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There's a Little Bit of Belgium in Every U.S. Dollar Bill

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by Albena Shkodrova/Latitude News

Antoine Vervaeke with pallets of flax. Image credit: Albena Shkodrova

Dollars probably matter more to Antoine Vervaeke than any other person in Europe. Vervaeke’s company provides the linen fibers — flax — that go into the U.S. dollar bill.

It’s a deal that’s been in place since 1962, when Vervaeke’s father signed a contract to supply flax to Crane & Co., the Massachusetts firm that manufactures paper for U.S. currency. It might sound odd that the U.S. would use foreign flax in its money. But the crop was not then being grown in the U.S., and Crane needed the fibers to produce more durable paper.

Belgium and flax: a long history

Vervaeke Fibre is the oldest firm in the industry producing flax fibers and the biggest supplier for Crane & Co., Vervaeke said. It doesn’t grow the crop itself, but it locates producers, advises them how to cultivate flax and monitors their work on the fields, eventually processing the fibers and selling them. Its hometown of Kuurne in West Flanders, Belgium, is in the middle of Europe’s traditional flax-growing region. But in recent decades, flax production, which is considered laborious to cultivate and not especially profitable, has dramatically decreased there. The company now gets most of its flax from Eastern Europe.

Initially, Vervaeke Fibre specialized in fibers for textile production; flax, after all, is the major component in linen and other fabrics. But Vervaeke Fibre shifted to making flax for paper in the 1950s, chasing demand from tobacco companies, which used it in cigarette wrapping paper. That business still makes up to 70 percent of Vervaeke’s demand.

The same technique that works for cigarettes also makes dollar bills softer than typical paper and more resistant to tearing. For the same reason, the dollar and a number of other currencies, including the British Pound, are made with 25 percent flax-derived linen and 75 percent cotton. But Vervaeke only supplies flax for U.S. bills.

Crane & Co. confirmed that Vervaeke is “a supplier” of flax for currency paper, but otherwise refused to discuss its partnership with Vervaeke.

No significant American competition

It will be a long time before Vervaeke faces U.S. competition. In the last 15 years, American farmers, primarily in South Carolina, have grown more flax. But there is no “near or even distant future competition for the suppliers to the paper industry,” says Jody Martin, CEO of PCS AgriBiz, a consultancy working on a large-scale flax project in North and South Carolina.

Martin says there is far more demand for flax fibers for textiles in the U.S. than American entrepreneurs can satisfy. He doesn’t see the lack of domestic supply changing for years to come.

Such news would make Antoine Vervaeke happy. Vervaeke says that while the dollar isn’t the biggest part of his business, it means something special to him. His relationship with the dollar started too early in his life to be strictly business, he said. He travels with his family to the U.S. often and describes the feeling of arriving stateside as “coming home.”

“It must have been this partnership that defined it. Besides, I am a post-war child. Everyone knows what the States did for Europe back in those years. It’s a country I just feel related to. And I, at least, will never forget.”

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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