A Belgian-American postcard recently resurfaced in a family archive in East Flanders. It was sent to me with a request for help in identifying the individuals in the photos. Some sleuthing in American and Belgian records, as well as additional help from Belgium, revealed the identity of some, but not all, of the people featured. Perhaps a reader can help us solve the puzzle.1
There are two extant copies of the first postcard, depicted above. A seated couple is featured with a young girl standing between them, and three mustached men standing behind them. The men all wear a bowler, a suit, tie, and a long warm overcoat. A long overcoat and fur stole cover the woman’s skirt, and a fancy-beribboned hat completes her outfit. The young girl wears a long coat and fur stole. She wears a ribbon in shoulder-length light hair.3
The second postcard, undoubtedly made the same day, presents the three standing men, wearing the same clothes.4
We know who sent the postcards to Belgium, because the sender included two detailed messages on the verso of both copies of postcard#1 and signed off as C. or Cyriel De Backer.
Postcard #1a was addressed to Cyriel’s parents in Zomergem, East Flanders:6
Dear parents. I am sending you a portrait from which you will notice that I have changed a lot since I left. I am a gentleman with a coat, which is warm, but indispensable here. Agust Claeys and I went to South Bend to get it. I paid 15 dollars (75 Belgian francs). The three of us will go to the beets this summer. God willing, we will earn them. The other portrait with the three of us is for my wife, and the other is for smed from the factory. I am sending them together so that you can deliver them. My dear parents, I will close now and send you warm greetings.
C. De Backer
Postcard #1b, was destined for smed from the factory.8
Dear friends, you will be able to see that we are doing well here in America. Agust Claeijs is younger which does not surprise. Noone can believe how good our livelihood is here. Chickens fly roasted in our mouths, as do delicious rabbits. Agust and I go to the sap together. The factories are different here than in Belgium. Four thousand people work there. Well smed how are the rabbits? Are they adjusting? It can be a heap once it starts. Marie, I think I make you happy by sending you this portrait. And now, friendly greetings from Cyriel and Agust, Melanie, and Raymond.
Cyriel De Backer I expect an answer. Tell me what you think of the postcard.
All three postcards are embossed in the lower right corner with the imprint of Clement F. Kaylor, a phographer who was active in Mishawaka between 1910 and 1930. They are a good example of Real Photo Postcards, photographs that were developed onto photographic paper the size and weight of postcards, with a postcard back. Postcards with the letters AZO and four triangles pointed up in the upper right-hand corner, were produced between 1904 and 1918.10
Cyriel De Backer, Agust, Raymond, and Melanie, and Smed van de fabriek
Cyriel De Backer, son of Henri De Backer and Marie-Louise Geurs, was born on 7 December 1890 in Zomergem. His ‘dear friends’ were identified by Jacqueline Hebbrecht as her great grandparents, Emiel Van de Wattijne, a blacksmith who was known around town as de smed, and Maria Bert from Zomergem. Their daughter, Maria Magdalena Van de Wattijne, was married with Cyriel’s brother, Machiel De Backer.11
Cyriel extends greetings from Agust, Melanie, and Raymond, and gives his address as Agust Claeys, Mishawaka, Ind., West 7th Street, Nro 1002, Noord America. According to the 1912 Mishawaka city directory, August Claeys, husband of Melanie, was living at 1002 West Seventh Street in 1912.12
The De Backer and Claeys Families in Zomergem.
Around the turn of the century, the families of Cyriel De Backer and August Claeys were close neighbors in Korteboeken, a neighborhood in Zomergem, East Flanders.13
De Backer Family
Cyriel’s father, Henri De Backer, was born on 19 June 1860 in Meigem, East Flanders, son of Petrus De Backer and Marie Thérèse De Coninck. He married Marie-Louise Geurs, daughter of Augustien Geurs and Virginie Wambeke, on 7 January 1886 in Lotenhulle, East Flanders. Marie-Louise was born on 24 May 1862 in Petegem, East Flanders.14
Henri and Marie-Louise had ten children.
August Claeys, son of Petrus Claeys and Francisca Vandevelde, was born on 29 February 1864 in Lovendegem, where he married Melania De Roose, daughter of Petrus De Roose and Maria Theresia Leuntjens, on 21 November 1888. Melania was born in the same place on 30 April 1867.35
August and Melanie had four children, all born in Zomergem. Three died in early childhood.
Raymond Claeys, sole surviving child of August Claeys and Melanie De Roose, was nineteen when he emigrated to America. He departed on 27 February 1909 from Antwerp with the SS Zeeland, a ship of the Red Star Line. Two fellow-villagers, Charles and Maria Van Hecke accompanied him. The Zeeland arrived on 9 March 1909 in New York. Afer the Ellis Island formalities, the trio continued their journey by train to Mishawaka, a city in Northern Indiana with a burgeoning Flemish community. Charles Van Hecke had been there before, working in the factories for four years.44
Raymond found work in a forge where he earned two dollars a day.45 Most likely, his success encouraged his father August to also try his luck in Mishawaka. August left on 27 August 1910 with the SS Lapland from Antwerp. He arrived on 4 September in New York and traveled from there to Mishawaka.46
Melanie remained in Belgium for one more year but then also departed on 4 November 1911 with the SS Lapland. She arrived in New York on 13 November 1911.47 She was accompanied by Cyriel De Backer, the author of the postcards, who left behind a wife and child in Zomergem.48
August and Raymond Claeys in Mishawaka
Between 1912 and 1923, August and Melanie Claeys lived on West Seventh Street in Mishawaka, at numbers 1002 (1912), 1014 (1914-1916), 402 (1920), and 325 (1921-1923). August is no longer mentioned in the Mishawaka city directory after 1923.49
After his marriage to Caroline Anne “Lena” Probst in 1914, and until about 1921, son Raymond lived in the country, first in Harris Township, northeast of Mishawaka, and later in Madison Township southeast of the city. He returned to Mishawaka in 1921. From about 1923 his adres was 1009 West Seventh Street.50
Both father and son worked at the Mishawaka Woolen Manufacturing Company, an enterprise founded in 1838 to fabricate textile products. In 1886 the company patented the all-knit boot, a woollen boot with a black rubber band at the top. From 1898 the factory mainly produced high shoes and boots marked by a black band and a red ball. Between the two World Wars, the Mishawaka Rubber and Woolen Manufacturing Company was one of the largest companies in Mishawaka, employing thousands of workers.51
Cyriel mentions the beetfields where the tree men would work during the summer. He alluded to the sugarbeet cultivation in and around Wallaceburg and Chatham in Southern Ontario, just across the border of Detroit. The Ontario beet industry needed workers, both on the fields and in the sugar factories, and Belgians were known as experienced beetworkers. The Flemish were also familiar with seasonal employment. In Belgium, Flemish workers traveled seasonally to farms in Northern France to help with the beet harvest.54
Back to Belgium
Cyriel De Backer did not stay in Mishawaka for long. He returned home before the end of 1912, because on 20 August 1913, he reported the birth of a son, Henri-Joseph, at the town hall in Zomergem.55
August and Melanie Claeys returned to Belgium in August 1923. Before their departure they sold their belongings, and August, who three years prior had become a naturalized American citizen, requested a passport.56 It is unclear whether they ever returned to the United States.57
When were the postcards created?
Neither one of the postcards is dated and the envelope that was used to send them to Belgium has been lost. But the postcards/photographs were undoubtedly made during Cyriel De Backer’s brief stay in Mishawaka between November 1911 and late 1912. Everyone is wearing heavy winter clothing, and Cyriel mentions he bought a coat for $15 in South Bend, suggesting the photographs were made not long after his arrival in November 1911. A warm winter coat was indispensable in Northern Indiana, where daily temperatures frequently dip below 32°F during the winter. The weekend before Melanie and Cyriel arrived in Mishawaka, the South Bend area was struck by a heavy blizzard. Cyriel’s written notes also suggest that it was the first time since his arrival he wrote to his parents back home.58
The clothing worn by the individuals in the photograph reflects the fashion of the early 1910s. The decade featured large, wide-brimmed hats adorned with feathers, ribbons, or veils, such as the one worn by the adult woman. Dress lenghts fell to just above the ankle. Bowler hats were especially popular among men.59
Who is Who?
And thus, we return to our original question: who are the people portrayed in the postcards? The seated woman bears enough of a resemblance to Melanie De Roose in a 1923 passport photograph of August and Melanie Claeys, to posit that Melanie and August are the two seated individuals.60
A photograph of a young Cyriel De Backer, provided by his grandson in Belgium, suggests that he may be the man standing in the middle of the back row.
Raymond Claeys may be the man standing on the left, as he appears to be younger than the man on the right. Raymond turned twenty-one on 17 November 1889.
The identities of the man on the right and the young girl in front however remain a mystery.
The young girl is not a child or grandchild of August and Melanie. They had no other children besides Raymond and the three small children that died young. Their son Raymond did not marry until 1914.63
The man on the right could perhaps be August Claeys’ older brother, Julius Leonardus Claeys, who supposedly died in America. We were not able find more information about him in any census, death, or immigration records.64
Cyriel did not see a need to identify them to his parents or his friends. We hope that a reader will recognize the family and help us fill in the blanks.