A Short History of the Gazette Van Detroit
“Het Beste Vlaamsch Blad”/”The Best Flemish Paper”
Flemish Immigration to North America
According to the 2000 census, there are 360,642 persons of Belgian heritage in the United States. The overwhelming majority of these “Belgian-Americans” – more than 90% – are descendants of Flemish immigrants who arrived in North America between 1880 and 1930. Michigan, with 53,135 persons claiming Belgian descent, has the second-largest community, after Wisconsin. The Belgians in Michigan are also predominantly Flemish (Dutch-speaking), and concentrated in the Detroit area. However, the Flemish involvement in North America did not begin in the 19th century and has not always been centered around Detroit.
Immigration from Flanders to North America occurred in waves. While many mistakenly believe that Flemish emigration to Canada and the U.S. did not occur until the late 19th century, Flemings have in fact been a part of every European migration to the Western Hemisphere. Flemish priests sailed with the Vikings and a Flemish pilot guided one of Columbus’ subsequent voyages. Flemish fishermen sailed off the Newfoundland coast in the 16th century and Labrador is in fact named for the Flemish pilot who guided John Cabot to North American shores..The Flemings financed and settled with the Pilgrims in New England, the colonists at Jamestown, and Henry Hudson’s voyages of discovery. The Flemish – together with Walloons – in fact made up the first contingent of settlers on Manhattan in 1624.
Descendants of these first Flemings to America include the Founding Fathers – and Mothers – of the United States. Most Americans are unaware that these prominent men and women have ancestral roots in Flanders: Benjamin Franklin (Ieper), Chief Justice John Jay (Thourhout), First Lady Elisabeth Monroe (Kortrijk), as well as at least four U.S. Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt can trace their roots to Pieter Winne (of Gent) while Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush can trace their ancestry to Willem Baudartius (of Deinze). Even Henry Ford, founder of America’s auto industry and central to the rise of Detroit has a connection: his mother, Mary Litogot, came from Belgium before the Civil War.
The Flemish immigrants to America brought their quiet dignity, hard work ethic and cultural traditions to America before the United States and Canada were independent states. Global cultural traditions – such as Santa Claus – can trace their origins to this first wave of Flemish Americans. Likewise, the political tradition of independence, self-reliance – as well as the wording of the American Declaration of Independence – are directly traceable to Flemings.
Many, if not all, of these early, pre19th century immigrants assimilated into their local communities. Those who arrived as Protestant Christians inevitably joined the Dutch Reformed Church. Those early Flemish immigrants, by dint of their faith, have long been counted as part of the more than 5,000,000 Dutch-Americans and more than 1,500,000 Dutch-Canadians. But their ancestral roots were and are Flemish.
The Founding of the Gazette van Detroit and Early Years (1914-1945)
Tens of thousands of new Flemish immigrants arrived in the years before, during, and after the First World War (1914-1918). One of them, Camille Cools came from Moorslede, West Flanders as a fifteen-year-old boy in March, 1889. One issue of great concern to this young Flemish American was the lack of contact with his Flemish roots. The Belgian Consul and diplomats were unilingual (French-speaking) and a poor source of information about Flanders in his mother tongue. Like many young Flemings in the early 20th century, Camille Cools reacted against the extension of the linguistic injustices of his homeland and became President in Detroit of a society called “Voor Vlaamsch en Recht” (“For Flemish and Rights”). “Voor Vlaamsch en Rechts” is an embodiment of not only social justice but becomes a channel for distribution of books in Dutch to the Flemish community of Detroit.
But this was only one step forward to his goal. For current Dutch-language information about Flanders, Camille Cools turned instead to the only two Flemish newspapers in America at that time: De Gazette van Moline (based in Moline, Illinois) and DeVolksstem (based in De Pere, Wisconsin).His passion for the subject led Cools to become the Detroit correspondent for De Gazette van Moline (in 1907).The combination of his work as a correspondent and his work for “Voor Vlaamsch en Rechts”, leads Camille Cools to publish (in 1913) his “Vlaamsche Almanak”.
Cools’ efforts did not go unnoticed. Other Flemish Americans share his passion and recognize his leadership. Together, more than a dozen of them bonded together to fund the idea of a newspaper dedicated to Flemish Americans and the free flow of information. In the print shop based at his home (928 E. Congress Street, Detroit), and in league with his brother-in-law, Peter Vinckier, Camille Cools produced the very first edition of the Gazette van Detroit on August 13, 1914. It contained news of the activities of various organizations, the names and origins of new arrivals and announcements of upcoming social events, from pigeon flying to archery and bicycle races. The articles in the weekly publication, aimed mostly at craftsmen and farmers with no more than an elementary education, were written in simple Flemish.
After Founder Camille Cools’ death in 1916, his wife Margaret carried on as Publisher and Business Manager while Frank Cobbaert from Aalst became Editor. In 1920, after Peter Corteville and his brother-in-law Leo Leplae acquired financial control, they erected a larger building at 11243 Mack Avenue. They also changed the name of the legal entity to “The Belgian Press”. A second weekly, De Detroitenaar, appeared on the scene but soon merged with the Gazette. Frank Cobbaert stayed on as Editor until 1922 when he was succeeded by Ms. Hortense Leplae of Esen.
With Hortense Leplae as Editor, the Gazette van Detroit expanded into a full-size 8-page weekly with more than 20 correspondents in the US, Canada and (even!) South America. Although the paper was profitable it retained its plebeian origins. The language remained simple and sprinkled with dialect. It was criticized as “archaic” by some. Despite such criticisms,
The Gazette van Detroit continued to grow. In 1940 Peter Corteville became the sole owner of the Gazette van Detroit and changed the name of the printing company to the Corteville Printing Co. That same year the Gazette van Detroit merged with (and assumed leadership of) the Gazette van Moline. This had the impact of acquiring new subscribers outside of Detroit and began the paper’s evolution from a regional to a continental publication.
The Post-War Period (1945-1974)
In 1951 Peter Corteville, the owner of the Gazette, passed the business to his children. So when he died in 1966, his son Richard (born in Detroit in 1913) had already succeeded him as both Manager of the printing office and as de facto Publisher of the Gazette. The transition then to the first American-born Publisher of the Gazette was seamless.
Highlights of this period include the prominence of those involved with the Gazette van Detroit. The Detroit News ran a laudatory article about Hortense Leplae, as an energetic 75 year-old, in 1954 entitled “Love For Her Paper Keeps Editor Single”. King Boudewijn visited the paper in 1959. And at nearly the same time, Ms. Leplae’s dedication was formally recognized when she was honored with De Orde van Leoplod II (The Order of Leopold II).
Hortense Leplae’s died in 1963. But years earlier, in 1954, Godelieve Van Reybrouck (nee Casteleyn), a native of St.Andries-Brugge, had replaced Ms. Leplae as Editor. So the postwar Gazette van Detroit retained strong, local leadership.
Richard Corteville’s death in 1974 marked the beginning of a difficult period for the Gazette. The Belgian Publishing Company’s ownership was still held by the Corteville family, but no one in the Corteville family remained actively involved with the printing business or with the Gazette. Moreover, both the printing and the Gazette were suffering from declining revenues. Neither business was sustainable in this condition. For several months in 1974 these issues forced a publishing suspension of the Gazette van Detroit.
The Last Forty Years (1974-Present)
René de Seranno, a Moline, Illinois native who grew up in Tielt, crafted a creative solution. In December 1974 he reconstituted The Belgian Publishing Company as a non-profit corporation. The Corteville family generously donated their ownership of the Gazette van Detroit to the new entity. Legally, the Gazette never ceased to exist, it had simply changed structure as it changed hands. The (new) Belgian Publishing Company then became the Publisher and Leon Buyse, was the new editor.
In 1977, the headquarters and archives moved to the Fr. Taillieu Residence (now American House East II) where the paper was edited and typed and from there taken to a printing firm for the final process. The Gazette, run by Mr. Buyse with help from Fr. Karel Denys, Oscar Haezebrouck, Margaret Decraene, Gabrielle Casteleyn and Rika McGhie, became biweekly. Articles in English were added to attract the younger generation, many of whom no longer knew their parents’ language.
From the late 1970s on the Gazette van Detroit has struggled. The deaths of Leon Buyse, Oscar Haezebrouck and Margaret Decraene, as well as the transfer of Fr. Denys, negatively impacted the Gazette. For a number of years the Gazette was run by one paid employee and five volunteers, all seniors, and most of them inexperienced in modern newspaper technology and management. Shifting demographics – and the increased assimilation of the Flemish in America – led to a dwindling number of subscribers and advertisers. The 3rd and 4th generation descendants of our immigrant ancestors no longer read Dutch in large numbers. Nor do many retain active ties to Europe.
In the mid 2000s the Gazette van Detroit received a new lease on life. Margaret Roets, volunteer business manager, and Ludwig (Luke) Vandenbussche, correspondent in Belgium, attracted a new generation of volunteers to the paper. Ms. Leen de Donker and Ms. Elisabeth Khan (nee van den Hove) – both expatriates from Belgium – worked to upgrade content and processes in Detroit. Likewise, in Belgium, a new team of young Together they updated the format, added a website, and generated new hope and interest in De Gazette van Detroit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today, the Gazette van Detroit is a monthly periodical of 24 pages. In combination with a vibrant website and interactive blog, the paper is positioned for the 21st century as a bridge across the Atlantic by retaining links back to our ancestral homeland. In an increasingly global world, the current staff and the Board of the Gazette van Detroit – all volunteers – look back to our Flemish roots for inspiration as we serve the needs of our subscribers and stakeholders.
Sources: Immigration information is pulled from David Baeckelandt, “The Flemish Contribution to the Discovery and Settlement of America” – talk given May 24, 2012 at the Fr. Taillieu Residence, Roseville, Michigan and sourced here:https://www.dropbox.com/sh/yzxue8uqhz55usy/KtYXiy24pk. The information concerning the founding and the history of the Gazette van Detroit is sourced from Arthur Verthe,150 Years of Flemings in Detroit, (Tielt: Lannoo, 1983) and Robert Houthaeve,Camille Cools en Zijn Gazette van Detroit, (Moorslede, 1989).