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Bogna Lipińska

The Institute of Rural Planning and Architecture, Department of Architecture, University of Technology, Gdańsk

Kniewskie Błota and Karwieńskie Błota: contemporary transformation of the "olęder" villages

In this paper, I will describe two curiously located Olęder villages and their interesting and recently even dramatic history.
These are two villages situated in the coastal belt along the northern section of Pomorski Voivodeship: Kniewskie Błota or Kniewo and Karwieńskie Błota.
The first of these villages is located in a charming valley of the Reda river, approximately 8 km south of the Żarnowiecki lake. The village is included in the Obszaru Chronionego Krajobrazu Pradoliny Łeby-Redy (Area of Protected Landscape of the Łeba-Reda Proglacial Valley). The second village, Karwieńskie Błota is located on the open sea coast, ca. 5 km from a well known historic village of Żarnowiec Its area includes a fragment of the famous coastal marshes - an area of a unique natural interest. The area of the coastal marshes includes splendid natural features that have a status of a nature reserve, for example, "Bielawskie Błota (marshes)" or "Piaśnickie Łąki (meadows)". The marshy area of "Karwieńskie Błota" was drained by Olęders, who later established a settlement in its place. Uninhabited meadows, pastures, and preserved natural fragments of the marshy areas stretch to the west and east of the village. Both these areas and the village of Karwieńskie Błota itself are within the boundaries of the Nadmorski Park Krajobrazowy (Coastal Landscape Park).

Historic outline

Kniewskie Błota

The first mention of the village dates from 1400; at the time the village was called Kniewo. This confirms that the area was colonized very early. The name of the village Knifen or Neuenwerder was noted in 1407 and bears testimony to the fact that colonization of this area was associated with constant struggle with the marshy land . The second name refers to "new" meadows, that is, probably to an area which was at least partially drained and developed into grassland. Year 1678 is another important date from the village history. The date coincides with olęder migration and marks their first recorded appearance in the Kniewo region and foundation of a settlement according to the newcomers' custom. At the time, the village was called Kniewskie Błoto . The village had a Polish name due to the fact that in that period, a family with Kashubian and Pomeranian roots, Wejher owned the greatest land estate and at the same time was the initiator of colonization of new areas. Name Kniewskie Błoto (Kniewski Marshes) also confirms the fact that the area was still waterlogged or neglected (at the time, part of the land was "empty") and was not suitable for settlement without the knowledge of drainage and melioration techniques. The Olęder immigrants re-develop the settlement; a large part of its layout, buildings, plots, and fields have survived to the present day. The Olęders, who called themselves "free people" were granted 28 włókas of land under a contract from 1599 prepared by the Pucki starost, Jan Wejher. In accordance with the contract the Olęders were exempt from taxes for 60 years. In 1600, the privilege was confirmed by Zygmunt III Then, according to the sources, the settlers "wheedled" a tax exemption for another 100 years out of the king Jan III. The sources also mention that: "(...) mostly, they settled in marshy, muddy, and peaty areas that are not suitable for planting grain, hay harvesting, or grazing; they are in serious debt (...)" So, apparently the Olęders did not have easy living conditions either and built their wealth slowly. Nonetheless, in the mid 17th century they erected a small church dedicated to Mary Magdalene, which fell into decline after the Reformation, when the residents became Lutherans. In 1684, only a wall remained after the church and the church grounds were ploughed (?).
At the end of the 19th century, the village had 13 farmers (gbur in Kashubian language) and the surface area of the farmland equalled 63 włókas. This state of affairs lasted until WWII.
After the war, the village remained in private hands and was not transformed into a state farm. Due to the fact that some of the pre-war residents were of German origin, some homesteads passed to different hands, mostly to farmers from the village's immediate vicinity. Some farmers, however, remained. In this borderland area, people with two nationalities who describe themselves as "locals" are common and for them the "small homeland" is more important than the larger one.
In recent years, the character of village buildings has undergone substantial transformation. The field layout, however, is well preserved and the historic village plan is still visible in spite of the changes of the ownership status (merges, sales, purchases, as well as fallowing a part of former fields).

Karwieńskie Błota

As opposed to Kniewskie Błota, the village of Karwieńskie Błota was not founded until the end of the 16th century. Until that time, the area of coastal marshes was uninhabited. Only in 1599, the Puck starost Jakub Wejher measured out 55 włókas of land and allocated them for development. The task was given to 7 families that came from the Netherlands, that is, Olęders. Maintaining the causeway (called Dünewladung) was among duties of the residents of Karwieńskie Błota, which was located right on the sea. Similarly to the residents of Kniewskie Błota, the colonizers of Karwieńskie Błota were free individuals; they could sell the land, and after the owner's death, the property was inherited by their heirs. The following names of the first settlers from 1601 were recorded : Maciej Giessen (the village leader), Bardin, Wrent, Conwent, Kaspar, Wiebent, Daniel Neufeld, Hans Westerwig, and Dawid Haddis. They were of Calvinist denomination (?). As early as 1604, they established a school for their children with their own means. According to the sources, the Olęder settlers kept arriving in the settlement. In 1666, the new settlement was ravaged by a flood, which, as it was recorded, did not come from the sea, but was caused the Struga Karwieńska river (present-day the Karwianka), which overflowed wreaking havoc on the fields, meadows and in homesteads. Apparently the first flood control devices of the time did not serve its purpose. However, since then a flood of such a scale have not occurred; the village experienced only minor overflows, which were appropriately dealt with.
At the end of the 19th century, the residents of Karwieńskie Błota earned their living from raising animals (primarily horses and dairy cattle) and partially from deep sea fishing. An interesting fact is that already at that time (ca. 1880), Karwieńskie Błota was known as a resort and a tourist village, where visitors enjoyed bathing in the sea. This fact is also confirmed by a little book in two volumes "Karwenbruch an der Ostsee", which was published in 1939 and could be described as a historical and tourist guide to the village and its surroundings. Disregarding extremely nationalistic comments, the publication provides interesting information about the farming style in the old Olęder settlement, which was quite unique in this region. Even then, the cultural otherness of the village did not go unnoticed and was reflected in this popular publication. Among other illustrations, the book included drawings of an Olęder homestead, a section of draining canal system (filled with water) protecting the fertile meadows, facial types of farmers and other village residents (described as a "German landlord" and a German landlady", etc.), symbols of individual Olęder farmers, a gravestone from the old Mennonite cemetery, and other curiosities associated with the Olęder culture. The book also included dramatic photographs of a major flood that was caused by the sea in 1914. The text also contains a very extensive outline of the village history with names of all first settlers, who are clearly described as "holandry". So we can see that even before WWII, the village of Karwieńskie Błota fascinated visitors with its uniqueness and was highly valued for its historic and ethnographic features.
After the war the ownership structure of the village was of two types. The individual farms did survived partially, but at the same time, due to the fact that the village was almost entirely abandoned by its former residents, the government created a state farm. The private farmers also belonged to a cooperative and thus acting in good faith they were trying to recover after the war and a period of a general neglect. Maintaining the general field layout, farmers modernized the drainage and irrigation systems and replaced the windmills-pumps with steam and later electrical pumps. Due to a very appealing location (on the seacoast), the village also began to attract tourists. Initially, the residents rented rooms to summer visitors, but recently a full scale terrain development for summer housing has begun.

Landscape analysis - layout and composition

Both Kniewskie Błota and Karwieńskie Błota have a linear layout (rzędówka bagienna). In this layout, homesteads are situated on both sides of one long, main village road (ca. 3 km in Karwieńskie Błota) apart from each other. The homesteads were located - it is still partially visible - on artificial rises called terpy. This arrangement protected the buildings against minor floods, especially against rising water in springtime. The homestead was separated from the main road by a deep ditch, which stretched along the entire length of the road. Therefore each driveway that led to the buildings had a bridge. The garden section of a plot included an orchard, a vegetable garden, and often a small potato field, whose produce was indented for every day household use. An accentuated spatial detachment of each homestead was a characteristic element of the village layout. The homesteads were separated not only by draining canals, but also by hedges and rows of osiers and alders. This regular, geometric spatial layout very clearly arranged the visual image of the village. The layout made an impression of a superb spatial order and seemed well organized, neat, and reasonable.
Most probably, the oldest homesteads in both villages were of the "long" type, that is, they included single buildings with farming, residential, and storing sections under a common roof. Parts of these buildings have survived, especially in Karwieńskie Błota. In comparison to the buildings that can be found in Żuławy Wiślane, the buildings in both villages were less impressive. Originally, the buildings had thatched roofs; one such example survived until 1998 in Karwieńskie Błota. More recently, starting at the beginning of the 19th century, the majority of roofs were covered with a more durable material, that is, ceramic tiles.
The field layout, which constitutes an integral element of all historic villages, is particularly well preserved in the village of Karwieńskie Błota. The arrangement has an ideally regular geometric layout and its clear rectangular shapes can be traced in archival cartographic materials reaching back to the Schröetter map from 1796. This layout was partially modernized in 1950s, but the distance between the main draining canals retained the Olęder measure (Olęder łan). The field arrangement and geometry are easily detectable even today. In Kniewskie Błota, however, the layout is not so regular due to the fact that the village is parallel to the meanders of the Reda river. The main village road also follows the course of the river. Rows of trees planted along the road have also survived in Kniewskie Błota. The trees accentuate the general layout in the surrounding landscape.

Two ways of "development"- contemporary shaping of historical landscape in f the Olęder village

As mentioned in the historic outline section, distinct fates befell these two villages and the direction of their transformation is also different.
Currently, the village of Kniewskie Błota is a typical example of a declining agricultural village, where the building structures are rapidly being replaced. New houses and farming buildings are being erected. For the most part, their architecture is unremarkable and builders use cheap methods, on the brink of crudeness. The old buildings deteriorate and are being demolished, while the plan of new buildings does not follow the traditional layout of a homestead. The modern living and farming requirements effectively eliminate the examples of the old single-building Olęder homesteads. The small hillocks, terpy are treated similarly because in the opinion of the contemporary residents they are unnecessary; they are used as rubbish and rubble dumps and new detached residential buildings are erected in different place. Homesteads have changed their function and are being overdeveloped due to the fact that children of farmers usually erect their houses within the same plot because it is easy to obtain a building permit for one's own residential plot.
However, as a whole, the village has preserved the character of a farming settlement set in the harmonious agricultural surroundings with detectable and well preserved historic panorama. The Kniewskie Błota village road, which is exceptionally long for a linear Olęder village, delights the visitor with its unique meanders, which weave in parallel to the Reda river. Well preserved rows of trees along the road create a remarkable feature among open fields and pastures surrounding the village.

The village of Karwieńskie Błota has been valued for its historical features for a long time. The village has also been under protection of the conservation agency, but currently, it has become a drastic example of an inability to enforce the law and also an example of powerlessness of conservation agencies, local government, and all who understand the unique value of a macro scale historical landscape. Unlike Kniewskie Błota, the location of Karwieńskie Błota sparked tremendous interest in adapting the village to the tourist and recreational functions. The village is located on the coast of the open sea and has become a popular summer destination. The economic transformation of the recent years was responsible for increased freedom in property (not only private) trading. In the case of Karwieńskie Błota, we can conclude that this freedom assumed a form of a dramatic anarchy. Rolnicza Spółdzielnia Produkcyjna (Agricultural Production Cooperative), whose acreage includes almost 50% of the historical Olęder farmland, decided to sell its meadows in order to temporarily avoid bankruptcy. As a result of the current regulations, which allow the owner to parcel out the land in any way, 3000 recreational plots have been sectioned off on the historic fields; their classification remained unchanged (grassland, farmland). The cooperative sold the land in spite of a clear provision recorded in the local land development plan that prohibits any construction on the historic Olęder farmland. This condition was made by the historic site conservation agency; it was included in the plan and confirmed. However, the efforts to reclassify the land as residential plots immediately began as soon as the sales were completed; the new owners began to erect "garden houses", "toolsheds", trailers etc. Admittedly, the local government being aware of the cultural value of Karwieńskie Błota strictly enforces all provisions of the current plan and tries to check the rapid construction of substandard buildings with administrative means (construction supervision). In 1997, the village of Karwieńskie Błota with its historical farmland was included in the Nadmorski Park Krajobrazowy by the Gdańsk voivode's order. It would seem that the classification of the area as a region of high cultural and natural value would provide another strong protection. Unfortunately, the new owners of the plots persist in their efforts to abolish the laws that protect the landscape and architecture in the area. At this point, I would like to mention another result of this situation. The areas around Karwieńskie Błota also enjoy the advantages of the coastal location. These lands include drained meadows, which in the opinion of numerous visitors, especially from the country's interior, are also well suited for development as recreational plots, as in the case of Karwieńskie Błota. Recently, a new problem appeared in the area, that is, profiteering in land. Individual farmers and other landowners, including bankrupt agricultural cooperatives, sell the land to developers, who subsequently offer the plots to other buyers. This time the number of plots for sale equals 7 000! The parcelled land stretch east and west of Karwieńskie Błota and include the most beautiful open areas of the former coastal "marshes". The local government understands that this project will initiate an environmental and landscape catastrophe and ruin the district finances because the government will be required to provide infrastructure for the new non-agricultural plots. Currently, a new land development plan is being drawn up. The plan includes numerous provisions that will help to protect the region; however, its approval largely depends on the local residents, who still see only the benefits of the activation of the neighboring villages and a chance for an additional seasonal income.


In the case of the preserved, historical, macro-scale landscape of Kniewskie Błota, it is imperative that we prepare detailed conservation guidelines for the future plans of land development. The village of Kniewskie Błota should be granted a status of culturally protected area as part of the program, which defines conditions and directions of district development. Furthermore, a motion should be put forward to include the village as a whole in the local land development plan. The future plan should contain provisions that regulate the spatial forms of homesteads, their spatial interrelations (the village layout) and guidelines for the type and form of buildings. Any other possibility of the land development, which would include only a section of the village, for example, a project that would address partial and temporary investment needs, poses a threat to the remains of the historical landscape.
An optimal utilization of space in rural settlements in times when their agricultural function disappear is another noteworthy issue. However, the functions of Kniewskie Błota are difficult to restructure. Paradoxically, maybe that is the reason why this village escaped a major landscape deformation. The site was not suitable for a wholesale outlet, a small factory, or development of tourist industry. However, future prospects of Kniewskie Błota and similar settlements should be taken under consideration. Regarding the village of Kniewskie Błota, its proximity to the Żarnowieckie lake is quite advantageous. It is a large lake with a considerable recreational potential. Perhaps, the village should be transformed into a unique summer village with a specific character of a historical Olędrer village. It could have a form of an open air museum where the entire rural area would be based on the characteristic Olęder forms of farming, which would be reconstructed with utmost accuracy.

Unfortunately, the situation in Karwieńskie Błota is typical for an impoverished rural community whose members are unwilling to wait for proper organization of the recreational and tourist objectives, which would require an investment of considerable amount of money but would bring stable revenue. The results of the recent transformations provide a good example for problems that threaten many historical landscapes in our country. Perhaps, this example is particularly disturbing because the authorities responsible for protection of cultural and natural sites fully fulfilled their duties. This situation, however, illustrates the lack of understanding of certain higher values by local communities and people, who would like take advantage of these values and prevent others from doing so. Currently, it seems that finding a reasonable solution of the problem is impossible. A joint campaign initiated by the local government and conservation agencies aims at enforcing the removal of illegal (permanent) buildings and reinstating the initial state (only land parcelling). Further action and preparation of a land development plan for the rural areas of Karwieńskie Błota depend on the result of this campaign. However, even when the landscape is in satisfactory condition (buildings are removed), it will be difficult to design a developmental plan that, on one hand, would effectively protect the Olęder landscape, and on the other hand make construction of recreational buildings possible due to the fact that there are thousands of owners.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest one of possible solution of similar problems. In the case when the conflict of interests is so drastic and problems so complex it seems feasible that the state should purchase certain areas, buildings, or building complexes, which are particularly important for preservation of our cultural heritage. This policy has been practiced in Poland in relation to the natural areas, for example, natural sanctuaries. As for larger acreages, this policy is enacted by developed countries. Purchased land is subsequently maintained with the help of volunteers (e.g. renovation and reconstruction of dilapidated walls on old fields of abandoned English farms in order to preserve the landscape characteristic of certain regions of England). The village of Karwieńskie Błota as a whole (!) was a subject of interest of a foreign investor, who perceived the historical landscape as a perfect material for a full reconstruction of an old Olęder village and creation of a unique tourist and recreation resort. However, the legal aspects of this solution were too uncertain.
It seems that increasing social awareness towards cultural achievements improves the odds on the success in preserving our cultural landscape.


1. Baranowski I., Wsie holenderskie na ziemiach polskich, [in:] Przegląd historyczny, Vol. 19, B. 1, Warszawa 1915;
2. Dzieje Pomorza Nadwiślańskiego od VII wieku do 1945 roku, joint pub., Wyd. Morskie Gdańsk 1978;
3. Lipińska B., Ochrona historycznego krajobrazu wiejskiego a jego przekształcenia funkcjonalne, [w:] Kierunki planowania przestrzennego i architektory współczesnej wsi - problemy przebudowy i modernizacji istniejących struktur na obszarach wiejskich, Conference Mat. of the VI Konferencji Naukowej Wydziału Architektury Politechniki Białostockiej, Białystok 1994 r;
4. Lipińska B., Marsz A., Medowski T., Charakterystyka przyrodniczo-kulturowa krajobrazu zlewni rzeki Karwianki, [in:] Ekologia rejonów lądowych, przybrzeżnych i morskich Bałtyku - ochrona i kształtowanie, mat. konferencyjne, część 2 - Środowisko lądowe, Gdańsk 1993;
5. Lück K., Lattermann A., Unsere Heimat. Karwenbruch an der Ostsee (Karwieńskie Błoto) - Wirtschaft und Volksulturkunde, Poznań 1939;
6. Medowski T., Środowisko kulturowe - studia wdrożeniaowe na przykładzie wsi "olęderskiej" Karwieńskie Błota w gminie Krokowa, [w:] Zeszyty Syntezy Kulturowych Wartości Przestrzeni Państwa Polskiego, ROSiOŚK w Gdańsku, Gdańsk 1991;
7. Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i Ziem historycznie z nim związanych, Vol. III and IV, Warszawa 1882;

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