“Thanks from Oppuers”

The Europeana Collections website 1914-1918 put me on the trail of this unique photograph of two young, Belgian embroiderers, plus two decorated flour sacks in a private collection [1].

In the online contribution “Oscar De Keersmaecker from Oppuurs”, his son Jozef talks about his father’s experiences as a soldier in WWI and the burning down of his father-in-law’s mill in 1914. Jozef De keersmaecker is Honorary Alderman of Oppuurs, he is also a writer of historical books, including the “History of Oppuurs 1311-2003”.

This story “Thanks from Oppuers” (“Oppuers” is the old spelling of “Oppuurs”) brings together a Belgian and an American mill.

View of Oppuurs, November 2019

Oppuurs, part of the municipality Puurs-Sint-Amands, is located in the province of Antwerp. I traveled there in November, Mr. and Mrs. De keersmaecker-Verbruggen were so kind to welcome me in their home to study the decorated flour sacks and shared with me the accompanying family stories.

Memory of the mill of Oppuurs, painted by M. Depaep, 1950. De keersmaecker-Verbruggen collection

The mill of Oppuurs was originally a wooden grain windmill, which was founded before 1508. In 1887, miller Petrus Edmond Verbruggen inherited the mill from his deceased wife. Verbruggen remarried Maria Rosalia Van Der Linden; when he died in 1907, he left the mill to his wife and children.

Photo of the mill of Oppuurs, early 1900. Image: History of Oppuurs 1311-2003

In the meantime, during a storm in 1898, the standard mill had been toppled, but had been rebuilt in 1901 as a “belt mill” with a fairly high base, grounded on a slope. After the outbreak of the First World War, fate struck again. The Belgian army set fire to the mill: the mill would obstruct the view from the Bornem fort of the advancing German troops; and if they would advance, the mill could not serve as a lookout post for them.

The mill was never rebuilt on the spot, the only thing that reminds us today is the mill well. [2]

The miller’s family Verbruggen went with the times, in 1917-1918 they founded a new steam mill at Oppuurs station. After years of back and forth, the Belgian state eventually paid compensation for the destruction of the mill.

Family photo Verbruggen, 1915. Image: History of Oppuurs 1311-2003

A lot of needlework has been done in the family of Rosalie Verbruggen-Van Der Linden. The girls went to school in Oppuurs and were educated by the nuns of Annonciaden from Veltem; by far the majority of people in the village owe part of their upbringing to these nuns.

L: Irène Verbruggen, R. Antoinette Verbruggen, sisters, aunts of Jeanneke Verbruggen. Image: History of Oppuurs 1311-2003

Antoinette and Irena Verbruggen made a diptych on flour sacks with the image of the family mill in operational and destroyed condition: “Praise and Thanks Oppuers 1914” and “America Relief in Need 1915”. It was hemmed with a wide strip of bobbin lace and decorated with band and brushes. It must have been a colorful needlework.

The girls proudly showed their work in the photo. On the back of the photo is written: ”L. Irène Verbruggen, R. Antoinette Verbruggen, sisters, aunts of Jeanneke Verbruggen. These sacks were a memento as a thank you for the American help. They are flour sacks and are owned by the Verbruggen family.”

Unfortunately, it is not known whether the decorated flour sacks on the photograph have been preserved.

The entire Verbruggen-Van Der Linden family was portrayed during the photo session, nine children were still alive. The two boys, Modest and Frans, are on the left and right of their mother Rosalie; they would continue the business. Irena and Antoinette would later enter the monastery as nuns.

Decorated flour sack “Koene Held” (Valiant Hero), 1914-1916

There are two well-preserved flour sacks in the family. After the death of Frans Verbruggen, his eldest daughter Jeanne and her husband Jozef De keersmaecker dicovered the sacks at his home.

I have written about one of these decorated flour sacks before, in my blog “Verwondering over een Koene Held” (“Marvel of a Valiant Hero”).

Flour sack “Belgian Relief Flour, Wheatland, WYO, with embroidery “Thanks from Oppuers “, hemmed with a wide bobbin lace border
Flour sack ‘Belgian Relief Flour, Wheatland Roller Mill Co., Wheatland, Wyoming, VS

“Dank van Oppuers” (Thanks from Oppuers) is written in capital letters on the flour sack from Wheatland Roller Mill Co. in Wheatland, Wyoming, USA. The sack “Belgian Relief Flour” arrived in Belgium in March 1915 through the relief campaign “The Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement 1914-15” from the Northwestern Miller, the magazine of American millers in Minneapolis [3].

Wheatland Roller Mill Co. early 1900. Image source: internet
Wall painting in downtown Wheatland, Wyoming, executed by “Platte County Art Guild” in 2017. Image source: internet

In the fall of 1914, the people of the state of Wyoming raised money for the needy Belgian population. To contribute to the Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement flour was purchased from the Wheatland Roller Mill Co., as reported in the relief effort Report.

The flour mill existed from 1897 to 1931 [4]. The town of Wheatland commemorates the history of the mill to this day with a mural in the city center, applied in 2017 by the “Platte County Art Guild”.

The steamer “South Point” transported a load of 6200 tons of relief goods for a value of $ 500,000 from Philadelphia to Rotterdam. The ship arrived safely in the port of Rotterdam on 27 February 1915, where the sacks of flour were immediately loaded on inland vessels and shipped to Belgian ports. A number of barges sailed to Antwerp; hence the flour would be distributed to Oppuurs.

“Cooking soup with Oppuers stoker for aid and food for school children and refugees during WWI.” History of Oppuurs 1311-2003
The flour sack “Thanks from Oppuers” is rimmed with a wide hem

Empty sacks will have been handed over to the Annonciaden Sisters’ Monastery School in Oppuurs, where the schoolgirls processed the flour sacks in class as part of their needle training.

Detail embroidery: the coat of arms of Oppuers flanked by two lions, below a buttonhole

 

 

 

 

 

On the unprinted side of the flour sack, first a design would have been made and the pattern drawn, in some places you can still see blue lines on the canvas. The embroidery is meticulously executed, as well as the wide lace border, see the appendix with the complete inventory of the flour sack.

 

Remarkable are:

Detail embroidery “België 1915” (Belgium 1915)
  • The three buttonholes
  • The year “1915” as the year of decoration, instead of a timeline 1914-1915
  • Europeana Collections 1914-1918 mentions the contribution of Henri Vertongen including the image of a correspondingly decorated flour sack with “Thanks from Puers”. See my blog of January 23, 2020.
Jeanne and Jozef De keersmaecker-Verbruggen

My warm thanks go to Jozef De keersmaecker and his wife Jeanne Verbruggen. She is the granddaughter of Rosalie Verbruggen-Van Der Linden and has always known her grandmother as an independent, decisive woman. Jeanne’s aunts, who became nuns as adults, embroidered the dyptich of flour sacks with the mills when they were schoolgirls.
Who knows they and the other sisters Verbruggen may also have worked on the two flour sacks preserved by their brother Frans.

Footnotes:

[1] The decorated flour sacks “Dank van Oppuers” and “Koene Held” have been on display to the public at Heemkundige Verzamelkring (“Historical Collecting Circle”) St-Amands HeverStam during the exhibition “The face of the Great War” in 2018

[2] The history of the mill of Oppuurs is described in the Molendatabase.EU: see the collection “Lost Belgian Mills”

[3] See also my blog / article “A Famous Flemish Flour Sack in The Land of Nevele” of 25 October 2018

[4] More about the history of Wheatland Roller Mill Co. in the book by Starley Talbott, Platte County. Images of America. Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009