Already in the Middle Ages, flax was grown in Wevelgem. From the 16th century the flax culture was intensified. The flax was retted in stationary water, as it was forbidden during the Middle Ages to ret flax in the Leie. The bad smell of the retting process was considered to be harmful (as bad smell was linked to diseases) and one wanted to prevent water pollution and fish mortality. In 1850 this ban was lifted, which allowed the flax industry to take a high flight, especially when in the 1860 the cotton prices rose in a spectacular way because of the American Civil War. In the second half of the 19th century there were two separate branches in the flax processing, namely the flax fibre preparation and the processing of the fibre into yarn and linen. Wevelgem - and also the neighbour villages, focused mainly on flax fibre preparation. Wevelgem, was the cradle of the industrial revolution in flax fibre preparation. The industrial revolution in the flax fibre preparation started in Wevelgem, thanks to two brothers Constant (1869-1948) and Joseph Vansteenkiste (1879-1943). They, and in the first place Constant, would from the end of the 19th c systematically modernize the phases and techniques of flax fibre preparation. Constant Vansteenkiste had no scientific or technical education, and when he was 15 years old he had to start working parents' flax business. At that moment there were many complaints about the deterioration of the quality of retted flax. The general opinion was that it had to be to be the pollution that flowed from the North of France through the Deule in the Leie. Constant Vansteenkiste took water samples before, during and after the retting, both in the river, on the river bottom, and at different heights in the root bins ('roothekkens'), and analyzed them. These analyses may have happened in the Institute of Pasteur in nearby Lille (France), where the researcher Philippe Van Tieghem, born North French town Bailleul, identified in 1879 the bacteria Bacillus amylobacter as the one who caused the rapid pectin breakdown of the flax stalk. Vansteenkiste proved that the polluted water did not adversely affect the root process, even the contrary, but that a new type of largely closed root bins was the cause. He continued his research, and was able to determine the effects of the water temperature and the refreshment or flow of the retting water. Before the first world war he was mainly concerned with the hot water retting and built the first artificial retting tanks, after the war - when he had to divert abroad because of his attitude during the war - his emphasis was placed on the development of all kinds of machinery and tools, especially so-called ‘scutching turbines’ who mechanised the previous labour intensive process. the flax farmers and the flax buyers who blamed him to spoil the craft, someone who upset the old habits. Vansteenkiste was definitely an outfit, which not only questioned the old principles, but in the traditional agricultural and flax environment dared to promoted the cooperative ideas and in 1898 even established a first flax cooperative in his native town. In addition, he was pronounced partisan of the Flemish cause, at that time when the leading classes were all French-speaking and the young Flemish Movement put forward the first claims for equal rights. On top of it came his attitude during the First World War, when the German occupier tried to conduct a pro-Flemish politics. During the war, Constant Vansteenkiste was an interpreter at the German Flax Office in Kortrijk. In March 1918, he was appointed to the 'Council of Flanders' by the occupier (until September 26, 1918) to subsequently become a member of 'Beirat' (with the authority of the previous Provincial Governor) of West Flanders. At the end of October, he leaves for the French Motteville (near Rouen) to lead a retting and scutching mill. On July 17, 1920, he was sentenced by default to 20 years of penal servitude for “crimes against the Security of the State”. One month later, he secretly travels through Belgium to the Netherlands, where his official place of residence is Breda, while inn fact he resides in Terheijden. In the Netherlands he meets Johannes Küchenmeister, and leaves for Freiberg (Saxony) (1921), and from there he develops activities in Estonia (1926), Russia (Rzesjov, 1925-1928), Hungary and England. When his wife dies in Germany in July 1928 and is buried in Leipzig, he returns to Flanders, is arrested and detained in the prison of Vorst near Brussels - but soon rehabilitated. Unfortunately all the buildings - the scutching mill and the retting tanks - of the Vansteenkiste company in Wevelgem have been demolished . Nowadays, when following the tow path of the Leie, or when exploring the area between the Leie and the main road Kortrijk-Wevelgem- Menen, one can remark a number of similar buildings. You identify them thanks to the small chimneys they have and the concrete retting tanks. However, they are all private property and many owners do not like curious foreigners nosing around their buildings. If you would like to have a look, please ask politely and identify yourself. The West-Flanders chapter of the Flemish Association for Industrial Archaeology can arrange on appointment a visit to a representative site.
The main building, sanitary house, freight and concrete closure have been protected as historic monument by the Flemish Government on 14 June 2001. It is at ‘type 3 station building built in 1912. The ‘type 3' were the 1900-1914 standard station based on the type 1885-1900. It was erected on the location of an older station by the private company. The station was the starting point for the expansion of the village of Wevelgem and previously had a major regional economic significance through the transport of coal and flax. The hamlet around the station was known as the ‘Vlasmarkt’ (Flax Market) and is characterized by the presence of many flax barns and houses of flax workers and flax merchants.