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Threads of Belgian Lace Theresa Haferd Backyard History Project March 14, 2001


Henry and Triphonie Henry Vannieuwkerke was born on Feb. 25, 1886, in Waaken, Belgium. He had 12 siblings. He left school after the fourth grade to work as a tenant farmer to help provide for his family. Triphonie Lippens was the third of four children, born on Jan. 18, 1888. She finished the eighth grade and worked as a maid in Brussels. Despite family feuds and disputes, the two fell in love.


The Honeymoon Henry knew that he had no chance of owning his own land in Belgium, so he convinced his new bride to leave her family and travel with him to America on their honeymoon. Henry and Triphonie were married Aug. 25, 1910. They had just $50 to start a new life together.


Arriving in America The newlyweds were among 1,041,570 immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1910. They found the experience shocking. The voyage was very difficult and demeaning. Like many others, they traveled in steerage and were seasick from the rough voyage. Henry said they were herded like cattle onto the ship. Still, they were young and looked forward to the wonderful opportunities they were told awaited them in the new country. Surely, the Statue of Liberty was a welcomed sight after such an ordeal.


First Stop – Ellis Island Things were not much better for the thousands of immigrants, like Henry and Triphonie, who entered the country through Ellis Island. Upon arrival, many people were turned back, while others were detained or quarantined for health reasons. Language problems and other practical concerns caused great discomfort. Hopeful immigrants wait to be transferred to Ellis Island and more crowded conditions.


Inspections and Crowds Throngs of immigrants were subject to medical examinations upon arrival at Ellis Island’s great inspection hall, before lining up in the registry room. Here, they waited for their names to be called for the legal inspection. Interpreters were hired to help with language problems. Immigrants wait in line at the Ellis Island inspection hall.


Next Stop – Detroit, Mich. The newlyweds left New York on a train bound for Michigan, where Triphonie’s brother was expecting them. Because they could not speak English, they relied on sign language. Kind strangers offered sandwiches at different stops along the way. They were amazed at the colorful leaves on the trees and the vast expanse between villages, which was much different from the crowded conditions in Belgium. After a farming job with Triphonie’s brother fell through, the couple moved to Detroit and Henry worked at the rail yards. They were forced to live in a cramped room in the city.


Out of Place Many people recognized the plight of the immigrants in America at this time. Some took advantage of the “foreigners,” making them work long, hard hours for meager wages. Others avoided them completely. Henry felt especially out of place in the big city, because he wasn’t doing the work for which he was trained -- tending the land. He also didn’t like the noise and confusion of the city. The couple tried to fit in, but found it very difficult.


Troubled Times in Belgium To make matters worse, the couple heard about the German invasion of Belgium during World War I and were worried about their families at home. Before they could make plans to return and help out, the Belgians had surrendered. They decided to stay in America. The German infantry marches through the center of Brussels after the fall of Belgium.


Escape to the Countryside Life in the city wore hard on the young couple. Because Henry couldn’t bear city life, he and his wife joined the migrant workers in the fields of northern Ohio. They were forced to live in a makeshift wooden house on a wagon as they traveled from farm to farm. By this time they were new parents caring for two young daughters, Adele and Marie. A local farmer recognized what a hard worker Henry was and hired him to work on his farm in Henry County, Ohio. Now they had their first real home. Marichica (“Little Marie”)


Lost Loved Ones Childhood diseases were more often fatal in these days, because many people did not have access to the primitive medical treatment available. It was because of this that when Adele fell ill with whooping cough, she died at age 2 in 1915. Just two years later, the couple lost their second child, Marie, to pneumonia. These tragedies weighed heavy on the family. A third child, George, was an infant at this time. He also fell ill at age 2, but fortunately survived and thrived. Sometime between the time when Adele passed away in 1915 and the year Marie died, Henry and Triphonie changed their last name from Vannieuwkerke to the simpler Bils.


Better Times After much hard work, Henry and his wife saved enough money to begin purchasing their own farm. By this time, the family had grown to include sons George and Albert. Three more children -- Joe, Helen and Robert – were born in the 1920s, a decade that saw many changes across the nation. Although not exactly “roaring,” the Bils family was indeed gaining ground (no pun intended).


More Hard Work on the Farm For several years, Henry and the other farmers in the area were able to make the best of undesirable soil conditions. But a wet season and the Great Depression ruined their hopes.


A Lost Cause When Henry took on the his first farm endeavor, he realized the land was wet. He thought he could use tile to drain it like he remembered doing in Belgium. This land, however, was mostly clay and did not drain as expected. He also was unable to get what crops he could raise to market because of the muddy roads. Eventually, these mounting problems – along with the national economic woes -- caused him to lose all he had gained. Students, as well as many adults still learning the ropes in America, concentrated on practical problems like the one above in the early 20th Century.


Another Chance at a New Beginning Because of the kindness of an area banker, Henry and his family were given another chance to own a farm. Toward the end of the Depression, they took out a loan on some land in Wyandot County. This farm had been neglected and was infested with fleas – something no one else would tackle. But it was good land, and farm prices improved. Here’s the Bils family at around the time they moved to Wyandot County, shortly before the youngest child, Marialyce (my mother) was born in 1930.


Still Adjusting Henry and Triphonie were especially anxious for their children to have a good education, something they were not able to have in Belgium. They learned along with their children. Many stories were told around the kitchen table about the embarrassing language problems they encountered when they first arrived in America. Feeling accepted as citizens in the United States continued to be very important to them.


Fitting In Like many people who were immigrants to America, Henry and Triphonie were concerned about fitting in. Moving away from other Belgians in the city helped them to assimilate to the new country. They received their citizenship in 1915 and continued to adjust to life in the United States. As time passed, they became more comfortable socially. Their children were included in local activities, and the family felt more at home. By the time youngest daughter Marialyce attended school, the family was “established.”


Prosperous Times Through cooperation, hard work and favorable economic times, the Bils family was eventually able to amass 1,000 acres of land in Ohio. Generations later, this land, including the original homestead, continues to be farmed by members of the family.


The Thread Continues The strong ties of the land are woven through all the generations in my family. Some have chosen farming as a career, while others express their love of the land in other hobbies and interests. My mother, shown at right, is the only member of her family who lives in the city. Still, she spends most of her time gardening and overseeing her own farm, at right. Her parents would no doubt be proud of the way the tradition they started has continued.


References Bitzer, G.W., (Camera). (1907). Arrival of immigrants, Ellis Island (Film). New York: American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. Detroit Publishing Co. (1900-1910). Family in an attic home with drying laundry (Photograph). Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Freedman, R. (1980). Immigrant kids. New York: Penguin Books. Gilbert, A. (2000). World War I in photographs. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. Haferd, M. R. (personal communications, Jan. 15, 2001, Jan. 22, 2001, March 10, 2001) Reeves, P. (2000). Ellis Island: Gateway to the American dream. New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group. Roach, A. (1915). The heart of the immigrant (Operetta). Iowa City, Iowa: Traveling Culture, The University of Iowa Libraries. Swartz, H. (personal communication, Jan. 15, 2001)

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