This section describes the sweeping landscape of Groningen. However, East Groningen also has other features. In contrast to the sweeping sea-clay and dike landscapes, which are so characteristic of the Oldambt and the open peat lands, Westerwolde offers the seclusion of the ancient Saxon settlements, vast forests and heaths. The economic structure in the area demonstrates that at present service and industrial businesses are the core industries. Owing to its geographic location, between the urban conglomerate comprising Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, and Germany and Scandinavia, and bearing in mind German unification and the recent development in eastern Europe, East Groningen could literally and figuratively become the link between East and West. East Groningen consists of three characteristic regions that are distinctly different from each other, Oldambt, the peat lands and Westerwolde. The differences in the landscapes of these areas were determined thousands of years ago. Because of the fact that temperatures rose and the climate became wetter, high peat bogs started to form in the lower basins along the present Dutch border from approximately 5000 BC. However, the rising temperature also caused the sea level to rise, so that about 3000 years ago large parts of Groningen were flooded. Only the high sandy ridges, including Westerwolde, and high peaty areas more to the west, were not flooded. Once the sea level stabilized somewhat, large sea-clay deposits developed as a result of the influence of the tides. These can still be seen today in the Oldambt.

Westerwolde Ter Borg

The most Southern part of East Groningen, Westerwolde, is rather more secluded than the two areas described above. This densely forested region comprises large areas of Bellingwedde and Vlagtwedde municipal areas. It is probable that this is where the oldest permanent settlements of the province of Groningen developed.
Archaeological finds in Westerwolde date back to 5000 BC. The first inhabitants settled on the higher ground in the valleys of the Mussel-A and Ruiten-A. As the population increased, new settlements developed on the sandy ridges - or tongues -, which extended far into the peat bogs. In the second half of the Middle Ages, these settlements acquired the characteristic shape of the Saxon villages, still reflected in the charming hamlets Smeerling and Ter Borg. In 1619, the City of Groningen bought the Westerwolde domain for 140.000 guilders (€ 63.300). The City's hegemony would only end in Napoleonic times. Both Bellingwedde and Vlagtwedde have the suffix 'wedde', which means a fordable place. The names are a reminder of the time when most of East Groningen consisted of the Bourtanger Peat Bog, an impenetrable marsh with only a few fordable sites. These sites were of great strategic significance. The fortresses at Oudeschans and Bourtange are reminders of their military past. Another joint feature of both municipal areas is the forest. However, there is one major difference. In Bellingwedde one finds the stately Oldambt farmhouses, while Vlagtwedde is characterized by the more subdued Saxon communities.

The Oldambt 

The northern-most part of East Groningen, the Oldambt, comprises the municipal areas of Scheemda, Reiderland and Winschoten. This area is characterized by the sea-clay and dike landscape that took centuries to form. Once the sea level no longer rose as fast, salt marshes started to develop, which were not flooded during normal high tides. Around 1250, the first dikes were built to protect the Groningen sea-clay area. However, by the 14th century it was already obvious that these sea defences provided inadequate protection. The former Reiderland was flooded then, and via the Dollard, the sea once again had a free rein in the northeastern part of the province. Therefore, in the 15th century, the City of Groningen initiated the reclamation of the Dollard. In 1924 the last of these Dollard polders, the Carel Coenraad polder, was drained. The three municipal districts that form the Oldambt are characterized by a number of distinct mutual differences. Winschoten, located on the border between the sand and the clay areas, developed on a natural elevation in the landscape. This is one of the reasons why the windmills that are one of Winschoten’s special features, are visible from afar. Then again, the villages that are part of the Reiderland municipal district are mostly located in the low-lying sea-clay areas, which were regularly at the mercy of the sea. The Scheemda municipal district is a bit of both. On the one hand, there are the low-lying marshes around Heiligerlee, which formed the backdrop to the famous battle in 1568. On the other hand, like Winschoten, the town of Scheemda developed on a natural elevation, that protected the town from the floods in the early Middle Ages.

The Peatlands 

The history of the peatlands is thoroughly entwined with the development of the peat bogs. The area consists of parts of Menterwolde, Veendam, Pekela and Stadskanaal. Already by the early Middle Ages, peat was being cut by the inhabitants of the peripheral settlements and the monks in the nearby monasteries. However, the large-scale manner in which the City of Groningen and a number of private individuals set about draining the land was completely new. As a result of the reclamation the characteristic, almost rectangular plots of land were laid out, dissected by almost perfectly straight canals, which were used to drain the land and transport the peat to the new industrial areas, including the Low Countries in the south. Urban manure was used to fertilize the soil, mainly formed after the reclamation, which together with the availability of fuel, led to the development of two important agricultural sectors in the peatlands, the strawboard and potato-starch industries. Although most of the original settlements are no longer inhabited, the peatlands are still the centre of the modern solid cardboard and potato-starch derivatives industries. All the municipal areas that form the East Groningen Peatlands are characterized by the ribbon-shaped cultivation of the land. However, in the course of time a number of significant differences made their appearance. Pekela for instance, redesigned its peatland past by the reconstruction of the Pekeler Hoofddiep. The traditional elements were retained, but given a modern allure. The City of Groningen became highly involved in reclaiming all the Eastern Groningen Peatlands. Nowhere else is this demonstrated so clearly as in the name given to the Stadskanaal municipal district - The City Canal. This area was excavated from the canal constructed by the City, the Stadskanaal. In the Veendam municipal district, the traces of the double-canal reclamation method are still clearly visible in the centres of Veendam and Wildervank. Finally, the municipality of Menterwolde, which is not quite part of the Peatlands. The Munte or Mente brook, was used for the reclamation of the peat-bogs around Muntendam. The suffix 'wolde' (wood), refers to the forested past of the sandy soil in this area.

The Border




Bourtange Part of the border

Back to the 18th century. Bourtange can be reached by boat along the Ruiten AAkanaal and the Bourtangekanaal. Bourtange was established as a fortress in the 16th century on a pass (tongue) through the moorland marshes leading to Germany. Here too the disappearing fens have been turned into arable land. As a result, Bourtange lost its significance as a fortress and was dismantled. Over the past decades, the bulwark has been reconstructed to resemble the situation as it was in the 18th century.


Back to page one