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A brief history of Eeklo

Eeklo (Eecloo before some of the numerous renewed spellings) means Oakley or Oakland, the place of the oaks.  Eeklo, now the capital of our Meetjesland, was an open city in the Middle Ages: no ramparts meant it was regularly attacked and sacked by armies and rebel soldiers.

Eeklo's Grand'Place The center of Eeklo nowadays:
city hall with the church behind it
on Sunday evening, 
12 May 2002.
All is quiet on Eeklo's Time Square.

In 1348 the black death appeared in Europe.  It began in the port of Sluis and infected the whole country.  People everywhere panicked and the churches were full of people praying, fasting and trying to atone for their sins.  Some went further, for instance the Flagellants whipped themselves in public.  They had a lot of followers everywhere in Flanders.  On one of their pilgrimages to Doornik (Tournai) it is said 52 of them came from Eeklo.  They were declared heretics and the abbot of St. Bavo of Ghent was ordered to wipe out the sect.

In the beginning of the 15th Century the City, Freedom and Charter ("de Stede Vryhede ende Keure") of Eeklo had a flourishing cloth industry and it was a prosperous little city.  The cloth of Eeklo was famous as far away as Germany.  This prosperity made it possible for the town council to modernize and improve things: education was subsidized and the guilds revived.  But corruption, squandering and dissension eventually meant decline as they always do.

The Revolt of Ghent against Philip the Good from 1451 to 1453 meant hard times for Eeklo and its church.  This church was only just rebuilt in 1520 when a fire destroyed its spire.  During the religious disturbances and during the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) the church was not spared i.a. by the Calvinist "Geuzen". The word "geus" meant beggar.  Just one of those insults that for some have become titles—of nobility.  (The Flemish "Primitifs" is another example of such an insult, one we're particularly proud of.)  Historians will tell you this war was fought for the independence of the Protestant Netherlands from Catholic Spain.  That may be so but the people of our Meetjesland didn't want the Protestants here any more than they wanted the Spaniards.  On 25 July 1578 the statues and many other ornaments of the church of Eeklo were vandalized.  In 1583 part of the church was once again destroyed by fire and it was not repaired until 1612.  In the winter of 1613-14 Irish soldiers used it as their barracks.
 

  Just outside Eeklo in the Peperstraat (Peper = Pepper) on your way to Bentille.

Alas, this farmhouse and much of the barn behind it have been demolished.

When the family of Matthias Noë (B I) arrived in Eeklo the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) was just about over and the city was in a dreadful state.  The cloth industry had completely disappeared and attempts to revive it failed again and again: the entrepreneurs and the best weavers had left for the Protestant north.

There was not only the regular passage of troops of all kinds but the people were also the victims of epidemics such as plague, typhus, small pox and tutti quanti.  In 1693-94 child mortality was between 30 and 50 percent of total mortality and this was still/again the case in 1783.

Needless to say in those days there were many beggars in Eeklo and industry and commerce stagnated in a deep depression especially when French or Dutch soldiers raided the town.  Wealth is generated by judicious investments.  (To invest is to sow today in the hope of reaping in the not too distant future.  How can you sow if they steal your grain ?  Why would you sow if there is no hope of reaping ?  Is this what's happening still today in too many African countries ?  Is stealing by our government more and more discouraging investors in our own country ?)

Petrus Noë (B IV a) who settled in Eeklo in 1744 was born less than a year after Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (Vienna, 13/5/1717 - Vienna, 29/11/1780) and he lived through her entire reign.  In 1718, the year of his birth, famine ravaged much of Europe as frost killed crops, fruit trees and domestic fowl as far south as the Mediterranian Coast.

In Eeklo like elsewhere during the Austrian period the economy recovered slowly but surely.  The flax and linen industry revived but not the wool trade.  All hope was on agriculture.  Ruined farms were rebuilt, woods were taken care of and land left fallow for years and years was tilled again.  The grain markets came back to life and more commerce meant more taxes for the treasury of the town.  A competent city administration rejected all prestige projects and this too contributed to the revival of Eeklo even though its heydays were past.

Eeklo also during this period became an important educational center thanks to the efforts of the Brothers "Recoletten", a Catholic order.

The church of Eeklo was in a sorry state and signs of the destruction by the Calvinists of a century earlier were still clearly visible everywhere.  Around 1775 the edifice was open to the public even though it was old and weakened.  But it would be another hundred years before a new church was built.

In 1789 Mr Angelus Bernard Van Han came to Eeklo.  He was Eeklo's first printer.  That's well before almost all other Flemish cities of similar size.  In 1827 Angelus was honored by Eeklo's printers, by the Ghent printer Snoeck-Ducaju and C. De Moor from Bruges for his 50 year long experience in the art of printing books.  In 1831 Bernard Van Han, his son born in 1802, joined the business now known as Van Han & Son.  As a bookseller they had Filip Weyn as a competitor.  Wyen's family had been selling books in Eeklo since 1565.  Angelus died in 1840 and his son passed away in 1866.  The source of our information on Eeklo's first printer is a brochure, a reprint of an article in Dutch that first appeared in "Appeltjes van het Meetjesland" (XXII - 1971).  This article is called Angelus Bernard Van Han.  It was written by Dr. P. Rogghé.

And now we've come to the year 1793.  We're in the middle of the murderous French Revolution.  The terrorists themselves have taken control.  In January King Louis XVI was guillotined.  Mary-Antoinette died like him in October with many more to follow including some of those who started it all.  Sometimes justice is perpetrated accidentally.

On 10 July 1794 the French invaded Eeklo and took everything they could lay their hands on, including of course grain, horses and other lifestock.  And when there was practically nothing left to steal they imposed very heavy war taxes.

The population was so impoverished that in desperation even the most virtuous started thieving.  On 1 October 1795 our country was officially annexed and incorporated into France.  Napoleon decided that Eeklo was from now on to be part of the Scheld Department and promoted the city to capital of the district.  It also received a tribunal.

The living standards of the inhabitants of Eeklo gradually improved but alas not for long :  Napoleon's dictatorship came to an end at Waterloo in 1815 and now for better or worse North (now the Netherlands) and South (now Belgium) were reunited into one Kingdom under Willem I of Orange.  Were the Dutch more frugal than the now sulking French ?  In any case they were far less numerous than the French from whose markets our people were now excluded.

In 1866 Eeklo had 5895 illiterate persons out of a population of 9544.  Perhaps these figures are misleading because quite possibly the babies were counted among the illiterates.  It is perhaps more interesting to know that in 1862-63 only 241 candidate soldiers from Eeklo out of 491 had received "tuition" ("onderwijs").  No doubt a lot of those 241 could barely write their name.  (Source: "De Familie De Crop", C. De Crop, in "De Eik" (The Oak), 1984, p. 110)

Eeklo is the city of the famous Rebaker.  Once upon a time this was the place where one could have his head rebaked if one didn't like its shape, looks or contents.  The rebaker cut off the head and replaced it with a cabbage, just for the period of time his work would take.  A special something was rubbed into the head or smeared all over it and then it was put into the oven to be rebaked.
An unusually high percentage of true Eeklonaars consider themselves better looking and more intelligent than most.  Are they still rebaking heads in Eeklo ?

Since way back when every Thursday morning Eeklo sees a very crowded market.  In the archives a document mentions a certain Heindrik Ketelboere who had to pay a city tax on every pig he sold on Eeklo's market place.  That was in 1403.  In its heyday every Thursday up to 2,000 pigs were brought to market here.  The first arrivals started snorting and squealing at 2 in the morning.  In 1975 that same pig market was moved to the slaughterhouse but in fact it was dying out.  Not to worry, the rest of Eeklo's market is as lively as can be.  Every Thursday !

Eeklo saw the birth of quite a few celebrities, such as the painters Jozef Geirnaert, Serafien De Vliegher, Antoon Depoorter and Jacques Louis Godinau.  But Karel Lodewijk Ledeganck is Eeklo's most famous son.

In "Ons Meetjesland" (Our Meetjesland), Number 2, 1978 there is a long article about Vincent Reychler by W. Hamerlynck.  And these few paragraphs about Vincent Reychler come from this article.  Around the year 1880 there appeared the "Savety bycicle".  This was a revolutionary new bike because both its wheels were the same size.  It proved very popular.  About 10 years later a Scottish vet called John Dunlop invented a rubber tube with compressed air in it.  Put on the rim of wheels this tube helped speed things up.  Now cyclo-crossing could quickly become a very popular sport and Vincent "Sente" Reychler was one of the best.  He was born in Eeklo on 14 June 1890, the son of Felix Reychler and Judith Vander Zwalm.

He began to take part in cyclo-crosses in 1908 and won a great many of them.  On 22 April 1914 in Eeklo he married Hortence Cortvriendt who was born there on 1 June 1891.  She was the daughter of Petrus Cortvriendt and Mathilde D'havé.  They had a bicylce shop in the Boelare in Eeklo.  When WW I broke out in 1914 people had other things on their mind and in any case, in those days cyclo-crossing or any sport for that matter, wasn't something one did to get rich.  We don't know whether he tried his hand at another cycle-race after four years of inactivity after 1918.

In 1920 he left with his wife and daughter Alice, who was born in 1916, for Butte, Montana in the U.S.A.  But America was not "bicycle-minded" so Vincent fished and took up hunting.  He died in Butte on 17 November 1970 and his wife Hortence followed him on 1 May 1977.

What we wonder became of his daughter Alice Reychler ?

There is also the brothers Eric and Roger De Vlaeminck.  Eric was born in Eeklo on 23 August 1945.  He was world-champion cyclo-cross 7 times which is an absolute record.  He was also 4 times the Belgian cyclo-cross champion.

But his brother Roger De Vlaeminck, born in Eeklo on 24 August 1947 was one of the greatest professional cyclists in the history of this sport.  For instance he took part in the Paris-Roubaix race fourteen times.  He won it 4 times and never finished worse than seventh.

But Eeklo's most famous son is the poet Karel Lodewijk Ledeganck.

Ledeganck may be Eeklo's most famous son.  But that could change.  There is a persistent rumour handed down from father to son claiming that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria and King of Spain was born here.  Mr. Romano Tondat set out to see if he could find confirmation of this rumour.  And perhaps he discovered an incredible scoop in the city accounts of Eeklo: a certain Mr. Vincent Zoetaert brought the good news of the birth of a son of Joan the Mad, the duchess of Castile.  There are expenses to bring wood to the market place for a huge bonfire (and for this Willem Stevins received 6 shillings, twice what was normally paid for a day's work); there are expenses for a tree-trunk, a support for all that wood; 24 shillings were paid to the 4 persons who lit the fire; 30 shillings for those who tolled the bells (for one or two days?); 12 shillings for musicians; money for candles and torches, for the reception in the city hall and for the small change the burgomaster scattered about.  According to Mr. Tondat there is much more evidence that something exceptional had happenend before the 22nd of February 1500 and that everyone in Eeklo knew.  The mother-to-be had perhaps left Bruges because it was totally unacceptable that this future King should be born in the city that had been his grandfather's prison.  The then insignificant little city of Eeklo (perhaps 2500 inhabitants) was equally unacceptable so as soon as the mother and her newborn were able to travel they quietly went on to Ghent where the great and joyous news was announced on 24 February — at the same time as in Bruges.  Perhaps soon more evidence will be found in other archives and then historians everywhere may have to revise their textbooks and Eeklo will rightfully appear on every world map.  (Much later another much smaller French Emperor would put Waterloo on the map albeit in a very different way.)  Is Prof. Dr. Jan Roegiers of the Catholic University of Leuven one of the first professional historians to start this ball rolling ?

Eeklo is twinned with Bagnols sur Cèze, a beautiful city in the Gard Department in southern France.
In fact the seven cities Eeklo, Bagnols, Newbury (Berkshire in the United Kingdom), Braunfels (Hesse in Germany), Carcaixent (Spain), Feltre (Veneto in northern-Italy) and Kiskunfelegyhaza (Hungary) are all twinned together.  This year Eeklo received the other six.  See here for some pictures of 15 August 2011.  And they're already looking forward to next year, when they hope to see each other again in Feltre.  Isn't that really really marvelous ?

In 2003 Eeklo (including Balgerhoeke) had a population of 19,061 persons.  That had climbed up to 19,535 on the first day of 2006.  Almost 20% are young people and about 20% are at retirement age.

Our sources: we are indebted to Mr. Paul Van de Woestijne for information on Jozef Geirnaert, Serafien De Vliegher, Antoon Depoorter and Jacques Louis Godinau in a very interesting article entitled "Meetjeslandse Schilders in de Memoires of J.B. Lybaert" (Meetjesland Painters in the Memoirs of J.B. Lybaert) and published in the first 2003 issue  of an excellent quarterly publication called "Heemkundige bijdragen uit het Meetjesland" (Regional Contributions from the Meetjesland); "Keizer Karel te Eeklo geboren" (Emperor Charles born in Eeklo) by Mr. Romano Tondat published by the Eeklo city council in 2000 with contributions by Prof. Dr. Jan Roegiers, dr. René Vermeir and Johan Decaevel dr. hist.

On 9 September 2007, Heritage Day in Flanders, we got a chance to go see the Villa Dageraad, now Shamon Hotel in Eeklo.  Here we have a few pictures.

Romano Tondat has written a new book about Eeklo.  It was presented to the public on 15 October 2011 in Eeklo's City Hall.  See here (in Dutch) for more about Het dorp Nieuw Eeklo (The town New Eeklo), this new 500 page work.

A.Z. Alma, is the result of the merger of the Sacred Heart Hospital in Eeklo and the Elisabeth Hospital in Sijsele.  (Sijsele is administratively part of Damme.)  AZ stands for "Algemeen Ziekenhuis"; that means "General Hospital".  They're busy building a totally new hospital just outside the city in a spot that until 2011 was reserved for agriculture.  The new building was supposed to be ready by 2016.  If you want to find out what the new hospital will be like you can click here for a video on YouTube with commentary in Dutch.  And what we wonder are they going to do with the not so old building that houses the current hospital so close to the center of Eeklo ?

More pictures from Eeklo

Pictures inside Eeklo's
Saint-Vincent Church

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Most recent update: 29 January 2014

Aalter
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Donk
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Evergem
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