Sunday, November 9, 2008

Flemish in Chicago - Part 2 The Story of Arnold Van Puymbroeck

Arnold Van Puymbroeck is a legend in Chicago's Flemish-American community. He was elected the third president of the Flemish Belgian-American Club of Chicago (BACC) and served from 1980 on. But effectively he was the force majeure behind the BAC and the Flemish community In Chicago from the mid-1950s onward. A successful businessman and real estate investor today, Mr. Van Puymbroeck served as President of at least 9 different Flemish Belgian-American organizations in Chicago. The Belgian Government recognized Arnold Van Puymbroeck’s contribution to Belgium's Flemish colony in Chicago by awarding him the “Ridder in the Orde van Leopold II” (Knight in the Order of Leopold II), the highest decoration bestowed by the Belgian government upon civilians.
Mr. Van Puymbroeck was born 1930 in the town of Vrasene (now part of Beveren-Waas) about 15 km from Antwerpen in the Province of East Flanders. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1952. Today his two grandsons, both blessed with the solid Flemish name of Van Puymbroeck, carry on the tradition of Flemish-Americans here in Chicago. Below is Arnold’s story, in his own words. Please note that all dates are approximate.

When I was 18 years old (1948) I met a lady who lived on the same street as I did in my hometown of Vrasene. Our parents did not approve of us getting married. They did not even speak with each other. I will tell you more about this later. So I said to this young lady who became my wife, ‘Why don’t we go away’?

At that time I wanted to go to the Belgian Congo. It was a land of opportunity for Belgians back then. My girlfriend instead said, ‘Why don’t we go to the States?’ You see, she was born in the U.S. in 1930. Her family had lost everything in the Great Depression (1929 – 1933) and went back to Belgium in 1933 when she was three. And, as you know, when you are born in the U.S. you automatically become a U.S. citizen. So because of my future wife’s citizenship we decided to move to the States.

But first I had to do my military service (eighteen months). After I completed my military service (1951) we applied to the American Consul in Antwerpen. My wife’s parents decided to go back with us to the States. They still had family in Detroit and Chicago. In those days there was a quota on the number of Belgians allowed into the U.S. We started the application process in 1951. In the spring of 1952 we received our visas.

We came over on the Nieuw Amsterdam which was a ship on the Holland-America Line. I was seasick for seven days – until I stepped off the boat in New York. I only had one good meal. Most of the time, I just ate crackers. This was a big ship with thousands of other passengers – there were other Belgians on the ship, too.

When we arrived we took a train from New York to Detroit. We all stayed with my wife’s uncle’s family there. His name was Paul Verhulst. By training I was a dental technician. So I worked for six weeks at a dental lab there. After a little while, my wife’s parents went to Chicago to stay with my wife’s other uncle, Florent Verhulst. The family of my wife-to-be said, “Come to Chicago!” So we took the train to Chicago. We arrived on July 4, 1952. That is a date you do not forget.

I had some money saved but I did not want to dip into my savings, so I went to look for a job. In the beginning I did some window washing for Belgian janitors. Then I went to see Ray Van Heck. Ray was the Business Agent for the Chicago Janitors Flat Union Local No. 1. His father Gus Van Heck was the most important man in the Belgian community in Chicago in those days. Gus Van Heck had started the Chicago Flat Janitors Union Local #1 around 1915 with about a dozen other Belgians. A large number of the Belgians in Chicago worked as janitors. Gus was also the President of the Belgian American Club and other Belgian organizations here. This meant that Gus had great influence in the Belgian community here through the social clubs that were part of the Belgian-American Societies of Chicago. There were at least 9 clubs including the Belgian American Club, the Queen Elisabeth Club, the Ardennes Post (Belgian-American veterans of WW2), the Athletic Club, the Belgian-American Ladies Club, the Belgian-American Bow and Arrow Club, the Belgian Popinjay Club, the Wooden Shoe Archery Club, and the Kunst en Broederliefde [Art and Brotherly Love] Club.

Anyhow, Ray Van Heck told me that one of the other Belgians, Frank Claes, was going on vacation for 3 weeks with his wife. They needed a vacation janitor to take care of his three buildings. While I did the work, I stayed in his apartment – usually janitors have a free apartment. After two weeks Frank’s wife came back and said that Frank had had a massive heart attack and would not be able to take care of his buildings anymore. So, Ray asked me to take over and I accepted. My first apartment as a janitor in Chicago was at 5433 N. Kenmore. The other buildings that I also was janitor for were all in the neighborhood around Kenmore and Catalpa.

With a steady income I could now get married. We were married on September 20, 1952 in St. Ita church at the corner of Broadway and Thorndale in Chicago. No family came from Belgium back then. My best man was Marcel Zegers and one of the groomsmen was Leon Van Wolvelaer. Both were also from my hometown of Vrasene. We had our reception in the basement of the building where my father-in-law was a janitor, down the street at Kenmore and Thorndale. The beer was kept on ice in laundry tubs. Another Belgian lady, also from Vrasene, was the cook. We had 60 people at the reception. We rented a juke box and played music from Belgium. But we did not have a honeymoon.

As you may remember, my wife and I left Belgium because my parents and her parents would not even speak to each other even though they lived on the same street. In 1953 I brought my mother and father over to Chicago. They started talking to my wife’s parents. Before I knew it they were playing cards – whist – three times every week! They became best friends with my wife’s parents. But if they had been friends in Belgium, maybe we would never have moved to America.

Meanwhile every day I worked as a janitor. We were on duty 24 hours a day, every day of the week. The job of a janitor was to take care of all parts of the building, of course. One of the things we had to know was how to operate the boilers. We had to shovel coal into the furnace to keep the steam hot for the heating in the winter. Every morning we had to collect the garbage and burn it in the furnace. We would carry a big garbage bucket with a strap on our back and pick up the garbage from the back stairs of each apartment in each building, and carry it down to the basement to burn.
After that we would shovel out all the ‘klinkers’ [Flemish term: metal slag objects left over after burning trash in the furnace] and ashes into barrels. The trucks would come two times each week to pick up the ashes and ‘klinkers’.

Of course later, in the ‘60s, maybe about 1965, we had to stop burning garbage because of the pollution. The city would come and pick up the garbage then.
In the early ‘60s, most apartments changed from boilers to gas furnaces. This made life easier for us. Of course there were still many things to do. Sometimes there were emergencies we had to take care of. Someone would be locked out and we would have to let them in. We had to fix leaky faucets and unclog sinks. But we had rules, and if you worked hard you could save money.

When I joined the Janitors’ Union it cost $200 to become a union member. That was almost one month’s salary. Later it became more – up to two month’s salary. Usually the pay of a janitor was 10% of the rental revenue. When I joined in 1952 that was $250 a month ($3,000 a year). Plus we got a free apartment. Until 1953 all apartments in Chicago were rent-controlled. After the rent control ended, my salary doubled to $500 per month ($6,000 per year). My first pay raise was in 1960 when they increased our salary by 25 cents an hour. That was good money back then. Also, the union used to negotiate with the Committee of Real Estate Owners and gradually we also got eye care and dental care in the 1960s. But I never knew a Belgian to take unemployment, ever. That is why the Belgians had a good reputation for being hard-working.

Early in 1953 I moved to a new position at 4429 N. Whipple. I had three buildings to take care of. In 1958 or 1959 I bought my first 3-flat with the best man from my wedding. We each invested $5,000. We sold it after 3 years and each made a profit of $3,000. Next I bought a 13-flat with some money from my in-laws. In 1967 I bought this building (3835-3837-3839 N. Janssen). I have lived here ever since. Most of the Belgian janitors in Chicago eventually bought their own buildings.

After some time in Chicago many of us had saved up some money and wanted to go back to visit Belgium. In 1958, under the auspices of the Belgian-American Societies, I chartered an airplane called a Constellation (propeller plane) through The Flying Tiger Airline from Midway Airport to Brussels. This was the first time a plane was chartered from Midway airport.
We were going right at the time of the World’s Fair in Brussels when the Atomium was built. Altogether, we had 96 passengers. We flew to Brussels. While we were over the Atlantic, one of the motors caught fire. We saw smoke but did not know what was wrong. The plane had to land in Gander, Newfoundland. It took a whole day to get a new engine from London. The wives and children stayed at a hotel but all the men stayed at a tavern at the airport. Over 200 people were waiting for us at Zaventem. They were bored and began drinking. We were bored and were drinking while waiting for the new motor. So when we finally arrived in Brussels everyone was feeling very good!

We stayed in Belgium for 6 weeks. Belgian TV interviewed us. They wanted to know how life was in the U.S. Near the end of our stay we had one big dinner at Sint-Niklaas in Belgium with everyone but most of the time in Belgium we each visited with our own families. At the end we all were sad to leave our families. Belgium had not changed much but we did not know when we would see them again. Everyone enjoyed this visit so much that later I repeated two more charters from Chicago to Belgium in 1961 and 1964.

Because I wanted to try and keep the Belgian heritage alive, in 1958 I started The Belgian Bow & Arrow Club with a few other Belgians. Within 2 years we had more than 100 members! There were also other archery clubs in Chicago like Wooden Shoe Archery. Archery is an old Belgian sport. It captures the old spirit of Belgium. But in Belgium I did not know this sport, so when I came to the U.S. I used to practice by myself. We would meet every Friday night at the Belgian Hall on Fullerton Avenue (2625 W. Fullerton; built in 1921). The idea was to shoot the ‘birdies’ (in Flemish we called them ‘vogels’) off the tree. We would all put money in the pot. The top bird would win $25. While we waited for our turn to shoot, we would play card games like whist and Belgian card games like ‘bien’. Of course, everyone spoke Vlaams; mainly dialect from East and West Flanders, which is where 95% of the Belgians in Chicago came from.

At the Belgian Club picnic (usually every August in a forest preserve in Winnetka, a suburb north of Chicago) we would also have bow and arrow shooting contests. We would simply tie a rope between two trees and hang a painter’s tarp as a backdrop. Then we would shoot. But the park rangers stopped us and the insurance for that became too expensive so we had to stop in the 1970s.

We would also have tournaments with other Belgian clubs around North America. Within 10 years, there were 20 clubs: eight in the U.S. and 12 in Canada. Every year one of the clubs would host the tournament and the other clubs would send their members there. Mostly we had exchanges with the three clubs in Moline, one from Detroit (they won in 1967), and the Broederkring from Mishawaka, Indiana. In 1963 the Chicago Belgian Bow & Arrow Club went to Tillsonburg near Chatham (in Ontario, Canada) and won the championship! In 1964, 19 clubs came to Chicago. The club that hosted the event also paid for all meals. So we spent a pretty penny. In 1965, I became President of the International Belgian Archery Association.

'Vogels' or in English 'birdies' at a Belgian Bow and Arrow Club meet. Note the slant of the prongs made it extremely difficult.

Besides archery, bike racing is another sport that Belgians have always been very good at. In Chicago three Belgians went to the Northbrook Park District and requested that a bicycle racing track, called a 'velodrome', be built in Northbrook. They were Al De Saegher, Frank Van Houten, and Wally Vertenten. They must have been persuasive since shortly thereafter the track was built! Every Thursday night in the summer the Belgians and other nationalities would go to Northbrook to race. The bike track was built by the park district of Northbrook. But during the races they would collect donations for the upkeep of the track.

Eddy Van Guyse used to run the races. We held six races every Thursday evening. Eddy made the announcements first in Flemish and then in English. He also started one of the bike-racing clubs. The Belgians had the Windy City Wheelmen, the Lakeshore Wheelmen, and other racing clubs. We also had races at Moline, in Kenosha, WI, and at Mishawaka, IN. In fact there are still some young Belgian Americans who race today. Ray Van Puymbroeck from Mishawaka rides for the U.S. national team with Floyd Landis.

From the 1950s through the 1970s we had our strongest years. The Belgians dominated the Janitors Union. Also, in the 1950s and 1960s the Secretary of State of Illinois was Flemish (Charles F. Carpentier, 1896-1964*). And in the 1960s we even had the “Belgian Connection” in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Over 1,000 Belgians gathered in a stadium there. So it felt like we were making good progress.

Postcard of the first Flemish Illinois Secretary of State Charles F. Carpentier
In 1960 I started “Van Arnold and His Orchestra” to keep up with Belgian music. You see, I had taken some drum lessons for 6 months at a music studio on Irving Park Road. Our orchestra had 3 Belgians and 3 Hollanders. My accordion player was Omer Bogaert, and I was the drummer. Our first time playing was for a dance for Ray Van Heck. We played polkas and waltzes, mainly for weddings and from about 9 PM to midnight. We earned good money and, of course, they would feed us and we got our drinks for free.

“Van Arnold and His Orchestra” lasted for 12 years. Some of the guys are still alive and living in Florida. Although we no longer play, I gave my drum set to one of my sister-in-law’s grandsons, so the tradition stays alive.

The 1980s also saw a low point in Belgian activities in Chicago. We sold the Belgian Hall on Fullerton in the 1970s because the neighborhood was getting bad. Sometimes we would come out of the Hall and find our car windows broken or our tires slashed. In 1980 we sold the Hall for $23,000. Ray Van Heck and I and some others went to look for a new hall. We asked the Belgians to support this and in a short time we had pledges of $500 to $1000 that added up to $100,000. We found a good place at the intersection of Southport and Irving Park Road for $175,000. But Ray was still the boss and he did not want to have a mortgage, so we returned the money and the pledges to everyone. Today that location has become the headquarters of the Filipino Club.

Since we did not have a place of our own, we began holding our meetings at the Ardennes Post VFW Hall. By 1998 there were only 6 or 7 people attending the actual Belgian-American Club meetings. But of course we still had to pay rent. So that year I paid all members $500 and, except for $1000 in the bank, we closed all the accounts. Lucky for all of us that shortly afterwards, in 1999, Bart Ryckbosch formed the new Belgian-American Club. After holding the position of President of the Chicago Chapter of Vlamingen in de Wereld for many years, I recommended that Bart take over. Bart threw his heart and soul into the Belgian community in Chicago. Bart is the current President of the Chicago Chapter of Vlamingen in de Wereld and President of the Belgian American Club of Chicago as well as Secretary of the Belgian-American Historical Society of Chicago. Bart has revived the Belgian community here.

Arnold Van Puymbroeck (4th from the left), Miss Belgium, Bart Ryckbosch, current President of the Flemish Belgian-American Club of Chicago (2nd from left) and other prominent members of the Flemish colony in Chicago.

Over the years the Belgian Consulate in Chicago (the oldest foreign government consulate in Chicago until it was closed a few years ago) would often ask me to host visitors from Belgium. I would show them around and take care of them. They would also ask us to host the Food Booths at the International Folk Fair and at Navy Pier in the 1960s every year. For 8 years we hosted a booth and staffed it with volunteers from the Belgian community. We sold waffles, Belgian pastries, and made everything by hand. The waffles we made with a commercial waffle iron we brought from Belgium and converted from 220v to 110v. The dough we would make and then let it sit overnight. The pastries were made by a janitor who had been a pastry chef in Belgium. We had a sign that said “Potatoes From Belgium” and we used paper cones from Belgium for the Belgian fries. People all told us that our potato fries tasted much better than American ones. The funny part is that those potatoes were actually from Idaho!

In 1980, I was awarded a knighthood by the Belgian government: the Order of Leopold II. This is the highest civilian decoration awarded by the Belgian Government. I was awarded it for all the years of service to our Belgian colony in Chicago. There are only four or five Belgians in America who have received this award. Leo De Keersmaecker from LaPorte, IN, who just passed away earlier this year [2007], received one, and so did Ray Van Heck [former head of the Chicago Flat Janitors Union Local #1].

My son’s name is Eugene but we call him Gene. He works as a real-estate appraiser in California. He spoke Flemish dialect at home when he was young. My two grandsons are 29 and 26 and both live in Chicago. My grandsons do not speak Flemish but the younger grandson has a keen interest in his Flemish roots. My hope is that the younger generation does not forget about Flanders.
Arnold Van Puymbroeck (2nd from the left), his son Eugene, and on the far left and far right, Arnold's two grandsons at a Belgian picnic.

June 16, 2007 11:00 AM to 12:40 PM

This article originally appeared in De Gazette van Detroit as "Arnold Van Puymbroeck in his own words..." By David Baeckelandt. The author has modified some phrases slightly for purposes of clarity and/or succintness as well as added some photos not originally part of the printed article. Copyright 2008 by David Baeckelandt


  1. The pastry chef was/is Louis DeStroupper.

    comment posted by

  2. My father and grandfather were members of tne Belgian american club and I spent many many hours of my life at the wooden shoe where my grandfather shot bow and arrow. My grandfather was the president of the bow and arrow club when I was a child. August Janssens. My father was in the janitors union until his retirement in 2000. He was the janitor at 227 E Delaware for as long as I can remember. I recognized Arnold's picture and remember him from my childhood. Many many Belgian picnics and other functions thanks for the memories -Lori Janssens-Warren

    1. Hi Lori,
      If your calendar permits I would love to have a chance to meet and hear more. Please feel free to contact me. I also have a lot of old memorabalia of the Belgian Bow and Arrow Club.
      beste groeten,
      David Baeckelandt

  3. My great grandfather was Frank Claes and my great grandmother's name was Elizabeth (Maillart) Claes. They both passed in 1963. I would love any all information anyone would have about them.

    1. Please respond to susanrobins68@ with any responses on my great grandparents.