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Farm boy — Joe DeJaeghere — from a proud immigrant family

Joe DeJaeghere was born Sept. 2, 1931, to Leonie and Edmund DeJaeghere in the old Marshall hospital on South Fourth Street, known as Dr. Gray’s hospital. But today’s column is not about Joe DeJaeghere. Rather, it is about his parents’ immigration story.

Their story of coming to America reminds us that we are an immigrant nation and have always been so. The only ones among us who can claim otherwise are our Native American sisters and brothers whose families have been here for untold generations, rather than the one to three hundred years the rest of us can claim. Other than those who can claim Native American ancestry, the rest of our families came from all over the world.

Joe explained that his parents, Edward and Leonie DeJaeghere, were born and grew up in Belgium. He identified his father’s birthplace as Dudezle.

Turning to his mother’s origins, he added, laughing, “[H]er last name was Driegha. I pronounce it better in Belgian than I can in English. [M]y mother was born near Ghent, like Ghent, Minnesota. But it was Marakeke. That’s where Mother was born.”

His parents’ Belgian hometowns were only about 20 miles apart, but they did not meet until later in life after they had immigrated to the U.S. His dad was raised on a farm, while his mother’s family lived in a town. Although, they did not meet while growing up, nor share a farming background, their young adulthood shared a common feature; both lived through the German invasion and occupation of Belgium during World War I.

Joe explained why his mom’s wartime experience left a lasting impression.

“[D]uring World War I my mother was in a basement for eleven days with as many people as could get in there because the Germans were throwing gas. She said they’d make soup and overnight it’d stand and by morning there was a film on it from gas. It never hurt any of the people down there — it was just a film. But she spent eleven days in the basement without coming out. My mother did this and, of course, she dreaded war. When World War II broke out, she dreaded it because she knew what it was like.”

Joe’s father was less willing to talk about his wartime experience, but he shared some of the day-to-day reality he lived through during that time.

“He worked for people from the time he was really small. During the war they didn’t have any control. They were under German control for I suppose four years — ’14 to ’18. They were under German control and there wasn’t much they could do but try and survive.”

Joe explained that his parents’ experience in World War I influenced their decisions to immigrate to the US.

“[T]that was the principal reason why – because of the war and [being] short of work. Belgium was a heavily populated country at that time – still is – but there was no work. They both actually immigrated before they came to Minnesota – to Mishawaka, Indiana, which is four miles from South Bend. Mom came in ’20 and Dad came in ’21. My dad worked in a shoe factory in Indiana.”

Joe described his mom’s life as difficult, despite having immigrated to the US; the land of the promise of a new and better life.

“[M]y mother had a tough life for years. She got married in Belgium [and] had one boy born in Belgium in 1919. [She] immigrated to Mishawaka, Indiana where she lost her husband in 1928 [and] her son in 1929. She had one daughter left when my dad married her.”

The community of new, Belgian immigrants in Mishawaka lived together in houses with multiple, unrelated adults living under one roof to save money while they found work and established themselves.

“My mother had a big house where two-three, maybe four [other adult] people lived, like you would live in an apartment now while you are working and you are single. But in those years there were no apartments, so my Dad lived there along with two or three others and she would wash their clothes and they [sort of] had an apartment. I think they probably had meals, too.”

Joe explained that his mother and father first met there in Mishawaka, while she was married with a family.

“Of course, my dad knew my mother over several years. In fact, I think maybe nine years that he stayed there. He helped her with her daughter after her son and husband died. So, they eventually got married and moved to Minnesota to farm.”

The story of how they knew of an available form in southwest Minnesota gets a bit complicated. We have to let Joe take us back to Belgium again before World War I.

“Dad’s mother lost her husband when she had seven boys. She remarried DeJaeghere and had four more children – three boys (including Joe’s father) and a daughter.”

This meant Joe’s father had seven older step-brothers in Belgium, one of whom had immigrated to the US. Joe explained this family connection led his parents to our region.

“[T]hey had one of his half-brothers that lived in the area here. I don’t remember if it was Lynd, but he rented a farm by Ghent [for my folks]. That’s where I was born.”

The DeJaeghere family moved to their farm in 1930. They had a couple years of grace on the farm before the dry years of the Great Depression hit southwest Minnesota.

I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieview pressllc@gmail.com.

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