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In east Drenthe and around Hoogeveen, you can find the peat colonies. They start forming in the 18th century and arise on a larger scale after 1850. That is when peat extraction became more systematic, following a regular pattern. The dried peat became turf, a fuel that supported the growth of major Dutch cities.
During the second half of the 19th century, the canals the Verlengde Hoogeveense Vaart in the south-east of Drenthe, the Oranjekanaal from the west, and the Scholtenskanaal from the north were dug. After the peat extraction, farms and farm labourer cottages were built along the new canals. The elongated shape of the built-up areas created the typical canal villages, that you can still see in Drenthe today. The new houses provided shelter to the tens of thousands of workers that came to Drenthe from all over the Netherlands – and Germany – to try their luck in the peat industry.
Life in the peat colonies was hard. There was major inequality among the different social classes, with the peat and farm labourers forming the bottom layer. Above them were the turf boatman and their families, who sailed the canals with their ships. Next were the farmers, who worked the land that was cultivated after the peat extraction. The top layer consisted of the peat bosses. They owned the lands from which the peat was extracted and had the highest social status in the local community.
Memories in the Landscape
After World War Two, the peat industry collapsed. Over the course of the 20th century, many of the canals that had fallen into disuse were filled in. The canal villages, such Gasselternijveen and Gasselternijveenschemond, Nieuw-Buinen, Eerste Exloërmond, Tweede Exloërmond, and Valthermond are no longer located by the water as a result. Because of their (sometimes double) ribbon shape, they can be recognised as former peat colonies in the landscape.
In addition to paying a visit to one of the former peat colonies, you can experience the history of the peat extraction personally in the Veenpark in Barger-Compascuum, near Emmen.