04 Traditional methods of peat extraction
Peat cutting/ Listening station
Hard work - scanty rewards
Farmers began cutting peat by hand around Lake Steinhude in the mid 18th century. They were each allocated a plot of land from which they cut the peat, and which they used for arable farming. They had no claim to owning the land. A bailiff regulated and supervised the peat cutting in the name of the state, whose interest was to develop the land for agricultural purposes and build roads.
Living conditions were scant. The first settlers lived in an isolated fashion in simple huts and initial returns from their agricultural labour were meagre. Conditions only improved with the gradual mechanisation of labour around the end of the 19th century.
Farmers initially dug out peat to fuel their own homes, but later it was also sent to Hanover, a city that was growing fast.
Listening station: Memories of Hedwig Braun
In reality it was nothing but torture…
Piling up peat sods, milking the cows before school, baking bread and washing the laundry – Hedwig Braun (1912-2009), the daughter of a bog farmer, endured the hard work and scanty wages in the Moordorf bog colony. Here she looks back on her childhood.
My father spent most of the time between spring and autumn in the bog. I can’t tell you how much had to be done before the peat was ready to be sold! When we dug it out in spring the first thing we had to do was to remove the peat moss, cotton grass and heather that had grown on the peat. We had to make slits in the layers of peat and undercut it bit by bit. The bits and pieces were then thrown into the bog pool that had been created from the last dig. After that, starting at the top scraw, my father (the “cutter”), cut out the rows of sods, first crosswise and then longwise. Then he climbed into the pond and cut free the first sods with a spade. In this way he worked downwards layer by layer until he had cut out hundreds of thousands of sods. This took several weeks. The sods were then shovelled onto a wheelbarrow and taken to the dam. The dam was a part of the bog that had been left as it was, and all around it to the right and left were bog ponds. The sods were then piled up in small piles on the dam because this made it easier for the wind to blow through. […] After three or four weeks, depending on the weather, we had to pile up the sods up once again. This time the ones at the bottom were piled on the top. After roughly four weeks the whole procedure was repeated.
There was always plenty to do and I was also needed for the work at home. I was only six years old and when I came back from school at noon my mum was already standing at the front door with a pot in her hand. Then I had to take the lunch to my father on the bog. Lunchtime was not exactly fun. You could almost count the amount of food on your fingers: home-grown beans and root vegetables, peas and root vegetables, turnips or cabbage mostly boiled up with a few pork rinds. There was no money to buy fresh meat. The bread for breakfast was all the more tasty with ham or smoked sausage. Normally there were no such tasty delicacies, only during the time when father had to work particularly hard. Sometimes there were a few leftovers for me after the breakfast break. They were called “rabbits’ butter” and I thought they tasted delicious.
Most of the time I waded around the bog ponds a bit – after May we ran around barefoot and only wore shoes on Sundays – but then I had to return home quickly to look after the cows in the afternoon. On my way home I walked over the bog through creeping pine, heather and wool grass, past bog ponds with sundew, observing the many butterflies colouring the air. At that time there were still a lot of bird species in the bog. I used to listen to the mournful cries of the curlew and had to be careful not to tread on the lapwings’ eggs. Even when I was a bit late I used to keep my eyes skinned to see if the blueberries were ripe, for my parents had no money to buy fruit..
Once I got home the cows were untied and I moved them into the woods for we didn’t have enough grazing land. […]
I was only allowed to do my homework after the evening meal, or in the mornings before school. But even in the mornings there were things I had to do. At the age of eight I was already sitting on a stool milking cows before school began. […]
People in the countryside wore wooden clogs right into the 20th century. They were relatively cheap to make and waterproof. Even the workhorses were given wide wooden horse shoes to help them get a better grip in the bog.
The turf spade
This was the most important tool for the peat cutters. It was sharp on both sides in order to cut into and cut out the sods of peat. The forged knee is a regional speciality.
The turf sod shovel
Turf sod shovel
This shovel was used to lift the cut out sods onto the peat dam. The frugal use of iron probably indicates that this was an early model.
Many tools were hand-made specially for cutting peat. This tool was probably used to break up pieces of wood in the peat. Peat saws are often used for this purpose.
Comparing peat sods
Like a sponge
Peat sucks up water like a sponge. Peat moss can absorb twenty times its weight in water. This can be easily felt if we compare wet and dry sods. Peat farmers were only too conscious of the fact. Working in the cool, wet bogs was highly strenuous. Before cutting out and piling up the sods they had to remove the top layer of vegetation and cut drainage ditches through the bog.