Oosteeklo in Winter

Kerk in Oosteeklo

Inside of Church at Oosteeklo

Map of Area

Windmill at Lembeck

Is this why Ben loved horses so much?

St. Gilliskerk, Lembeke

Canal Scene in Ghent - 1855

Winter in Oosteeklo

Statue of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, at the 16th century town hall in his birth town Ghent.

Modern Ghent, Belgium

Boerjans and Life in Belgium

Ben Boerjan was born at Lembeke, Belgium, on April 16, 1870. Lembeke means either "River by the line-tree" or "River in loamy bed" - this may be due to the sandy moorland at Lembeke. Ben's father was Desire Boerjans who was born on May 23, 1826 and died on May 22, 1894. Ben's mother was Sophia Taets, born on February 9, 1832, died on July 9, 1909. They lived at Lembeke their entire lives. Desire had been in jail for 1 month and 8 days for marauding, and the record gives us a good description of him; he was 1.7 metres tall, had blue eyes, a long face, a normal nose and fair hair. The normal nose is interesting due to the famous "Boerjan" nose that has been passed down through the generations.

Who the boy is we don't know. Ben had many older sisters and brothers.

The Boerjan family would have lived through some very hard times. In 1845 the potato blight destroyed the potato harvest, and in 1846 it struck rye and wheat. Famine spread throughout the area and lasted until 1854, which led to starvation. That could explain why Desire was arrested for marauding - he was probably searching for food for his family. Many people died during the famine and Desire and Sophia lost their share of babies. They were probably too poor to think about emigrating to the United States, but Ben and his brothers were young and able, so when the opportunity arose they took advantage of it.

Ben had been courting Nathalie Gaelens and they had become engaged to be married. They wanted to start life together under better circumstances and more advantages than they would ever receive in Belgium. Also, Nathalie wanted to avoid the chance that Ben would be drafted into the army. She made the hard decision to be separated from the man she loved while he travelled to America to find new opportunities for them. As soon as he found a good job and could support them, he would send for her and they would be married when she arrived in the United States.

Ben and two of his brothers, Angelus (Lus) born 1861, and Petrus (Pete) born 1863, set out for America. They probable left through Antwerp on a steamer or sailing ship and travelled steerage which was a challenge in itself. Hunger and thirst were daily challenges while onboard ship. They were provided with food (30 lbs biscuits, 15 lbs rice, 10 lbs flour, 15 lbs beans, 10 lbs pork, 10 lbs of other meat (mystery?), 50 lbs of potatoes, 2 lbs of coffee, 2 lbs of salt, and 2 bottles of vinegar. They cooked their own meals. Ben and his brothers were young and adventurous, so they probably considered this an adventure. If they came in 1891, they would have entered through Castle Garden at New York, which was the emigration centre at that time. With the huge numbers of emigrants to the United States, and the need for a larger emigration centre, Ellis Island opened in 1892.

Ben, Pete and Lus settled in either Chicago where there was a large Belgian community, or Rock Island, Illinois. Ben's uncle, Angelus Taets, had emigrated to the U.S. in 1882 and settled in Rock Island. Ben worked hard and saved money so he could send for Nathalie at the earliest opportunity. In 1893 Nathalie came to the U.S. on the ship, Pennsylvania, from Antwerp. She travelled alone. Her ship arrived in Philadelphia on August 8, 1893. She and Ben were married on August 12, 1893, at Rock Island, Illinois. The Rock Island Daily Argus announced a License to Wed given to Bernol Boerjan and Natelie Saalens, Rock Island, Illinois. On the Pennsylvania's passenger list, Nathalie's last name is spelled as Gaalens but when it was transcribed, it was spelled Saalens. That is probable where the pronunciation of Schalens came into being. Rock Island is immediately across the Missouri River from Davenport, Iowa. It was once said that Nathalie and Ben were married in Davenport. It is interesting to note that Bill Boerjan indicated on his army records that his mother's address was Rock Island, Illinois, even though she was living in Canada.

Passenger List - Nathalie Saalens

Nathalie lost her first child, William; the doctor who delivered the baby was drunk, and while mishandling forceps managed to crush the baby's skull. Nathalie never got over that tragic event; she was a very religious person so she may have forgiven him, but somehow I doubt that deep down she did. She and Ben moved to Kewanee, Illinois, where she operated a boarding house and Ben worked in an iron foundry. She became pregnant again and gave birth to another son on August 8, 1896, whom she named William. It was very commmon in those days to name a new baby after one previously lost. Two years later, she gave birth to another boy, Theophile (Tayfield).

Ben and Nathalie were successful at saving enough money from their jobs that they had quite a bit of security. As luck would have it, Ben got injured at work and had to leave his job. Nathalie decided that they should take the opportunity to move back to Belgium while they had some money. This had always been in the back of her mind since she came to the United States. They set off again and settled in Ghent, where Nathalie was very unhappy. She didn't fit in anywhere - they weren't rich enough to mingle with the rich, but had too much money to have friends in the poorer community. She felt like an outcast and was lonely. Ben wasn't as unhappy because he could always find a friend or two at the local pub to have a beer with.

The family of four travelled back to the United States on the Kensington from Antwerp in January 1901 and entered New York through Ellis Island. They were considered returning U.S. citizens so they made it through Immigration without any trouble. They were going to remain in America, so Nathalie decided it was time to learn English. She went to night school, learned to sign her name and began to learn to read.

After a time, Ben found some homestead land in North Dakota and the family moved near Oakwood. Nathalie gave birth to another boy, Jay Raymond (Joe), on March 21, 1904. Their land was surrounded by Germans, and Belgiums and Germans did not get along. The boys got picked on at school; the Catholic brothers who taught school and the students only spoke German. Because the boys couldn't speak German, they often got the strap. Ben's neighbours picked on him because he was Belgian, and he wasn't able to expand his homestead. The family decided they had enough and they picked up stakes and moved on. Bill and Tay were really happy about leaving that area, needless to say.

The family set out for a new country, and moved to St. Boniface, Manitoba, where Nathalie finally got her little girl, Marguerite, who was born in 1907. Ben drove an ice wagon for awhile but he got painful hemorrhoids from sitting on the ice blocks. He suffered from this for the rest of his life, and regularly chewed on senna leaves.

Homestead Brochure - Canadian Settlement Experience

Ben always watched the papers and read the notices for homestead lands, and at the next opportunity they moved to Lanigan, Saskatchewan. For a fee of $10.00 he was able to homestead a quarter section of land. Ben built a soddy and a barn on the southwest quarter of Section 22, which was surrounded by rolling grasses fringed with green poplar bluffs. The area was alive with antelope, deer, prairie chicken and partridge. The land wasn't flat prairie but was dotted with many depressions, with small clumps of poplar. It was very fertile and many varieties of grasses grew and provided nourishment for grazing animals. Ben opened a dairy and was the first milkman in Lanigan. He and his two oldest boys cleared the right-of-way for the railroad at the same time. Ben always taught his boys how to work hard and take care of their mother. He was preparing them because he always had the superstitious idea that he would die at 35.

Ben was a restless spirit and dreamed of moving on to more challenges, probably encouraged by his brothers, Pete and Lus. They decided to check out the homestead lands at Elrose, and Nathalie and the boys were to take care of the dairy while they were away. Poor Nathalie - she had a toddler and an infant. Bill could remember driving the wagon and oxen, with the wagon often getting stuck in the mud. Bill and Tay would push the wagon, while Nathalie followed behind, slugging through the mud, holding a small baby, while making sure Joe didn't wander off.

Ben did find some very good land near the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway Co. and set up another homestead there. Boerjan Homestead Lands. Ben built a small shack to prove up the homestead but it was never lived in. He built another house and Nathalie and the children moved to Elrose. Ben's land was fairly flat and rich in nutrients for growing wheat and Ben was a good farmer. He farmed until 1923 and loved his horses. When mechanized farm equipment replaced his beloved horses, he retired and moved into Elrose and Bill and Tay took over the farming operation. Tay set up his own farm after acquiring more land. Bill also added to his land over the years, and at one point he owned 11 sections of land. Joe never was interested in farming and took a position in the Royal Bank in Elrose. He later moved to the United States. Marguerite, the only girl, married Clarence Harrison and moved away from home. She was missed in the community as she was a colorful person - she was slim, blond and beautiful. She always wore her hair in the latest style, and was a flapper during the 1920's.

Boerjan Family 1918

Marguerite, Joe, Tay, Bill and Ben, with Nathalie seated.

Nathalie's health deteriorated and she suffered from a detached uterus which wasn't treatable. During all of her pregnancies she continued to have her monthly period, and she never knew she was pregnant until she felt life, at about 5 months. Nathalie was loved very much by her granddaughters, Anita and Blanche, who stayed with her during the week throughout the school year. Anita taught Nathalie her school lessons while she was learning them herself. Nathalie's stomach always bothered her in the late 1940's and early 1950's; when she ate, she would get very nauseous. She blamed the fact that most of her teeth were missing, and she couldn't chew her food properly. Finally Anita took her to the dentist and she got dentures. Nathalie hoped this would solve the stomach problems, but when her symptoms didn't disappear, cancer was diagnosed and she died on March 15, 1955. Ben couldn't live without her - he depended on her emotionally and physically. She had always been the strong one in the marriage. Ben only lived a year after Nathalie died.

Ben and Nathalie - late 1940's early 1950's

Nathalie had such a beautiful smile and her eyes lit up. She was such a kind, loving person - it's no wonder her granddaughters loved her so much!

To see a full account of the Boerjan Story, please go to The Belgiums.

For more information on Belgium, go to



Boerjan History in the Old Country

Ben Boerjan Grows Up in Belgium and Marries Nathalie

Bill Moves to Minneapolis and Meets Val.

Bill Goes to War and Val Stays with Her Parents in Crookston

Bill Moves His New Family to Canada - up to 1946

The Boerjans Retirement Years