The Belgian-American Heritage Society of West Virginia is a diverse organization that promotes the heritage and traditions of Belgium through activities and events.
Vickie Zabeau-Bowden, correspondent/treasurer, said the Belgian Embassy in Washington, D.C., has played an important role since the society's beginning here in 1989.
"They (the embassy) were important in forming the organization, and sponsor Belgian functions that members have attended, including concerts and soccer. They have been a support system in keeping our local organization going," she said.
The Belgian Embassy also provides information about the immigration of glass workers to West Virginia.
"All of the Belgians in this area came from the Wallonia region of Belgium, primarily Charleroi, which is the French-speaking part of the country," according to Zabeau-Bowden.
"Belgians were well-known for their skills at glass cutting and glass blowing," added Zabeau-Bowden, whose father worked in the glass industry for years before moving into regional politics.
"Belgians first settled in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania in the mid- to late 1800s, and as the West Virginia glass industry grew, the Belgians were drawn to the beautiful landscape of the state that is so similar to their native land."
West Virginia glass producers were able to help fill their labor needs with Belgian craftsmen recruited by promoters of the American window glass industry, Zabeau-Bowden said.
Anxious to attract additional skilled workers, labor recruiters guaranteed not only high wages, but also recognition of traditional unions in the glass trades.
The Belgians were an important influence in communities like Adamston, Salem, Clarksburg, Morgantown and Fairmont, Zabeau-Bowden said.
The official census of 1910 indicates the Belgian immigration created an increase of more than 30 percent in foreign-born whites in the key glass-producing counties of Harrison and Monongalia.
The influx of Belgian workers also made a cultural impact on communities. They were known for their dances, socialization and Belgian baseball and picnics, where Belgian delicacies like galettes and Boudin (sausages) were common.
"Music was so important in their lives," Zabeau-Bowden said.
"Children were always encouraged to learn to play an instrument. In the early 1900s, the Salem College Band was comprised of mostly Belgian musicians.
"We try to keep that love of music a part of our events."
The Belgian-American Heritage Society of West Virginia consists of Belgian-Americans throughout the state, as well as other states that do not have an active Belgian society.
"We meet four times a year, including a picnic to commemorate National Belgium Day," said Zabeau-Bowden.
"We make it on the Sunday closest to the holiday as possible. This year it will be held July 16 at Clarksburg City Park, Nutter Fort. We will meet at 1 p.m. at the shelter to the right of the main entrance. Any Belgian-American is welcome to attend."
Other society activities include entertaining an exchange student, hosting speakers from Belgium, and holding meetings that deal with aspects of Belgian life.
"It is like a second family with similar patterns of lifestyle, principals, foods and more," said Zabeau-Bowden.
Anyone interested in more information about the Belgian-American Heritage Society can contact Zabeau-Bowden at 623-4489.
Staff writer Darlene Taylor can be reached at 626-1439.