Of cultural value
People have already been living in the Kop van Drenthe since the early Middle Ages. You will still find silent witnesses of this in several places, such as the burial mounds on the Noordsche Veld and the dolmen of Steenbergen.
As in the rest of Drenthe, the people mainly led an agrarian existence. Here, you can still find pleasant ‘brinkdorpen' (village greens) with old farms and small-scale hamlets. The region south of the city of Groningen was actually very popular among the old nobility of Groningen as well as the wealthy families from the region. Over the course of the centuries, they built beautiful homes, farms, and townhouses here.
The socio-historical value of the Kop van Drenthe is also reflected in the centuries-old churches: the Catharina church in Roden, the Margaretha church in Norg, the Koepel church in Veenhuizen, and the Dorpskerk (Village Church) in Peize. Expert guides give tours during opening hours. There are also four mills here: mills De Noordenveld and De Hoop in Norg, the Paiser Meul in Peize, and corn and oil mill Woldzigt in Roderwolde. The Nationaal Graanmuseum (National Grain Museum) is housed in the latter. The Meulenkaomer, a pleasant thrift shop with its own products, is housed in the western servant room. All mills are still in use; opening hours and viewing times are listed outside the mills.
For younger visitors, there is the Kindermuseum (Children's Museum) in Roden, where they can indulge in many kinds of toys. However, this is a true experience for adults as well, as old memories come flooding back here. The same is true for the Scheepstra cabinet in Roden, where beautiful memories of one's school days can be recalled. And in Veenhuizen, you can walk from one historical monument to the other. The Gevangenismuseum (Prison Museum) is an experience like no other for all ages. And there is much more to do in this unique (or extraordinary) village. More information on this can be found under the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (Society of Benevolence).
Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (Society of Benevolence)
The area around Veenhuizen and Frederiksoord is inextricably linked to the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid. Here, you can read more about Johannes van den Bosch, a general who founded a number of asylums to ‘raise' the paupers from the cities and the orphans from across the country ‘to independence' through hard work in the peat. In the region - especially around Veenhuizen (and also further away, in Frederiksoord) - there are still visible traces of this interesting history. A reason for the Dutch State to nominate the cultural heritage of the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid as a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Late 18th and early 19th century, things were going badly in the Netherlands. The impact of the French occupation could clearly be felt. After the liberation in 1813, there was little reason for joy. Poverty and unemployment, which severely affected the cities in particular, were widespread. Naturally, many felt serious concerns about the situation. Especially in higher circles, it was feared that the misery would lead to riots and revolution. Therefore, poverty reduction was taken up very seriously.
Johannes van den Bosch, initiator of the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (Society of Benevolence)
For a long time, poverty was mainly addressed at a local level by the diaconal boards of the Reformed Church. The poor received a financial contribution or were supported through benefits in kind in the form of food, and sometimes, in the countryside, they were even given a piece of land on which they could grow vegetables. However, army general Johannes van den Bosch, who had been closely involved in the establishment of the authority of King Willem I between 1813 and 1815, was not convinced that this was the way to effectively combat poverty. The Major-General strongly believed in the beneficial effects of labour and thought that it would be better if those in need learned to provide for themselves. For this purpose, an agricultural colony would have to be founded. The idea was to buy uncultivated lands which could then be exploited and cultivated by the poor city dwellers. ‘In exchange' for that, they received housing, work, education, and care. With the king's consent, Van den Bosch founded the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid on April 1, 1818 to be able to execute his plans.
There was great interest in the initiative. That was no surprise, because 200,000 poor in a population of two million people was a heavy burden. The estate Westerbeeksloot in Southwest Drenthe was purchased, where a trial colony was set up. By the end of 1818, the first 52 poor families moved into the small colony homes. After Frederiksoord, Willemsoord and Wilhelminaoord followed. A total of over 400 homes were built between 1818 and 1824. And schools, factories, and small churches followed soon.
Several years later, the idea of voluntariness was abandoned (out of necessity), and coercive colonies were introduced: Veenhuizen in Drenthe, Ommerschans in Overijssel, and Wortel and Merksplas in Belgium. People who did not fit into the free agricultural colonies, such as beggars and vagrants, were placed here. Vagrancy and begging were prohibited by law, and whoever was arrested was put on a one-way trip to a coercive colony to be re-educated through discipline and punishment to become virtuous citizens.
An asylum for 1,000 to 2,000 beggars was built at fortification Ommerschans. Under the supervision of field guards, they were put to work on the land. Colonists who had proved their suitability in Frederiksoord could gain a place as a free farmer on one of the farms here. A requirement for becoming a free farmer, however, was that they had to repay the debts they had with the Maatschappij with the remittance of their own agricultural yields. Only a few succeeded in doing so.
Coercive colony Veenhuizen was built in a desolate peat bog in 1823. Three asylums were established at a rapid pace. Life was hard there. The asylums were stuffy, cramped buildings that lacked hygiene. Moreover, most colonists had never held a shovel before in their lives, and they did not know the first thing about working on the land. Therefore, it was no surprise that there were many diseases and that the mortality rate was very high.
How it ended
In the beginning, the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid attracted a lot of supporters who generously contributed to the initiative. Hence, a good foundation was set for the establishment of the first colony on the estate Westerbeeksloot. The coercive colonies, however, were less well received and encountered considerable resistance. Moreover, the Maatschappij was faced with all kinds of setbacks. For example, the construction costs turned out to be much higher than originally estimated, and for a number of consecutive years, the harvests were severely disappointing. Although the Maatschappij was financially well-situated initially, the directors were constantly faced with a lack of money, and mid-19th century, the organisation was at the brink of bankruptcy. Additionally, ideas about poverty reduction changed. These were not private initiatives, but the government had to take them up.
In 1859, Veenhuizen and Ommerschans were assigned to the national government (Ministry of the Interior). By that time, Van den Bosch had already passed away. Free colonies Frederiksoord, Willemsoord, and Wilhelminaoord did remain part of the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid. In 1860, the 170 colonists became free farmers.
Fifteen years later, Veenhuizen, as a workhouse a penal institution of the national government, fell under the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. From that moment on, only convicted criminals (that still included vagrants and beggars!) were incarcerated in the asylums. In this period, a complete, almost self-sufficient village for the personnel arose. Arranged in an orderly formation and in accordance with a tight architecture, many service homes, buildings, and workshops were built. Until the eighties of the 20th century, Veenhuizen continued to be a prison village where no outsiders were allowed. There are still penal institutions with over 1,000 inmates.
Magnificent homes, such as manorial farm Mensinge in Roden, but also the stylish farms in Westervelde, characterise the region. And just across the provincial borders, one can find Nienoord castle in Leek and the Lemferdinge estate in Paterswolde. Interesting museums with superb collections and historic interiors are housed in a number of ancient monuments, such as manorial farm Mensinge. Here, exhibitions are organised on a regular basis.
Both the Nienoord Estate and Manorial Farm Mensinge are well worth the visit. But in doing so, you should definitely not skip a visit to the surroundings! Three scenic routes that take you along the estates will lead you through them. Please also refer to our itinerary page for this.