Published in the Windmill Herald, December 7, 1996
Harvesting Peat Became a Way of Life
by Albert van der Heide
In the eighteenth century, the sparsely populated southwestern and central regions of the northern Dutch province of Friesland saw an influx of labourers in search of peatbogs from which heating fuel for factory and home could be made. The men who literally scooped the peat from the sandy layers below the water surface, moved north from neighbouring Overijssel when the peatbogs of Giethoorn and Wanneperveen could not provide sufficient employment. Friesland's peatbogs offered plenty of opportunity to these men who made this backbreaking work their way of life. Over a period of 200 years, peat diggers in the four northern Dutch provinces over a period of 200 years sent 140,000 hectares of turf, heating fuel - the peat layers averaged about three feet deep - to stoves and furnaces. In this process, they created additional lakes in low-lying wetland.
Harvesting peat from bogs was done in many regions of the Dutch United Provinces, often referred to as the United Republic. Unlike in other neighbouring countries, Dutch woods were small while the population density with its energy demand, was the highest in Europe. In search of prosperity migrants were pulled into Holland's cities, causing energy demand to rise further.
When properly dried, turf - brick-shaped and light in weight - provided home-owners with efficient and clean fuel, leaving little waste. This type of fuel had been in use for centuries. New was the large-scale commercial harvesting. In the seventeenth century, Overijssel (Giethoorn and nearby Wanneperveen) and Drenthe (Hoogeveen) were shipping vast amounts of turf through the harbour of Zwartsluis - where it was loaded onto bigger barges - to Amsterdam, then the country's largest port city.
The peat harvest had evolved from one for local consumption into one of large-scale commercial operations, often involving consortiums of investors, who used veenbazen to oversee the work, done by seasonal diggers - including many German migrants - and turfmakers who would stay on the better part of the year. The veenarbeiders generally loved to be outdoors, harsh conditions notwithstanding.
Gietersen, as the men from Giethoorn and vicinity were called, would be among the first to check out the 'new opportunities.' Even in those times, the men of the peat were willing to travel.
The first Frisian villages to attract Gieterse peat diggers were Oudehaske and Nijehaske, a short distance north of the town of Heerenveen. This migration took place starting in 1750. A decade later, St. Johannesga, Rotsterhaule and Rottum became the destination of many other migrants. The following years, as the influx continued, Gietersen could be found in an area that stretched south from Nijbeets to the vicinity of Lemmer. Many of the migrants were turfmakers, the men who shaped the product that the dredgers - among them many seasonal workers, often Germans who were called poepen - had scooped from below the surface of the water. However, they likely did not prompt the Gieterse migration. First to arrive were the entrepreneurs, the veenbazen, who had sufficient capital to purchase a plot of land to harvest peat. Egbert Eelken and Jan Willems jointly purchased a parcel of land near Oudehaske on September 6, 1750, and are considered to be the pioneers who introduced the Gietersen and their particular harvesting method to Friesland.
Escalating land prices
The following year, the partners split up with each taking on a new investor: Willems was joined by Harmen Jacobs Coster, a barge owner from the distant Zuiderzee port of Elburg; Eelken took in his brother Beernt. News of opportunity in Oudehaske must have spread widely, because in 1753 and 1754 the Eelkens and Willems saw nine families arrive from the hamlet of Belt-Schutsloot, an area west of Wanneperveen where the peat had exhausted, and from Zwartsluis. All of them settled on their own parcel of land. Every year, others joined them. By 1775, the group of migrants had reached 221 (62 from Giethoorn; 65 from Wanneperveen; 51 from elsewhere in Overijssel; the rest of unknown origin).
According to historians, the influx did not push the native population out. However, the demand for land forced prices sky high: a small parcel of land with a dwelling on it had sold for f400 before the Gietersen arrived, in 1766 its value had escalated to f10,000. In 1765, Jan Harmens Knol and three partners paid a record f13,500. By then, more and more Gietersen had purchased an entire farm for its peat deposit. By the 1760s, the Gieterse
veenbazen were prosperous enough that many built stately homes and farm buildings (Koster and Willems led the way and were followed by Bakker, Knobbe, Kollen and De Wit, and many others). The majority of the dwellings were much more modest as tax records from that period indicate. Most people in the area lived along the main roads.
Not everyone was overjoyed with the Gietersen and the harvest of peat. Back home, they left an area that had been damaged by reckless harvesting. Coupled with poor drainage and flooding, storms caused serious erosion around the man-made lakes. The same was about to happen in Friesland, causing grietman Johan Vegelin van Claerbergen to sharply protest to Friesland's provincial government in 1766. The mayor repeated his concerns several times and received approval to enforce local bylaws (such as no harvesting of peat within 3.91 metres from any public road) but the veenbazen just ignored these and willingly paid their fines. Their group - they came from four municipalities - felt strong enough to serve the grietman with a public reply, 'Remonstrantie over het regt van vergraaving der laage veenen' (A protest concerning the right to harvest low-peat). Only one signatory of this defence, Jan Tjerks Greveling, was a migrant, the others were Frisians with a financial stake in the peat bogs.
Erosion and moving fields
Without any doubt, the Gietersen formed the largest group of people owning peat deposits. Tax rolls indicate however, that the migrants, although prospering, were not the richest. Frisian entrepreneurs reserved that honour.
Meanwhile, the pressure on Giethoorn's turfmakers continued as more and more peat was dug away, increasing the area covered by water. A couple of floods hastened the erosion of the fragile shores of these man-made lakes. During one flood, the village of Beulake disappeared in the water. In another flood, a spongy field of several acres, complete with a labourer's dwelling, was lifted from its sandy bottom and swept across the lake where it came to rest against the shore. The phenomenon of drifting fields was quite common actually, as experienced men would move small parcels of peat land to places where it was needed. Peat diggers would spread dredged-up dirt on them, so the peat could be left to dry as others made turf from that material.
As Giethoorn's peatbogs depleted, many families moved north to such villages as Muggebeet, Nederland, Wetering and Kalenberg. From there it was but a short distance to the rich peat deposits of the Frisian southwest, Lemsterland. Nearly fifty years after the Oudehaske-bound migration had started, another trickle of departures to Frisian peatbogs got underway, this time to the quiet farming villages of Echten and Oosterzee, in a sparsely populated area east of Lemmer. Soon it became a stream of migrants, with the Gietersen outnumbering the local villagers. In the peatbogs, new villages sprung up, notably Bantega which became larger than centuries-old Echten. By that time, peat harvesting had become regulated and environmental damage was being controlled. The areas most affected by reckless harvesting are now great holiday destinations for sailing, and a wide variety of other watersport.
Life in the peat bogs was never easy. Poverty was a certainty to many, especially if a family was struck by illness or death. It seems that social problems, including alcoholism, where greatest in areas were large commercial interests controlled peat harvesting. This was especially the case east and northeast of Heerenveen where labour unrest and strikes became regular feature in the peatbogs when poor economic times forced down both turf prices and wages. Cheered on by arising socialist forces, the men of the peatbogs did not take kindly to bosses who tried to cut their piece rates. The bosses usually had their way as the police and the army were called in to put down any rebellion. Eventually, turf as an energy source was undermined by coal and oil. Later, coal, oil and turf were replaced by natural gas as well.
As a group, the Gietersen clung to their identity and usually married partners who originated from the same village in Overijssel. The migrants maintained close family ties, attracting one another to Friesland. Some families which settled in Haskerland were even represented with two, three or four bothers: Bakker, Klompmaker, Knobbe, Kollen, Koning, Krol, Krul, Kuik, Meester, Meijer, Mooij, Oord, Prins, Wever (all 2), Ten Hoeve, Ketellapper, Krikke, Mast, Nenneboog, Taalen, Van der Wal and De Wit (all 3), and Nijmeijer (4).
Other Gietersen who settled in Friesland were Aarsen, Akkerman, Appe(r)lo(o), Baas, Be(e)nen, Bennin(g)(k), Berger, Beukman, Beute, Biesterbos(ch), Bloemberg, Bok, Bos(ch), Bouwer, Boxum, Braam, Brink, Bus, Dam, De Glee, De Jong(e), De Leeuw, Dekker, Deuker, Deutman, Doeve, Doop, Drenth, Duiven, Drabbe, Dragt, Drost, Eelken, Ellen, Feijer, Floppe, Fransen, Fynderman, Gort(e), Granis, Greveling, Groen, Hakse, Hamaker, Helder, Hoen, Hoenstra, Hollander, Horst, Huisman, Jaspers, Jetten, Jongman, Jonker, Jonkman, Karsten, Kelderhuis, Kersten, Kikkert, Klaren, Klaver, Klomp(e), Klompemaker, Kooi(j)ker, Kloo(t), Kluitenberg, Kluwer, Knol, Kok, Kolk, Kollen, Kooiman, Korthoef, Kroes, Kruis, Kuiper, Kuilder, Lap, Lasker, Las(s)che(r), Lok, Luiken, Mandemaker, Mantje, Matmaeker, Meilof, Moed(t), Moerman, Mol, Mossel, Mulder, Muurling, Nooi(j), Noppert, Oom, Oost, Oostenwind, Osjes, Otten, Otter, Pals, Pen, Petter, Piek, Plak, Platte, Poepjes, Poorte, Prakke, Puis, Put, Putter, Pijlman, Ram, Regeling, Ruiter, Schaap, Scheer, Schievin(g)(k), Schipper(s), Schokker, Scholten, Sloothaak, Slootheer, Slot, Slump, Smink, Smit, Sok, Spits(en), Steenbergen, Sterken, Stobbe, Stuiver, Swol, Ten Boom, Ten Hove, Terweel, Thalen, Tinge, Toering, Tuk, Tuttel, Vaartjes, Valk, Vink, Viss(ch)er, Vonk, Vos, Wallinga, Weggen, Wilst, Wind(t), Wolf, Woud, Wuite, Wu(r)(v)ing, IJlken, Zoetevent, Zoon, Zwier, Zwol.