A place of honor — Memorial pays tribute to immigrant farmers

ST. NICHOLAS – By working together, community efforts resulted in a permanent memorial recognizing the early Belgian immigrants who settled in St. Nicholas.

A granite marker was put in place this summer just outside the St. Nicholas Cemetery, honoring the immigrant farmers who settled in St. Nicholas from 1912-1924. The community is located in Delta County, west of Perkins and south of Rock.

“The memorial was made possible with donations from everyone,” explained Bob VanDamme, a St. Nicholas resident and a descendent of the Belgian community.

Funds for the memorial were donated by former and current residents and friends who attended the St. Nicholas Centennial picnic last year. The Community Foundation of Delta County also donated funding.

Two individuals who helped make the monument a reality were Julian Vandecaveye, of Perkins, and VanDamme’s father, the late Jerry VanDamme. They were among those who planned the reunion that was attended by 178 people.

In addition to the financial donations, the land where the memorial is displayed was also given to the community, explained VanDamme.

Decades ago, Vandamme’s grandfather Jules VanDamme, donated a few acres of farmland to the local Catholic parish. The Catholic Diocese of Marquette owned the property which was recently deeded over to Maple Ridge Township which owns the St. Nicholas Cemetery, explained VanDamme.

The township was then able to grant permission to have the St. Nicholas community memorial placed outside an entrance to the cemetery, he said.

Alongside the granite memorial, there is a cutout of a farm scene in a saw blade embedded in a log. A protected bulletin board is also at the site with information about the Belgian settlers as well as current area residents.

Many young farmers were lured from their home country of Belgium to the St. Nicholas area through land advertisements placed during 1911-12 by Father Mattias Jodocy, a Roman Catholic priest. At the time, land was selling for $5 to $10 an acre.

From 1912 to 1924, about 30 Belgium families settled in St. Nicholas. Many of them were dairy farmers who later switched to growing potatoes. Logging was also popular in the area.

According to records, the St. Nicholas area was named after Father Jodocy’s brother, Nicholas, who was named in honor of the saint.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143, jlancour@dailypress.net