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From Impassable Bogs to a Gold Mine
The shape of Drenthe is sometimes compared to an upside-down soup plate. The centre is formed by the Drents Plateau. A plateau between ten and twenty metres above sea level with dry soil. Near the edges of the plateau, the ground is significantly lower, and the soil is wetter. These boggy 'edges of Drenthe' played a major role in the history of Drenthe.
As early as in prehistoric times, the wet edge of Drenthe served as a buffer zone between Drenthe and the rest of the world. The vast fields, heath with meres and bogs made the land difficult to traverse. Only at a few locations was it possible for people to cross to the higher, dry sandy plain.
Over the centuries, a thick layer of peaty soil formed in the lower-lying areas of the province. When peat dries, you get turf. A very good fuel source that can be compared to oil and gas. The peat was a good source of income for the people of Drenthe. In the 11th century, several 'boermarkes' (medieval farm collectives) in Drenthe started with extracting peat. Between the 11th and 16th centuries, a number of peat extraction villages are formed on the sandy plains between the peaty soil, including Wapserveen, Nijensleek, Zuidlaarderveen, Eexterveen, Gieterveen, and Gasselternijveen.
The Brown Gold Trade
During the 17th century, the turf trade really got going. Amsterdam merchants formed the foundation of a large-scale peat industry. Having earned their wealth thanks to blooming global trade, they invested in the construction of canals. In 1627 for instance, the Hoogeveense Vaart was opened. It connected Hoogeveen via Meppel to the Zuiderzee. From the Zuiderzee, ships loaded with peat could reach Amsterdam, where it was used in the houses and factories of the merchants.
New Residents for Drenthe
Digging the canals and the perpendicular wide ditches ('wijken') served a second important purpose. It created drainage of the peat areas, drying them and allowing the peat to be extracted as turf. This was done by cutting out turf sods and then transporting them to their destination using the canals. To do the work of extracting the vast quantities of peat, many thousands of labourers settled in Drenthe. They lived in small sod houses near the peat extraction areas. Many seasonal workers also came from Germany to work in the peat industry in Drenthe. They were called 'Hannekenmaaiers'.
The peat extraction changed Drenthe at a rapid pace. The landscaped was criss-crossed by major canals, and dozens of villages arose in the peat colonies. The lands that were exposed by extracting the peat were taken over by farmers who used them for agriculture and livestock. The new farmers often came from outside of the province. The once so isolated and quiet Drenthe, with its 'boermarken' and tight-knit communities, changed under the pressure of the activity at its edges.