“We go boating
Go for tea,
We sail to the portage
Drink sweet milk with cream”
– Dutch nursery rhyme
Portage, also called a carry, is a place where boats are carried over the dike from one canal into another. Something, which is quite hard to imagine, till you actually see it.
Broek op Langedijk, literally means the bridge on the long dike. The village, about 50 kms north of Amsterdam, consists of houses built on the dike that was built to protect the land from the vagaries of the North Sea. The region around this is called the “Realm of the Thousand Islands”. In actual fact, the number of islands dotting this area is close to 15,000.
Around the year 1000 AD, the North Holland of today was mainly a peat area dotted with peat rivers. Houses were built on the banks and the surrounding sands were used for agriculture. However, during the 11th century there were several dry summers, which rendered the land unsuitable for agriculture. In the ingenious Dutch way, ditches were dug around the land, resulting in a lot of water ways surrounding numerous islands. The small islands were used for cultivating vegetables and fruits. The proximity to water kept the plots relatively warm even during the cold Dutch winters. The size of the island was determined by what one man could cultivate by hand. The reclamation continued for centuries and ultimately, the “Realm of thousand islands” was born.
Before 1887, the island gardeners sold their vegetables and fruits directly to the boatmen and traders. However, the negotiations took a lot of time. The solution was to set up an auction. On 29 July 1887, the world’s first vegetable auction was held here, at Broek op Langedijk. The auction was first held as an open air auction, but over the years, a jetty was built, then a roof and then an auctioneer’s high chair and thus the auction house slowly evolved.
1903 saw an important development in the evolution of the auction house — the auction clock. Till then the auctions were held orally, and sometimes led to misunderstandings.
And in 1912, the whole auction was moved to the sail-through auction house as we see it now. 1900 wooden piles were sunk into the water and they support the beautiful auction hall. Just outside the auction house are the mooring halls, where the farmers would wait their turn in their vegetable boats. In its heydays, there would be around 100-150 boats waiting on a typical auction day.
When it was their turn, the farmer would sail into the auction house. The auctioneer would then facilitate the auction, Dutch style. Did you know that the Dutch auction, made popular in recent years thanks to the Google IPO, was first started by a trader here in Broek op Langedijk? In the traditional Dutch auction the auctioneer begins with a high asking price, which is lowered until some participant is willing to accept the auctioneer’s price, or a predetermined minimum price is reached.
If you are ever in Broek op Langedijk, you must attend one of the highly entertaining auctions. Admittedly, they are no longer real auctions and is a part of the museum, but the good news is that, now you can pretend to be a trader from the seventeenth century and bid your way to glory.
The auction starts with the auctioneer quoting the minimum price. This shows up on the auction clock face, and steadily starts dropping till one of the buyer indicates his willingness to pay the price by pressing the button in front of him. But be careful what you press for, thanks to my trigger-happy husband, we almost walked away with 65 kilograms of onions. Thankfully, the Dutch auctioneer took pity on us since we did not understand the language, and instead just decided to nickname him the Onion Trader for the rest of the session.
There are many auction houses all over North Holland — Enkhuizen, Grootebroek, Medemblik, Hoogkarspel, Broekerhaven, Opperdoes, Avenhorn, Noord-Scharwoude, Warmenhuizen, Hem and Obdam were all sail-through auctions. But the one at Broek op Langedijk was the first and the last, closing its doors finally in 1973.