Stories about Tremelo in the 19th Century1

Last revised on September 29th, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

   These are anecdotes from the life of Theodoor de Vadder who was born in Tremelo on February 13, 1873. He recalled them when he was 95 to100 years-old. They appeared in the book "Tremelore 1900" by Rik Wouters, Kruisstraat 101, 3120 Tremelo, Belgium.

Good Friday 1889

   I left early in the morning toward Leuven (18 km) pushing a wheelbarrow carrying 100 kg (220 lb!) of potatoes that had been picked the previous day and that I wanted to sell at the market.
  When I arrived in the town I was lucky because I was soon approached by a woman who wanted to buy my wares. "Where should I take them?" I asked. "Come along" she said. In the Tiensestraat we stopped in front of a stately gentleman's house. "Open your bag!" she said. I responded: "Yes, you are welcome to try them." She said "Well, give me about five and come along into the kitchen; it is much too cold to wait outside here." I went along into the kitchen of this very nice house. The new Leuvense stoof2 (stove) was red hot. While I warmed up, she peeled and washed the five potatoes and started to boil them in a kettle. Suddenly the door opened and a clergyman entered. "What are you doing, Marie?" he asked the woman who apparently was his maid. "Well, I wished to buy a sack of potatoes, and wanted try them first ....". The priest interrupted her and said "Just get this farmer to unload his potatoes." "Where are you from?" the clergyman asked me. "From Tremelo!" I said. "Tremelo? Where is that?" "Well, it's between Aarschot and Mechelen, about halfway." "Then you must have left home very early!" "Yes indeed, Father" I said "I left at four to get here before the market starts at eight."

"This young man must be very hungry; fetch a couple of slices of bread and butter them thickly" he told his housekeeper. I couldn't believe my eyes! Real wheat bread, something we never had at home, and with real butter on it. But I had not forgotten that day was a very special day and boldly said: "Don't hold it against me, Father, but on Good Friday we are not allowed to eat meat, butter or fat at home!"

   "My dear boy," he answered, "you are here in the house of the Dean of Leuven so enjoy those boterhammen. They are healthy and it will certainly do you some good!"

   That's how it happened and I never ever regretted the experience.

How I learning to swath (reap)

   I remember another happening from my youth which I have retained vividly. It was many months after the spring sowing of the grain. It was now late summer and time to harvest. Our father and his oldest brother were going to swath and stook the grain in the afternoon in a field in Baal, about a half hour on foot from our place. However, I wanted to go to school but was not allowed. I began to cry, so long and so hard that eventually I was permitted to go to school, but on condition was that I would take coffee and food to the workers in the field immediately after school. That was fine with me.
   So after school I took my clogs in hand, hurried home to collect coffee and boterhammen and from there went to the workers in the field. While my father was eating, I took his
scythe and hook to try my hand at harvesting. But I cut my leg with the scythe and in no time at all my clog was full of blood. My father tied a handkerchief over the wound and told me to go to redheaded Bèt. Bèt bound my leg with a red handkerchief and then carefully washed out the wound. With his thumb he made a few signs of the cross over the wound to bless and help it heal.

   The wound did not fester but the scar remained for the rest of my life.

Street Singers

   Why could Theodoor De Vadder recall to his last days many old songs from his youth? As he explained: "For three or four years I performed the duties of a maid for my mother. We had three cows and I had to churn the butter daily, just like maids customarily did. Near the churn there lay around some old song sheets. These same songs were always sung there whenever anyone churned." So that is why he remembered such songs for so long. But from where did the song sheets come?
   Street singers, usually the Van Gestels from Aarschot, came to Tremelo 3 times a years.  They would be waiting in front of the
Tremelo church at the end of early Mass. They were usually three, but sometimes four when Van Gestel himself came, but among them there usually was a girl. To entice the audience, one of them would shout: "If you're patient for 5 minutes and just listen you won't be sorry!" They sang and then offered for a Franc a sheet with the words of six or seven of their songs. Some of those song sheets ended up near our churn!

   There were other street performers too. At Tremelo's annual market there was always a man from Brussels who sold a spice to flavour gin, probably Juniper berries, that give 'Holland gin' its unique taste. To attract attention ('zijn goedje was') he played a trumpet and had a Belgian tricolour wrapped with a notice that said "decorated by the King". This man, a regular 'fixture' at our market, often also went to the candle-lit processions around St. Martin's church during pilgrimages to Scherpenheuvel.

So people had some entertainment to relieve the monotony of their everyday lives!

Ant Eggs

   In our neighourhood lived 'Slinke' Hermans. He and his brothers travelled regularly to the district of Arendonk near the border of Holland. In the extensive pine woods on the heath there they went looking for ant eggs and would stay away for a week at a time.
   So how did they collect the ant eggs? In the woods they flattened a three metre square plot. In the middle they dug a small hole, about four fingers deep and the size of a man's cap. In it they put some pine needles or bits of heather. And what do you think happened? All the ants shot to work and patiently brought their eggs to the hole. By late afternoon 'Slinke' and his helpers could simply collect the resulting 'nest' and stored it with its eggs in a bag of closely woven cloth.
   On Sunday they went to Brussels with their 'booty' and sold their ant eggs for 1 Franc per litre as a luxurious food 'treat' for pet song birds. The Hermans brothers always returned from Brussels drunk! Their work must have been rewarding because they never seem to short of anything. 'Slinke' often would show me a gold Napoleon he'd earned that way and would say with nostalgia "those were the (good old) times when I went to catch black ant eggs".

So 'Slinke' knew how to be successful in the midst of poverty.

1The stories of how people lived in and around Tremelo at the turn of the 19th century were contributed by Roger Verhaegen <>. They were drawn from the book "Tremelore 1900" by Rik Wouters.
2 Picture of the "Leuvense stoof" courtesy Neil Pryce


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