The Belgians in Moline, Illinois: An Overview.

Sacred Heart (Belgian Church) in Moline, Illinois. (Wikicommons)

Did you know that during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Moline, Illinois,  was the major center for the Belgian immigrants? Not only did the area receive a large portion of the new arrivals, but the city even hosted its own Flemish newspaper, the Gazette van Moline.1

Moline, Illinois is situated about 200 miles west of Chicago at the bank of the Mississippi river and the intersection of three major railway systems: the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific; the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific; and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads. Together with Rock Island to the south and Davenport and Bettendorf across the river in Iowa, the city forms the so-called “Quad-Cities.” In the second half of the nineteenth century the area was primarily known for its lumber industry. The industry grew from a few sawmills with an estimated total annual production of 2,000,000 feet of lumber in 1854, to one with an annual production of 213,000,000 feet in 1890. However, the depletion of the pine forests of Minnesota, the decline of steamboat traffic on the Mississippi, and the financial panic of 1893 all contributed to the near extinction of the industry around the turn of the century.2

The agricultural implement industry accounted for much of the Quad-Cities’ industrial growth in the beginning of the twentieth century, with John Deere and Company its leading manufacturer. In 1892 Deere already employed 1,000 workers. In 1910 the company was reorganized and expanded, bringing the total number of Deere plants in the Tri-Cities to six. Other implement manufacturing companies in the area were the Rock Island Plow Company and the Moline Plow Company, both of which also experienced growth in the pre-World War I era. The second greatest industry of the Moline area was the manufacturing of ordnance equipment at the National Arsenal which had been established by Congress in 1862. During World War I production at the Arsenal increased and the number of employees reached a peak of more than 13,000 in 1918. Parallel with the growth of the agricultural and ordnance equipment industries a variety of other industries developed shortly after 1900, for example the construction of automobiles, railroad equipment, and washing machines. Other industries were two large wood-working factories and a flour and grist-mill company.3

In conjunction with its industrial development the population in the entire metropolitan area of the three cities expanded from 2,550 in 1848 to 18,425 in 1860, 44,000 in 1885, and 136,395 in 1920. At the fringe new towns developed, such as Bettendorf in Iowa, and East Moline and Silvis in Illinois.4

The first Belgians arrived in Moline during the 1840s and 1850s. They originated from various towns in the provinces of East and West Flanders, such as Lotenhulle, Beernem, Aalter, St. Laureins, St. Niklaas, and Lembeke. After the Civil War broke out they were joined by several Belgian families who had originally settled around St. Louis, Missouri, or in Wisconsin. More families arrived from the old country during the 1870s and 1880s. The early Belgian immigration consisted mostly of families, and a high number of them were farmers. Several stayed in Moline and vicinity and worked in the sawmills, but many moved to Rock Island County or nearby Henry County to farm.

According to the United States Census of 1890, the combined Rock Island and Henry counties in Illinois had a Belgian-born population of 788. During the decade of the 1890s their numbers more than doubled, with most of the increase in Rock Island County, indicating that most Belgians were now settling in the urban area of Moline and Rock Island, and fewer were moving to the more rural Henry County. This trend continued during the next two decades. During the first two decades of the twentieth century the Belgian-born population in Rock Island and Henry Counties grew to 5,184 in 1920.

The Belgians who came to the Moline during this time were no longer attracted by the availability of land, but by the lure of jobs in the manufacturing industry. More than half of the immigrants from Tielt and Deinze in West Flanders during that time were skilled laborers, and about a quarter were unskilled laborers. Very few were farmers. Most were single men, and it was not uncomon for these men to return to Belgium after a few years to find a bride. Also, these Belgians were not entirely driven to emigration in destitution. Rather they had weighed the consequences carefully and had prepared accordingly.5

Seasonal employment appears to have been an important feature in the lives of many Belgians in Moline. Many laborers who worked in the factories of Moline or Rock-Island during the winter worked on farms during the summer. According to Carl Pansaerts, “there were links between the Belgian settlement in Lyon County, [Minnesota] and the one in the Moline-Rock Island region in Illinois. Some of the Belgian farm laborers spent their winters working in the John Deere factories in Moline. This enabled them to save the money they had earned during the summers as hired farm laborers. In doing so, they could accumulate enough capital to purchase their own farm and land in Lyon County.”6 Other types of summer employment were found in the beet fields in Michigan, Montana, Ohio, and Canada, and in logging areas around the Great Lakes.7 It must be remembered that seasonal employment was not new to the Belgians, in fact it was a way of life for many laborers in East and West Flanders during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.8

By the beginning of the twentieth century a substantial middle class had formed among the Belgian community in Moline. Several of the immigrants who had come in the 1880s and 1890s as simple laborers had worked their way up in the local business community, some of them owning their own establishments. By 1907 the Belgian middle class in Moline was large enough to provide the necessary capital for the start of a newspaper. Furthermore, enough Belgian business-owners were available to support the paper with their advertisements. The paper’s first issue already displayed a wide array of Belgian merchants advertising their services: The Brothers Vander Vennet (clothing store), Joe Blanck (butcher), Henry Beck (doctor), Alois Tollenaere (shoestore), Charles Vander Vennet (hardware store), Francis De Jaeger (grocery store), Frank Styvaert (general store), and Louis Sonneville (general store).

One example of a Belgian-American self-made man is Edouard Coryn, who was probably the most influential immigrant leader in the Moline community during this period. Born in Lotenhulle, East Flanders, in 1857, he came to America with his parents and brothers in 1881 with only a grade school education. The family settled in Moline and Edouard found work as a laborer, first in a sawmill, later in an iron foundry, and eventually in the John Deere Company. In 1892 he opened a grocery store in downtown Moline which he managed for fourteen years. In 1907 he became a shareholder and manager of the Moline Trust and Savings Bank, and a month later he became its vice-president. In the meantime, Edouard Coryn had also become an active political and social figure. Between 1896 and 1904 he served as a municipal council member for Moline. In 1914 he was appointed postmaster.

Cite this source

Kristine Smets. “The Belgians in Moline, Illinois: An Overview,” The Belgian American (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed [date]), posted 29 January 2019.

  1. This overview is adapted from Kristine Smets, “The Gazette van Moline and the Belgian-American Community, 1907-1921” (Master’s Thesis, Kent State University, 1994).
  2. Edward B. Espenshade, “Urban Development at the Upper Rapids of the Mississippi” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1942), 70-92.
  3. Espenshade, “Urban Development at the Upper Rapids of the Mississippi,” 74-113.
  4. William Roba, The River and the Prairie: A History of the Quad-Cities, 1812-1960 (Quad-Cities: The Hesperian Press, 1986), 31, 75, and 97.
  5. Gaston-Pieter Baert, “Uitwijking naar Amerika uit de Streek van Tielt 1905-1910,” [Emigration to America from the Area of Tielt 1905-1910] Biekorf 57 (1956), 201-5. Also, Gaston-Pieter Baert, “Uitwijking naar Amerika Vijftig Jaar Geleden,” [Emigration to America Fifty Years Ago] Bijdrage tot de Geschiedenis der Stad Deinze en van het Land aan Leie en Schelde 22 (1955); reprint, Deinze: s.n., 1956, p. 67-8.
  6. Pansaerts, “Big Barns and Small Houses,” 52.
  7. Frank Vandepitte, “Belgische Immigranten in de Verenigde Staten,” [Belgian Immigrants in the United States (1850-1920)] (Licenciate’s thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Gent, 1987-1988), 107; Also, Joan Magee, The Belgians in Ontario: A History (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1989), 25-31.
  8. Luc Schepens, Van Vlaskutser tot Fransman: Bijdrage tot de Geschiedenis van de West-Vlaamse Plattelandsbevolking in de Negentiende Eeuw. [From Flax-Peddler to Frenchman: Contribution to the History of the West-Flemish Peasantry in the Nineteenth Century], Westvlaams Economisch Studiebureau, 22 (Brugge, Belgium|Westvlaams Economisch Studiebureau, 1973).

Join the Conversation

  1. I absolutely love your blog. I’m originally from Moline and of Flemish descent yet I really never knew the history of my Belgian ancestors. Our family has recently been researching our heritage so it’s great to have a source like this.

    1. Thank you Craig. I am so glad to hear this. I am most familiar with the story of the Belgians in Moline because that is what I focused on while I was in graduate school (many years ago). Would love to learn more about your family’s story!

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