The Belgians of Early San Antonio - Journal of San Antonio

San Antonio felt the influence of Belgian farmers in the late 1800s, beginning with men like Herman Van Daele and Adolph Baeten. Several Belgians established truck farms on the southwestern outskirts of the town and sold fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers and pecans in the markets.

Herman Van Daele grew up on his family’s truck farm in Liedekerke, Belgium, but at the age of 50, in 1884, he was moved by the spirit of adventure to come to San Antonio. He first acquired land on the old Frio City Road—then a year later, he found rich soil at a good price near the intersection of South Brazos and South Laredo Streets. There he laid out a 20-acre farm, but he had to haul water from Apache Creek or buy water from people along San Pedro Creek. He got together with his neighbor, Adolph Baeten, to drill an artesian well, with Baeten paying for the drilling on Van Daele’s land and the two of them sharing the water. Then with plenty of water, Van Daele was able to start a dairy in addition to his truck farm.

Van Daele’s well, one of the first dug in Bexar County, supplied water not only for irrigation of the two farms, but to sell at a penny per barrel to Tejano water haulers who drove up in their wagons, paid to have their barrels filled, and hauled the water into town for sale.

Van Daele’s partner, Adolph Baeten, also came to San Antonio as an experienced truck farmer when he was almost 30, in 1888. After working odd jobs, he leased land from Van Daele on Probandt Street, south of town, and began his farm. Eventually, in 1907, he moved to a 32-acre site on Zarzamora Street, where the Baeten Truck Farm became a showplace and was noted for introducing new vegetables and fruits to the area.

Other Belgians came in the 1890s and began farming. Charles Persyn wrote to his brothers Pete and Casmire to come to San Antonio, which they did. Pete Persyn became known for his superior radishes and is credited with introducing cauliflower to the San Antonio markets.

Peter Hooge left the family farm in Belgium in 1892 and came to San Antonio. After working on the railroad for two years, he was joined by his brother and they rented 25 acres of land on Probandt Street and began raising vegetables. They sent money home so their father and five brothers and sisters could join them in 1896. While the older family members worked in the fields, Stephanie Hooge took care of her five younger brothers and sisters, taught them basics of education and the catechism. She expanded this work to include other children of the Belgian colony. Her “school” was a one-room building also used by the adults as a chapel for services when the priest from Sacred Heart Parish visited them. The chapel became known as St. John Berchmans, named by Stephanie for a 17th Century Belgian saint. St. John Berchmans was the Belgian national parish until 1947, with all services were conducted in Flemish. The parish moved in 1948, but the old church building was used for meetings of the Belgian-American Club of Texas for years.

An additional contribution to San Antonio culture, the Flemish Folk Dancers, performed at various festivals including the Texas Folklife Festival. [Interview on Nov. 19, 1992 with club leader Yvonne Pérsyn, 432-6126. ) In 1906, Stephanie Hooge returned to Belgium to join her sister in the convent at Beirvelde, where she became a teacher. She had hoped to return to San Antonio to teach, but died of pneumonia in her convent in 1911. Yet her memory is kept alive in San Antonio at St. Stephen’s church, named for her and rebuilt in 1952 as a renovation of the old St. John Berchmans Church.

St. Stephen’s church was dedicated as a memorial to her husband, Octave, by Marie Leonie Hooge Van de Walle. [ITCultures “The Belgians”] Octave Van de Walle, who left his father’s farm near Lokeren, Belgium in 1905 to raise vegetables near San Antonio, started a dynasty of growers and processors that serves a national market today as Van de Walle Farms, Inc. They farmed for a while on land near Zarzamora and Brady streets, then moved to Valley Wells, Texas, returning after seven years to farm near St. Peter’s Orphanage on Mission Road and later on Castroville Road and Morey Road. Before World War II, the Van de Walles bought land around Kelly Field, and developed the largest truck farm in the San Antonio area with more than 800 acres under cultivation.

The Belgian community also played a critical role in establishing the San Antonio Produce Terminal Market in 1951. Located on 27 acres at 1500 South Zarzamora Street, the terminal received produce daily, around the clock, from area farmers and others in surrounding states and Mexico and served users within a 150-mile radius. Many local companies ship produce throughout the United States and Canada.

Thus the Belgians helped form San Antonio’s reputation for food production, beautiful commercial flowers, and fine cuisine. [ SA Produce Terminal Market, Rudy T., 30 Nov 92]

--Frank W. Jennings, 1992