersey, is also named after a municipality in Flanders, Belgium.
In my third series book called Five-Alarm Fudge, readers learn about the church in Namur, Wisconsin, which was called Our Lady of the Snows. My novel contains historical facts about the heavy losses of life in the Great Fire of 1871 that killed over a thousand people in the Door County region. The Belgians rebuilt with stone and brick buildings, many with the famous bulls-eye window in the second-story peaks. You’ll spot this architecture during your visit to Namur.
Namur almost wasn’t called “Namur.” It was originally named for Namur in the country of Belgium where it’s the capital of the provinces of Namur and Wallonia.
Our Namur was changed to Delwich for a few years because of church meetings held in the home of Guillaume Delwiche. The “e” got dropped along the way. Then, from 1873 to 1905, the burg was again called Namur. Then the Fairland School opened, and for 60 years the area was known as Fairland. In 1962 it went back to Namur.
In 1990, the Namur Historic District became a National Historic Landmark. The District has 180 historically significant buildings in about 3,500 acres including 41 separate farmsteads with still-standing historic structures such as summer kitchens.
The Belgian Heritage Center is manageable time-wise, but you’re not in a hurry anyway, right? There are short videos, photos, displays, and of course you’ll want to visit the roadside chapel and the restored schoolhouse—open for the first time this summer 2021.
As you travel south again on your way home from Namur, make another turn off Highway 57 and discover nearby Champion, which has Belgian history related to what you’ll see at the Belgian Heritage Center—and in my books.
In Champion you’ll see the grotto, museum, and resting place for a major figure in Five-Alarm Fudge–Sister Adele Brise (also spelled Brice). Sister Adele hid in a wooden structure that survived the Great Fire of 1871, a miracle. Adele said that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had visited her on a trail in the nearby woods. The Catholic Church went through the process of declaring this an official Marian sighting and site—the only such sanctioned one in the United States. Thousands now visit Champion every year.
For my novel’s plot, I asked: What if Sister Adele Brise created a Belgian-chocolate candy recipe for the children, and what if that handwritten recipe was hidden in 1871 in the church as a way to keep it safe from the Great Fire? How much would that handwritten recipe be worth today? Would somebody murder for it?
Start your visit into history by armchair traveling via the Belgian Historical Center’s website and history’s timeline.
This summer get off the main roads. Be an adventurer!
Christine DeSmet is the author of the Fudge Shop Mystery Series set in Door County, and the Mischief in Moonstone Series set in northwest Wisconsin. You can find out more about her on her website, christinedesmet.com, or follow her on Facebook.