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Kalamazoo’s Aid to Belgium


The little country of Belgium played no part in the causes that led to World War I. On the grounds of neutrality, the Belgian government denied the German’s request to march through their country. Vital to their military plans, the German army ignored the response and marched into Belgium. Within weeks, the atrocities endured by the Belgian people at the hands of German soldiers captured the headlines. Brutal murders, rape, starvation and the complete destruction of their cities and countryside caused the Belgians to cry out to the world for help. In the United States, 33 states organized Belgian Relief Committees. Kalamazoo’s Commercial Club took up the cause and within days created an effective means for the collection of money, food and clothing.

“A Million People Are Starving”

Kalamazoo’s Commercial Club officially announced their plan for the project in the Gazette on 13 November 1914. In the same day’s paper, the Gazette printed Belgium’s international appeal for aid. The bold head line, “A MILLION PEOPLE ARE STARVING!” and its subheading “One Third of Them Little Children!” was the emotional plea of a country and its people under siege.  It described soup kitchens that fed more than 500,000 people, the German army’s demand for the Belgians to surrender their food stores, and shortages that left no food for the Belgians. Since 24 October, the Belgians had no daily access to food.  Without international help 300,000 children would die.

With the approach of the holiday season, the Commercial Club asked people to have a “self-less” Christmas. A former rector of St. Luke’s parish, Reverend Roger Hanson Peters, then in Kentucky, introduced the “self-less” idea which asked people to “strike off a portion of the gifts on their Christmas list” and give the money saved to the relief fund. With Belgium’s urgent need for food and clothes, the relief-drive organizers acted quickly to chose the dates 18-25 November for the collection. This allowed time to pack the donations into containers for the train to New York and the trans-Atlantic departure on 15 December.

“Buy Sack of Flour for Some Starving Belgian”

The Commercial Club hoped to raise enough money to fill two train cars with food and clothing. James Grant, chairman of the Belgian Relief Committee, and others set about to establish the best means for collection that would encourage full participation in the city. Grant organized the following sub-committees for the collection of donations:


Herbert E. Johnson

Treasurer: Herbert E. Johnson, Kalamazoo City Savings Bank

To ensure the proper collection, counting and use of the donated funds, Herbert E. Johnson, president of the Kalamazoo City Savings Bank, volunteered his time to preserve the integrity of the campaign. The Relief Committee rented space in the Cowlbeck Building at 106 West Main Street for the headquarters. There people could leave all donations and get information either in person or over the phone. Following the national trend to buy locally, the committee stated that they would use the financial contributions to purchase food items from stores in Kalamazoo.

Food and Clothing: Edward C. Parsons, chairman; Augustus B. Scheid, Samuel Folz, Mrs. Carrie M. Upjohn, Mrs. Hattie Desenberg, Mrs. Florence Mills, Mrs. Edith Hodge

Food: Food being the most pressing need of the Belgian people, the Commercial Club created the slogan “Buy A Sack of Flour for Some Starving Belgian,” to encourage public response. The slogan did cause some confusion. People dutifully went to the stores and bought bags of flour and took them to the Cowlbeck Building. However, this was not what the committee wanted. Special arrangements existed with the Kalamazoo milling companies for the committee to purchase 50 lb. of flour at the cost of only $1.25 in cloth bags suitable for shipping. While the milling companies did provide the cloth bags to pour the individual flour donations into, the word went out for people to donate the money for a 50 lb. bag and that the committee would then purchase the flour. Along with the flour, the committee also sought donations of other non-perishable foods: beans, dried peas, bacon and cured meats. They hoped this would encourage the county’s farmers to donate from their crops and get the rural population to participate.

Clothing: On this the point the committee was very clear.  This was not a collection of peoples’ old clothes. The committee allowed for the donation of sweaters in good condition, but asked people to view the display in the window at Gilmore Brothers Department Store for the appropriate type of clothes that the Belgian people wore. People could purchase the fabric and obtain the patterns to make clothes or donate to the cost of having clothes made. 

Fund Solicitation: Dr. Edward J. Bernstein, chairman; Mrs. Caroline Bartlett Crane, Charles W. Carpenter

Money: The committee placed collection boxes in stores throughout the city to make it easier for all to donate.  So that workers did not have to go out of their way to donate, the committee placed boxes in the factories. Originally the committee thought people with a good income would just naturally make sizable contributions. However when that did not happen, the committee sent out 200 letters to prominent individuals in the city. This brought in many $100 contributions.  The people who sent such contributions usually did so anonymously with a note signed simply “from a friend.”

On 22 November, churches held a special collection for the Belgian Relief Fund. The day’s services added $150 toward the purchase of food. When the first pleas for help reached the United States, the Jewish community and the Reformed Churches in Kalamazoo quietly held independent collections. Within the Jewish community, the people raised $1000.  The Reformed Churches raised $494. Both groups sent the money to the national relief agency in New York. During the Commercial Club’s drive the Reformed Churches did contribute an additional $306.

As the relief drive entered its final hours, the Gazette received a contribution from Mr. A. R. Burke of Niles with a note attached:

“I first thought I would give $5, but after considering the matter decided that $15 would do a great deal more good. I would have given more, but I have had considerable bad luck lately.”

Such a self-less act helped to promote giving on the last official day of the relief drive, and perhaps added encouragement for prominent citizens to give. Although the headquarters closed on the 25th, Mr. Herbert E. Johnson continued to receive contributions at the Kalamazoo City Savings Bank.

Entertainment: Edward B. Desenberg, chairman; T. Paul Hickey, Mrs. Mary Knight with help provided from Lewis C. Barnes and William Marshall

In order to build support for the campaign, James Grant arranged to bring movies to the Kalamazoo theaters that depicted the horrors the Belgian people endured. This was the best way to show people the desperate need for their donations. Lewis C. Barnes, manager of the Kalamazoo Amusement Company, offered 60% of the proceeds from special shows on 24 November to the Belgian Relief Fund. Each K.A.C. theater showed a different mix of films. The Elite, without regard for the cost, showed a Famous Players film, “The Unwelcome Mrs. Hatch.”  Famous Players was a production company that put plays on film with the famous talent that had played the parts on the New York stage. Due to a charity drive for the Anti-Tuberculosis Society on the 28th  in which the Elite was a partner, its contribution was 50% of its proceeds to the Belgian fund. The Lyric showed a Hearst-Selig News Pictorial along with two war films. The Orpheum showed the Mutual Weekly, a serial that showed one episode a week, a photoplay, a trailer about a new film or the personal lives of actors, and two war pictures. While at the Colonial the public saw an un-named lighter comedy. With a charge of only ten cents, all in Kalamazoo could afford to make a contribution. Mr. Barnes stated that if his theaters played to a full house, he could still break even, but if he didn’t, he still was happy to contribute the day’s proceeds. The total contribution from the four theaters was $125.

Publicity: Robert A. Staebler, chairman; Peter A. Dalm, Elton R. Eaton, F. Ford Rowe

There was no description of this committee’s work, other than that they put up posters and notices around the city and county and kept the newspapers informed of all related activities like the following.

The Kalamazoo Relief Committee on the night of 21 November asked a local man, originally from Belgium, to comment on the importance of the work to aid his homeland. That night they moved their headquarters to the home of Celestin Van de Maele at 304 Ingleside Terrace. Mr. Van de Maele spoke about his four years experience in the Belgian army and spoke at length on the current conditions in Belgium. Unfortunately there was no description of his comments.


Kalamazoo’s Total Contribution

Kalamazoo’s financial, food, and clothing contributions for the Belgian people amounted to more than $5000. This included the funds raised in the churches, movie theaters, known individual contributions, and the cash collected between the 18th November and 1 December by Herbert Johnson which totaled $1,607.90.  This money helped to purchase the quantity of food sent to the National Relief Agency in New York. Although people donated some of the food items listed below, the committee spent the above sum in Kalamazoo to purchase the greatest share of these items:


140 barrels of flour                            240 pounds of apple butter

1,010 pounds of bacon                       200 pounds of coffee

100 bushels of dried beans                 480 cans of salmon

25 bushels of dried peas                     500 pounds of cornmeal

25 bushels of pearled barley               12 cases of yeast

4,800 cans of condensed milk             5 barrels of oatmeal

1,250 pounds of dried prunes             10 boxes assorted canned and dried fruits


There was no description of the clothing or what the size of a box was, but Kalamazoo put together eight boxes of clothes.

Kalamazoo Lake Farm Association

At the same time, the Kalamazoo Lake Farm Association offered special aid to Belgian youth. Lake Farm was a working farm located south of town off Oakland Drive near White’s Lake and today is known as Lakeside Academy. The farm was an orphanage that took in boys and taught them agricultural skills. In an arrangement that the Belgian Consul Theophile Francois in Detroit approved, a number of boys came to live in the area to study farming methods. This training would allow the boys to help rebuild Belgium’s agriculture after the war. Consul Francois recommended the Kalamazoo method and with the help of business men encouraged other cities in the state to organize similar programs. Along this same line, Nazareth Academy and St. Augustine offered safe homes and an education to Belgian orphans in Kalamazoo. Monsignor F. A. O’Brien announced the offer in the Gazette, but doubted the Belgian government would accept. The offer did receive appreciation, but the children were safe and cared for in Europe for ease of moving them back into Belgium at the war’s end.

The City’s Largest Contribution

This was not the only time that Kalamazoo sent aid to Belgium, but it was the city’s largest contribution.  After the U. S. entered the war in 1917, another national call went out for funds to help the stricken country. At that time there was a county committee, under the direction of Reverend Caroline B. Crane, which collected $478.66, not all of which went to the national agency. The committee kept a portion of this sum in case of future need. Herbert Hoover, chair of the American Commission for relief in Belgium and the future president, described the importance of America’s role in helping to feed Belgium. Without U.S. shipments, Hoover said Belgium’s population would starve. Kalamazoo’s collective and independent contributions were not the biggest, nor were they the smallest, but did add greatly to the national effort to aid Belgium. 



An Honor Roll of Kalamazoo County 1917-1918-1919

  • H 977.417 H774, pp.246, 262


“Kalamazoo to aid stricken Belgians”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 November 1914, page 4, column 5

“Belgian consul to adopt Kazoo plan”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 November 1914, page 4, column 4

“Kalamazoo to aid stricken Belgian nation”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 November 1914, page 1, column 3

“A million people are starving!”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 November 1914, page 3, column 2

“Campaign for Belgians will open Monday”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 November 1914, page1, column 2

“Belgian pictures to be shown here”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 November 1914, page1, column 1

“Belgium relief campaign will open tomorrow”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 November 1914, page 1, column 5

“Belgium fund headquarters is selected”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 November 1914, page 1, column 2

“Buy a sack of flour for some needy Belgian”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 November 1914, page 1, column 6

“What will you give to help starving men?”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 November 1914, page 1, column 6

“Churches to observe Belgium Relief Day”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 November 1914, page 1, column 1

“Kazoo Catholics to aid Belgian orphans”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 November 1914, page 1, column 8

“Belgium nation to be aided by Kazoo churches”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 November 1914, page 1, column 2

“Elite Theater to stage two benefits”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 November 1914, page 14, column 4

“ 'Movies' will give benefit for Belgians”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 November 1914, page 1, column 3

“Jewish residents contribute $1000”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 November 1914, page 1, column 8

“Belgian fund in Kalamazoo nearly $3000”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 November 1914, page 1, column 6

“Belgian relief campaign ends; much is given”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 November 1914, page 1, column 7

“Kalamazoo to send carload of provisions”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 November 1914, page 1, column 3

“Kalamazoo’s Belgium relief car leaves for the east this week”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 November 1914, page 14, column 3

“Belgium relief committee purchase food for shipping”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 December 1914, page 10, column 5

“Thirty-three states giving Belgians aid”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 December 1914, page 6, column 2

“Asks relief bodies to ship collections”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 December 1914, page 8, column 4

“Belgium relief car off today for east”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 December 1914, page 10, column 1

“Belgium to starve but for Americans”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 December 1914, page 3, column