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Baron van Dedem outfoxed opponents of his canal-digging plans

Founder of Eastern Dutch peat colony of Dedemsvaart

Tags: Dutch Exploration


June 1991, it was two hundred years ago that Gerrit Willem van Marle took receipt of Ten Wolde's land survey he had ordered for a largely uninhabited area to the east of his hometown of Zwolle, the capital city of Overijssel. Mr. Van Marle had plenty of time on his hands, since recently he had been ousted from the city's council by the Orange Party. An heir to the significant landholdings of his father B. van Marle Hsn, he thought it wise to develop his family's peat bogs which lay beyond the dirt road between places called Ommerschans and Avereest. However, Van Marle died at age 47, before he had an opportunity to put a spade into soggy soil. Someone else was to realize his dreams and visions. Meet Gerrit Willem's son-in-law, Mr. Willem Jan Baron van Dedem, the founder of Dedemsvaart. The well-to-do families of Van Marle and Van Dedem both owned substantial peat bog holdings and farms in the north-east region on Overijssel. It is thought that they purchased common grazing grounds, then known as 'markelanden,' at times when the free-holders, the farmers were not able to pay their taxes. Once they were on the slippery road of economic decline, the farmers are thought to have been forced into selling their individual properties as well, becoming lease holders on their own places.

Canal the only way

Much of this particular region was uninhabited as late as the early 1800s, mostly inaccessible and very dangerous to travel if one did not stay on the main dirt roads. Although sheep grazed the heather fields without much of a problem - local shepherds knew their way around - anyone foreign to the area risked losing his life if he attempted to cut across the swamps and morasses. The terrain was not unlike that of the Echten peat bogs to the North, which largely had been cultivated by now (see series on Van Echten and the rise of Hoogeveen in the Windmill Herald issues 693/4/5).

The north-south road between Hoogeveen and Ommen was of little use to the proposed development, since the infrastructure was totally inadequate for the movement of freight in and out of the area. VanDedem studied similar developments elsewhere to learn more about the required infrastructure and how to build it. Like VanEchten nearly two centuries earlier, Van Marle and his son-in-law Van Dedem realized that a canal would be the only way to open up these isolated holdings. As Van Echten also had discovered before him, therein lay the catch! Property-owners along the proposed route, exactly those who stood to benefit greatly from such a project, were not supporters at all of such capital works, even if they were not expected to contribute a penny toward it.

Competition to river traffic

Once Van Dedem, upon the urging of Van Marle's estate, took it upon himself to develop the peat bogs, he quickly discovered the disadvantages of the Dutch political system. While he completed his negotiations with city fathers of Hasselt, where the canal - via a water lock - was to enter a Delta stream, the Zwartewater, and obtained agreement from landowners near the city to dig through their property, he also needed permission of the States of Overijssel to commence the project. Influential businessmen in Zwolle and local interests along the River Vecht were strenuously opposed to having a canal dug eastward of Hasselt, that ran parallel to the river. They feared that the canal would draw freight away from the river and its harbours, which could mean an economic blow to the cities of Zwolle, Dalfsen and Ommen. They demanded, for starters, that the canal would not be 'pulled through' to Hardenberg, which lay on the River Vecht near the border with Germany. The opponents assumed that canal traffic might be faster and not subject as much to occasional spells of drought. No amount of assurances from Van Dedem could sway their opposition to the plan. Van Dedem's plans had run aground on the local, and often narrow self-interest of a small group of privileged people who could not or did not want to look at the broader benefits to an entire region.

Central authority

Occasional attempts 'to test the waters' were made by Van Dedem, but all were rebuffed. The plans could easily have died there, but history proved the young nobleman as determined to succeed as his opponents were to stop him. However, the political times were changing. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France, who had occupied the Netherlands in 1795, was not satisfied with the way this part of his realm was governed. To get a better handle on the Dutch affairs, Napoleon appointed his brother Louis King of Holland, a new name for the United Republic (Verenigde Republiek) which included all of the quarrelsome and independent-minded provinces. Along with the changes came a central authority, the King, and a new opportunity for Van Dedem.

King Louis eventually displeased his brother Napoleon since the former acted more like a real Dutch monarch would have and unlike the governor of an occupied country. Louis wanted to meet with the citizenry and see all parts of his new country. In 1809, the four northern provinces were chosen for a royal visit. King Louis called on, for example, Deventer, Zwolle, Coevorden, Hoogeveen, Assen, Groningen and Wildervank. Van Dedem, who also held a government post, saw an opportunity to meet with the King and planned his strategy accordingly. Canal opponents were on their guard as well, and even made an attempt to flush out Van Dedem's intentions in the matter.

The Dedemsvaart dug

Van Dedem met King Louis three times during the visits to Deventer and Zwolle, waiting for the ideal opportunity. During an audience with a small group of officials Van Dedem showed the King a map of the northeast Overijssel region, and outlined his plans for its development. The King looked at it with interest, and promptly confirmed his support for the canal-project. Four months later, having overcome Zwolle's demand for a form of protection for its interests in Vecht-freight, and with a royal decree in his pocket, Van Dedem held a sod-turning ceremony at Hasselt. By the fall of 1809, the canal - called the Dedemsvaart, or Van Dedem's waterway - had reached the Inn at the Lichtmis, located near the village of Rouveen and the site of a Fort in earlier times. Canal traffic between Hasselt and the Lichtmis was now possible, while the actual canal-digging project reached as far as the hamlet Den Hulst. The canal was to end at the present-day site of Balkbrug, just north of the fort Ommerschans. (Over forty years later, it was extended to Coevorden, giving rise to new communities such as Lutten en Slagharen).

Very little is known about the canal-project itself. The newspaper of Overijssel - today known as the Zwolse Courant - did not cover this project in its news columns, which is interesting in the light of earlier opposition to the canal from the privileged class in Zwolle. Van Dedem did use the paper for a few announcements, such as calls for tenders. On August 18, 1809, the paper advertised that Van Dedem would be tendering the second phase of the canal-project. This phase is the stretch between the Lichtmis and Den Hulst. Those interested in such details may wish to learn that this event took place on August 29, 1809 at the 'De Herderin' Inn in the city of Hasselt, a former Hanseatic League member and an old rival to Zwolle. Advance information could be obtained from Van Dedem's mother-in-law, Mrs. Van Marle at Zwolle, or from Secretary Z. Tijl of Hasselt.

Digging aided by spade only

Since the newspaper did not cover the project, it is not known to whom the contract was awarded. More research in the Archives of Overijssel may turn up such information. It is known, however, that a M.I. Kruizinga, who subsequently settled in Balkbrug, built the water locks in and bridges across the canal.

The work proceeded quickly and without serious problems. Opposition from landowners along the second phase of the project evaporated, turning into good cooperation with Van Dedem, who now received unsolicited assistance from the land owners. This turn of events caused Van Dedem to change the project route somewhat, since he was all set to dig around the areas where opponents resided. Also interesting is the fact that the canal-project gave employment to some 500 to 600 labourers,each of whom earned one Dutch guilder a day. The project, spread out over approximately twenty months, took about 500 working days. The cost to Van Dedem and his relatives has been estimated at some 300.000.

The labourers certainly earned their guilder a day, considering that the only equipment they used was a shovel. No wheelbarrow was used, according to the town of Dedemsvaart's historian architect J. Drent in his book 'Bijdrage tot de Geschiedenis van de gemeente Avereest.' (A contribution toward the history of the municipality Avereest). This digging method required every spade of soil to 'change' shovels at least four to five times.

'Tax sales'

Not much is known about Van Marle's long-range goals for the area, but it can be safely assumed that he, and later his successor and son-in-law, was motivated by the promise of a good yield on the investment in the region's peat bogs. Van Marle, as did the Van Dedem family and many others with 'solid bank accounts,' had been assembling unproductive common grazing lands, 'markelanden,' from freeholders who could not afford to pay their taxes to higher authorities. In many cases, these well-to-do individuals also purchased entire farms for the same reason, often leasing them back to the former owners.

This fact is fairly clearly established when considering the identity of the negotiators who represented the 'marke Arrien' (south of the Dedemsvaart settlement) property owners when the Van Marle estate needed to arrange right of way for extending its canal-building project further into the area.

Inhospitable region

These 'markelanden,' according to a local pastor in a book published during the 1830s, represented an area where only a reckless hunter would venture to search for the hidden dens and nests of its wildlife. Others who knew their way around the puddles of dead water and the treacherous morasses, were the local shepherds who would take their sheep into this forsaken area. The Reverend Senden wrote that the region between the Hessenweg - the road between Zwolle and the German border - which ran on the north side largely parallel with the River Vecht, and the stream the Reest, was so inhospitable and isolated that it even lacked dirt roads and trails through the peat bogs.

The surface of the peat bogs, if not covered with puddles, featured mainly heather and very little grass or weeds. The area itself offered a clear view for miles, showing the outlines of the towers of Heemse, Hardenberg and Coevorden in the distance.

No Avereest records

The area gave local farmers very little promise for a living. It is interesting to note, that the freeholders of the 'marke Avereest' never bothered to keep any records which is regarded a departure from the standard practise. Many 'marken' have, for instance, records going back to the 12th and 13th century.

The project led by Van Dedem changed the isolated landscape drastically, although - in keeping with the 'marke' history - not very much is known about the initial years. For example, nothing has been found in the sources for this article about the way the canal diggers men were billeted and fed.

Housing conditions

When the first peat diggers arrived at the site of where Balkbrug is now located and where the canal at first ended, they had to build their own 'homes'. Many of the men came from other peat harvest projects, such as in Groningen, Drenthe and Friesland. They had experience with building the type of home generally found in these projects: heather sods to build the walls, and brush growth and tree branches to finish the roof.

Peat diggers were literally able to build such structures overnight, especially if the occupants were squatters on some else's property. In the eastern part of Friesland - the Friese Wouden - a common law stated that if the owner of the heather land spotted a sod hut - built overnight - that had smoke rising through the roof, he was out of luck: he could not forcibly remove the occupants or the structure. To avoid attracting squatters, they patrolled their land before dusk but were often outwitted by these men who built the sod huts (or dug outs) in the dark so the smoke would rise through the roof at sun rise!

Moving along

This type of housing was not just for hardy bachelors, but entire generations - young and old - lived that way. They often worked as a family for the 'veenbaas,' the manager or owner of a tract of peat bog, and usually lived in great poverty without the barest of essentials. When the harvest of peat progressed, they often would build another 'house' closer to where the action was (from dawn to dusk).

To digress for a moment, it must be noted, that the use of sod huts was not restricted to the Netherlands. Some eastern European emigrants to the Canadian prairies protected themselves from the elements initially by living in dug outs, around the turn of the century. When Dutch emigrants settled in the mid west state of Iowa, in 1847, they initially lived in dug outs and sod huts as well. Satellite Dutch communities of Pella, Iowa, had similar starts.

Pressing on

It is not surprising therefore, that in a few short years the peat bogs of Avereest (to which the early settlements, and present-day towns of Balkbrug, Dedemsvaart and Lutten belong) experienced a drastic increase in population. Peat was being shipped out, and Van Dedem kept pressing on, consolidating and expanding his project ever deeper into the region towards the German border.

By the Fall of 1812, Van Dedem and his relatives (the Van Marles have been identified before, but at this juncture the duo R.H. and C. de Vos van Steenwijk enter the picture as interested property owners) met with the 'markegewaarden' - the freeholders or successors - of 'marke' Arrien, an area located between Ommen and Heemse but that extended north wards to the present town site of Dedemsvaart. These owners needed to give approval to a number of things: right of way for the canal, division of their isolated peat bogs and re-alignment of the 'marke' borders.

The meeting of November 13, 1812, was clear sailing to Van Dedem and his group. It was decided to add a good part of Arrien to Avereest to expedite things, the canal extension received its right of way, and based on surveyor Ketelaar's plans, the area was divided into 39 plots for which lots were drawn to avoid disagreements over the varying amounts of harvestable peat.

The 39 plots were divided between 9 parties: E. H. Van Marle 9 plots, the cousins R.H. and C. De Vos van Steenwijk with Van Dedem 10, J.W.A.I. Stakebrandt 2, J.H. Helmich 3, L. Steenbergen 4, Mrs. Frydagh 3, the municipality of Ommen 4, and S.T. Sanberg (Woertink) 4. Plot owners were allowed to harvest peat, sell the harvest in raw form, sell the property, in part-plots or in full plots.

Royal attention

Van Dedem extended his canal first to the border with 'marke' Stegeren, and upon reaching a settlement with Stegeren - which area contained similar peat bogs - he extended the Dedemsvaart to 'marke' Rheeze (sluice 6), while plot owners dug ditches for access to the peat bogs, and for shipping the peat bricks by boat (barges with living quarters for its owner). By 1817, Van Dedem started work on a parallel canal at the site of present-day town of Dedemsvaart.

To what extent Van Dedem's life work generated attention elsewhere in the country, is difficult to say without studying the project from a broader perspective. The peat bogs of north east Overijssel did attract a royal visitor, however. King Willem I of Orange-Nassau, in company of Prince Frederik, visited the site of Dedemsvaart on June 3, 1818, only four years after he had assumed the throne. King Willem I liked what he witnessed in this still isolated part of his realm. Van Dedem treated his guest to refreshments in a large tent set up alongside his canal, from where the King retreated to Hasselt, the city which is located at the point where the canal and the 'Zwartewater' meet. Building an infrastructure to a large area is at best of times a formidable undertaking. Van Dedem and his group assumed the risk on their own expense. The royal visit should have been a feather in Van Dedem's cap, but... was there another reason for the King's visit?

Infrastructure required large sums

As we will see later, the digging of canals took large sums, as did the construction of sluices - the landscape of this part of the Netherlands is not as flat as many would have it; Van Dedem's canal required seven waterlocks to keep it from draining, and probably flooding onto the old hanseatic city of Hasselt at its foot - bridges, and housing for supervisory personnel. In addition to these capital expenses came plenty of other urgent requests: Van Dedem even contributed toward the building funds of two churches, first toward the Roman Catholic Church in an effort to hold onto migrant workers who came from neighbouring German states, and later toward the building plans of the mainline Dutch Reformed Church. No doubt, there were other urgent appeals for funds as well.

It is not known if Van Dedem had any budgetary guidelines, or if for that matter he followed an integrated development plan which had a price tag attached to it. What is certain, however, is that at some point the Van Marle's got butterflies in their stomachs, and judged it wiser to get out while they could. They decided to split the estate into shares and let every one decide for him/herself how they wanted to spend their share, instead of having Van Dedem do it for them.

Division of the estate

The sources for this series of articles do not in anyway suggest dissatisfaction with Van Dedem's management as such. The decision to split the estate three ways, between by then elderly beneficiaries - Mrs. G.W. van Marle, her brother-in-law H.E. van Marle and sister-in-law Mrs. Eekhout, also a widow - put Van Dedem's business acumen severely to the test. Instead of drawing on the resources of an tightly-held estate, he now had to sell the (financial and economic) viability of 'his project' to bankers, who played it doubly safe.

The peat bog holdings were split three ways, while Mrs. G.W. van Marle assumed responsibility for the canal. One of the shareholders, H.E. van Marle, later sold his share to the children of Mrs. G.W. van Marle (Van Dedem's wife Judith among them). To pay for this purchase, they borrowed first f 430,000 in 1817, but by 1820 experienced cash flow problems which sent them back to the bankers to borrow an additional f 350,000, backed with a mortgage on their peat bog holdings which were already being accessed and harvested. The loans had been raised through the banking firm of Van Vlaer and Kol of Utrecht, which negotiated a form of supervision into the financing package by the appointment of several directors who were knowledgeable of the area.

Road blocks stop Van Dedem

Van Dedem realized that the debt-load could present problems in the future. A decision was made to unload some property through a public sale of peat plots, tied to a draw. However, he needed cooperation from the banking-firm which withheld its approval of the scheme. Attempts were then made to obtain low-interest loans from a public development corporation in Brussels (then part of the Netherlands), but these fell through too. Van Dedem also tried to sell the canal to the government, but found that although the King supported the proposal - a certain replacement value already had been established - department heads, perhaps sensing Van Dedem's distressing position, generously offered less than half of the agreed value, which was declined.

In his memoirs, Van Dedem recounted how 'Utrecht' - the banking firm - thwarted a new financing arrangement which was based on an independent assessment. By 1825, another attempt was made to put the project on a solid footing through the establishment of a limited company with a broad-based ownership. Although 1,400 individuals had each subscribed for a share of f 1,000, the deal nevertheless collapsed due to certain people who, who according to Van Dedem, successfully frustrated the process. Van Dedem and his family eventually sold the canal for less than half its value to the crown, for f 390,000, and additionally borrowed almost f 300,000 from King Willem I. This deal enabled them to retire the debt with the bankers of Utrecht.

Once again owner of canal

The enormous loss incurred through the sale of the canal did not sit well with Van Dedem, who soon sought a way to get his waterway back. In 1828, an opportunity availed itself when Van Dedem - his holdings without the canal now evaluated at f 2,600,000 - was able to raise f 1,500,000 from the very same bankers in Utrecht, again with supervision by bank-appointed directors. Two of these, Van Nes and Van Sonsbeek subsequently purchased large peat bog holdings in the 'marke' Lutten, an area further east toward the border with the German states. Van Dedem labelled this purchase partially speculation since the purchasers anticipated that the canal was going to be extended, which indeed was the plan.

What exactly made Van Dedem's enterprise fail is not quite clear from his 1834 memoirs. In them, he referred to a conflict of interest, stating directors appropriated company funds for personal dealings. He also mentioned the fact that 'Utrecht,' as per agreement, held back a part of the loan (perhaps earmarked for a specific purpose?). It very much sounded like an accusation of some sort of collusion between certain parties who were close to Van Dedem.

At this point, Van Dedem involved the legal system by serving notice to a manager, a Mr. A. Brink, who was in charge of collecting toll at the Lichtmis (near Rouveen), not to take orders from anyone but himself. Banker Kol took ill of this notice, and served a notice of his own, that Mr. Brink was to - in effect - only report to Mr. Van Sonsbeek, who was responsible to Mr. J. Heere, by then a partner in Mr. Van Dedem's project. The directors, appointed at the time of the refinancing, next obtained a court order which in effect ousted Van Dedem from his and his family's holdings! The move was followed with an announcement to that effect in the Overijsselsche Courant.

Financial ruin

Van Dedem struck back pubicly by writing a letter to the daily in Zwolle, in which he pointed to a mutually agreed upon clause in his contract with fellow-directors to refer any disagreements between them to an arbiter, and defended his position by pointing to his life-long dedication to the project. The contents of the letter may have been somewhat beside the point, since the issue was not a disagreement, but the financial health of the project. If there was a conflict of interest within the group of directors, one wonders why that did not become a public issue.

Van Dedem was quite powerless to do anything about his plight. The trustees proceeded to liquidate Van Dedem's long list of personal assets, and applied the proceeds against the debt of his company. Strangely, only personal holdings were auctioned off initially. That Van Dedem had ruffled some feathers over the years is quite certain, perhaps this is the reason why the liquidators pursued the matter in the way they did, appearing to be almost vengeful. At one point, they were publicly reprimanded when they advertised the auction of property which Van Dedem owned jointly with J. Heere, which was not part of the to be liquidated holdings.

Legacy established

The auctions took place during the summer of 1834, during a time when the conflict with secessionist Southern Netherlands put a great strain on the economy. Baron van Dedem experienced the full brunt of this general malaise. It left him a disillusioned man, who lived out his days at the Rollecate, an estate near Den Hulst, a stones throw away from his canal, where he could watch canal traffic going by. Ironically, the canal was later purchased by the Province of Overijssel, retiring some of the debt but leaving the banking house with a substantial shortfall.

Van Dedem's wife Judith died early in 1840. She was buried in the St. Michael's (Grote Kerk) Church in Zwolle. Eleven years later, Van Dedem died at the age of 75. His remains were buried in a cemetery near the town of Dedemsvaart. Van Dedem's only son who served as Mayor of Avereest, moved to the Rollecate. When years later Van Dedem's only grandson died without offspring, this branch of the family ceased to exist. A part of Van Dedem's legacy, the canal, became redundant when road traffic took over from canal freight. The canal literally made 'way' for a highway during the 1970s. However, the town of Dedemsvaart continues to thrive, and serves today the descendants of those who claimed it from nature with little more than their bare hands.

Among those toiling on newly cultivated land in Van Dedems project from the 1850s onward, were most of my paternal ancestors: the Van der Heides, the Michels, the De Vries', the Boenders, their in-law families, and their friends.