The official Shawnee Mission website says that Mayor Tony Soetaert was a direct descendant of Constant Soetaert, my great-great grandfather. I knew my great grandfather Charles well as a child. The photo above is an iconic family photo of the rather debonair and glamorous, American Soetaerts. I believe that the occasion was the 50th anniversary for Henry and Florence. Charles and Mary are pictured in the upper left corner. My second cousin, Allan Soetaert, is also a descendant of Constant. Governor Laura Kelly appointed Allan to the Kansas Water Authority. He is also the manager of Rural Water District No. 7, in Johnson County. He has been a public servant for 34 years.
I had always been told that WE were dirt poor until my grandfather, Adolf Charles Soetaert, struck oil on his Angus farm in the late 1970's in Gardner, Kansas. The family photo tells a very different story. The Soetaerts were and are the epitome of the great, Kansas, American dream. Most importantly, my father had the good fortune of riding off of the Mayor's coattails indefinitely. My father was hired as a vice president of Coca-Cola Mid-America because of these letters of the alphabet: S-O-E-T-A-E-R-T. It should be noted that my father had previously been part of NASA MISSION CONTROL for the first 16 APOLLO MISSIONS.
Henry was born in the small town of Egem in West Flanders, Belgium. He was the son of Petrus Soetaert (1835-1893) and Rosalie Verstraete (1835-1925). He came from a family of weavers who had lost their cottage craft to industrialization. Egem, like other Flemish towns of the period, had been reduced to a sad state in which many people survived through "soup kitchens" set up by the government. As a result, almost half the population of Egem emigrated to America. This included all of Henry's family except for his father, who is buried in Egem.
Henry emigrated in 1892 at age 20 with his older brother, Constant Soetaert (great-great grandfather to Michael Alan Soetaert.) He settled on the farm of his older sister, Juliana Soetaert Lecluyse, in Wyandotte County, Kansas, until 10 June 1898, when he married another immigrant from Belgium, Maria Florentina "Florence" Van Sittaert. They lived in Westport, Kansas City, Missouri, from 1898 to 1909, where Henry farmed in the East Bottoms and also worked in a cider mill.
In 1909, Henry bought a 10-acre farm in Mission Township, Johnson County, Kansas, where he installed the equipment for a cider mill which he had purchased from his previous employer. Here and later in Martin City, Jackson County, Missouri (1928-1936), the cider mill became the centerpiece of the family's existence, becoming well known locally for the quality of its vinegar and cider. Henry was a self-taught mechanic who developed considerable skill in keeping the cider mill equipment running. His farms and the cider mill enabled he and Florence to raise a family of eleven children, ten of whom survived into adulthood. This family was devoutly Catholic.
Henry retired in 1936 and moved to the Waldo area of Kansas City. He later relocated to Marty Street in Overland Park, Kansas. Henry lost his wife to a stroke in 1945. Henry himself passed away from abdominal cancer in 1954. He left a legacy of being a hard-working immigrant American with a puckish sense of humor and a great love of family. He was also a patriot, as demonstrated by the proud look on his face in a family photograph showing three of his sons in the uniform of the U.S. Army during World War II.
Maria Florentina “Florence”
Van Sittaert Soetaert
Maria Florentina “Florence”
Van Sittaert Soetaert
Florence was born in Kieldrecht, East Flanders, Belgium, to Josephus Franciscus Van Sittaert (1834-1919) and Eugenia Lenaert (1838-1880). She was the youngest of ten children. Her mother died in Kieldrecht when Florence was only six months old. In 1886, this family moved from Kieldrecht just across the border to Clinge in the Zeeland Province of the Netherlands. Florence was educated in Clinge and spoke fluent French as well as her Flemish dialect of Netherlandic.
Florence emigrated to America in 1896 with her older sister, Maria Ludovica "Louise" Van Sittaert. She met Henry Soetaert at the City Market in Kansas City, Missouri, and married him on 10 June 1898. She and Henry lived in Westport, Kansas City, Missouri, until 1909, when they purchased a small farm in Mission Township, Johnson County, Kansas. In 1928, they moved to another farm at Martin City in Jackson County, Missouri. The centerpiece of both these farms was a cider mill which became a well known local source for vinegar and cider. After retirement, she and Henry lived in the Waldo section of Kansas City and then moved in 1944 to Overland Park, Kansas. Florence died from a stroke in Overland Park in 1945.
Florence was the mother of eleven children, ten of whom survived to adulthood. One of her sons, the late Maurice Soetaert, described her as not weighing more than 100 pounds soaking wet but also as a dynamic personality, an exceptionally hard worker, and a wise family peacemaker who brooked no nonsense. Florence was also very intelligent. She learned English as fast as any immigrant could and was an inveterate reader of the newspapers.
She was the one who kept the accounts for the farms and the cider mill and who negotiated with customers and suppliers. Her private passion was knitting. One of her daughters has stated that Florence could "knit with her eyes closed." Several of her knitted items were still in active use well into the current century. She also loved to play cards, especially "Belgian pinochle." Son Maurice described her as virtually a "card shark."
Florence may have been small in stature, but she was a very strong force in the life of her family. She was also a devout Catholic, keeping all the holy days and ensuring that her children attended parochial schools whenever possible, no matter how costly they may have been or how distant from the farm. When Florence died unexpectedly in 1945, the family lost an anchor but they never lost the work ethic and integrity she left as her legacy.
100 years ago, in 1922, Jérôme Soetaert founded a one-man business. During the first two decades, coastal defense and protection works on the banks of surrounding rivers and canals were the core business. In 1948 the sole proprietorship became a limited liability company: Algemene Ondernemingen Soetaert (AOS) headed by Jérôme's three sons: Julien, Edmond and Hilaire. AOS: a family business, worthy of the name.
In the mid-1970s the sons of the above-mentioned threesome took over the business. Since that time, Eduard, Jérôme and Noël Soetaert set the course of the company. Under their leadership, the sheet piling works and sheet piling techniques were further developed. This specialisation immediately paid off: AOS built itself a solid reputation as a sheet piling company, both in Flanders, Wallonia, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and France.