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Kermiss - A Belgian Harvest Celebration

Excerpt from "The History of the Belgian Settlements" by Math S. Tlachac.

The First Kermiss in America.

When the Belgian immigrants came to this country, they brought with them several customs which had been celebrated each year in their mother country for over a hundred years.  The Belgians are a congenial people and like to take part in frivolous as well as religious activities.  Foremost  and perhaps the most popular one was the belgian "Kermiss". After the harvesting had been completed, it was customary for the people in belgium to attend Mass to give thanks to the Lord for a bountiful harvest.  This was followed by feasting and dancing.  Some of the Belgians are musically talented and in most every community where a Kermiss was observed  a local band was formed to play at dances. The Kermiss usually lasted three days.

By 1858 some of the Belgian immigrants had been in the United States for five or six years.  Many were lonesome and homesick for their native land.  Thus far there had been hard work, poverty and privation in the New World.  Something was needed to lift the sagging spirits of many when  young  broad shouldered Amia Champaign, also a Belgian immigrant, had the answer.  Said Champaign "Why don't we have a Kermiss?"  He passed along his idea which received favorable approval by his countrymen.  "It is the thing we need," said many Belgians.  "We have had good crops and we should thank the Lord for them."

The succeeding day were busy ones in the new sparsely settled communities.  In every home preparations for the event were made.  Old trunks were dragged out from under puncheon beds or lifted down from the loft and there was a feverish overhauling of their contents to see if they contained any bits of finery for the coming event.  Leather shoes, long set aside for special occasions, were re-oiled and made flexible.  Fresh evergreen boughs were cut and brought in to replace the ones that served in lieu of a mattress.  Earthen floors were newly sanded and there were long pilgrimages made to Dykesville and Green Bay for supplies to replenish the larders.

Then came the baking which in the early days could only be done in outdoor ovens. As many as three dozen belgian pies could be baked at one time.  The Belgian pie! What would the Kermiss be without the famous delicacy, the crust of which was made of dough, spread over with prunes or apples and topped with homemade cottage cheese.  So tasty it was that one bite invited another.  Some families baked as many as one hundred pies which set on an improvised table in the cellar where it was cool and damp, to keep the pies soft and mellow.  The Belgian women were experts in the art of baked goods, and the brown crusted loaves of bread which came out of those ovens were light as a feather.

But the Belgian pie was only a part of the Sunday dinner menu.  There was the famous "Chicken Boyoo" - a thick soup which was tasty and appetizing.  In addition there was "trippe" sort of a sausage made out of the choicest lean pork from a recently butchered hog.  Cooked cabbage with various spiced seasonings were included in the trippe ingredients.  Their was also "jut," a dish made with cooked cabbage and potatoes well mashed and seasoned with salt and other ingredients such as butter or cream.  Some housewives included "kaset" in the menu which is homemade cottage cheese, pressed into balls the size of an orange, and seasoned with salt and pepper then pressed into crocks  to cure out until it could be spread on bread like butter.  Some of the men made homemade beer out of barley and wild hops, found growing in the locality.

At last the day came when the first Belgian Kermiss would be held in America.  It was in the year 1858, and it was held in Rosiere on the third Sunday of September, the same day as a similar event was taking place in a community called Rosiere in their native home of Belgium.  Father Daems came from Bay Settlement to say the Mass in Rosiere.  The church was well attended by people who came for the Mass and to partake of a sumptuous dinner prepared by housewives  in each home.

The Belgians enjoyed the inspiring sermon by Father Daems, who spoke their native language.  After Mass was over and as the people were leaving church, they were met by a local band consisting of Joseph Lumaye who played the coronet; Carl Massey, who played the slide trombone; Norbert Mignon, violin; Theophile LeBotte, clarinet; and Frank LeGreve, bass drum.  The band members were specially dressed for the occasion and striking out a tun marched, preceded by a flag bearer, to an improvised hall.

Halfway to the hall the procession halted for a dance on the earthen road.  This was called "the dance in the dust" and after several such dances, the band escorted the dancers to the hall.  All afternoon and into the wee hours of the morning there was merrymaking and festivities.  There were waltzes, two-steps, and quadrilles.  Such dances as tango or fox-trots were unheard of.

Usually after a quadrille, the caller would shout out, "All promenade to the bar."  However, women did not enter a saloon in those days since it was beneath their dignity.  If a woman wanted a glass of the amber colored liquid, it was brought to her by her dancing partner, and with him she drank it out-of-doors.

But dancing was not all of the frolicking which took place at the Kermiss.  There were all kinds of games of skill, such as trying to catch a greased pig.  If anyone could catch the hog, he could claim it.  There was also a greased pole which some tried to climb, usually in failure.  There were foot races  and wrestling matches.   In some instances a live goose was buried, leaving the head and neck protruding.  Then a blind-folded person was given a scythe and if he could decapitate the goose's head , the goose was his.  This cruel form was soon abolished.

A lunch wagon was on hand, where for five cents one could purchase a piece of bologna between two crackers or slices of bread.  Usually the piece of baloney was cut from the link at an angle to make it look larger than it actually was.

The next day was Monday, a day reserved for the "old folks" who in the evening came to the "old folks' dance.  In spite of the difficult manual labor on the farm, it was surprising how many people in their 70's and even 80's could swing around dancing waltzes or two-steps.  So uniform did they keep the step that the lanterns hung up from the rafters of the hall, swung up and down in unison.

As the Belgian communities developed  and new church congregations were formed, more Kermisses were held.  The first one after harvesting was completed was held in "Grandlez."  now called Lincoln.  It was held on the last Sunday in August.  It was followed by Kermisses in  Brussels, Namur, Rosiere, Champion, Dykesville, San Sauveur, Tonet, Thiry Daems, and Misere. By the time the last Kermiss was held in November, the ground was already frozen or sometimes covered with snow.

Such were the Belgian Kermisses which continued every year from 1858, simultaneously with those held in belgium in localities of the same name.  These Kermisses among the Belgian settlement in the United States continued on until the First World War, when they slowly died out and are the present generation only a memory.

Alice Lindstrom remembers: "Kermiss" in Duval

"We went by train from Green Bay to Luxemburg, WI, where Uncle Florian (Florian Berger) met us with the horse and buggy which was our ride to my grandparent's farm (Antoine & Antoinette Balza).  In Luxemburg, was the first time I had met Uncle John's (Jean Baptiste Balza) family.  he had a cigar manufacturing business there.

The Kermiss that we were going to attend at Grandpa's was a three day celebration in the fall of the year for the harvest.  Usually different families had a September to October weekend to hold their Kermiss.  I think Grandpa's was the last week in September it was great as they baked Belgian pies for the whole week before the Kermiss and we carried something like 300 pies to the basement shelves.

Belgium pie is made something like the Bohemian Collache, only ours were made in pie tin size.  The filling was dried apples or prunes with cottage cheese egg custard topping and baked.  All that the people ate who came to the open house was Belgium pie and coffee.

There were many people who came and the children alone made a great gathering.  At the Rosiere dance halls the orchestras played day and night for the three days.  This first dance I saw during the Kermiss was when the Tango was in style and people were put off the floor for dancing it so disgracefully.  What a change the world has made in 70 years.

Last updated: 17 August, 1999
For corrections or additional information e-mail: Richard M. Balza