Windmills—Reminders of a Bygone Era
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN THE NETHERLANDS
LANDSCAPES painted and etched by Jacob van Ruisdael, Meindert Hobbema, Rembrandt van Rijn, and other Dutch masters of the 17th century often feature windmills—and no wonder! Back then some 10,000 mills dotted the country’s landscape. These picturesque structures, though, did more than just inspire artists. From the early 1400’s to the late 1800’s, they did what diesel and electric engines do today. They provided power needed to pump water, grind grain, saw timber, and perform numerous other industrial tasks. However, unlike today’s engines, windmills generated power without producing pollution.
Setting the Sails
When you visit the Netherlands today, you can still admire those centuries-old structures, although their number has dwindled to about 1,000. Would you like to learn a bit more about them? Come with us as we visit a 350-year-old windmill standing along the scenic Vechte River in central Netherlands.
It is a beautiful spring morning. Jan van Bergeijk, a miller, welcomes us with a cup of steaming hot coffee and tells us that the weather is ideal for putting the mill to work. First, however, the roof of the mill needs to be turned to face the wind. Jan explains how this is done as he steps on the spokes of a wooden wheel that is twice his size. This wheel is connected to the mill’s cap, or roof. By turning the wheel, Jan rotates the cap until it has reached the position where each of the 43-foot-long [13-meter-long] vanes catches the most wind. Then the wheel is chained to the ground so that it will not shift. Next, Jan rolls out a piece of canvas sail and fastens it to the latticework of each vane. After installing a safety chain, Jan releases the brake, the sails catch the wind, and the four vanes slowly begin to turn. For a while we watch in awe as the vanes swoosh by. Then Jan invites us to see the mill’s inner workings.
Taking a Close Look
We scale a steep stairway and arrive in the mill’s cap, where we see a horizontal, or upper, wooden axis, which is attached to the vanes. With the help of wooden wheels with cogs and rods, this axis drives the vertical shaft called the vertical king pivot. We note a piece of white lard hanging nearby. Jan explains that it is used to grease the stone bearings in which the wooden axis is turning. But to grease the oak cogs, he uses beeswax. Here we also see how the speed of the rotating vanes can be slowed down. Around one of the wheels is a string of wooden blocks. When tightened, the blocks act as brakes; when lifted, they recede and allow the vanes to turn.
As we gingerly descend the steep stairway, we get a close look at the main shaft, which runs right through the mill from top to bottom. We smell the scent of aged wood and hear the creak of moving gears. At the foot of the king pivot is another construction of wooden wheels with cogs and rods. This contraption drives a waterwheel. We stop by the turning wheel and listen to the sound of sloshing water and the swoosh of turning sails. It is as if we have traveled back in time. We are impressed and savor the moment.
Living in a Windmill
Some mills, such as gristmills, had no room for living quarters. The mill’s mechanical parts took up all the space. The miller and his family usually lived next door. However, a mill like the one we are touring could double as a home.
Living in a mill may seem cozy today; in the past it was anything but comfortable. The ground floor served as living room and bedroom. It contained a box bed for two people, a kitchen alcove, and some storage space. Until the middle of the 20th century, a mill would have a small outhouse above a ditch. Jan explains that millers with large families, some with more than ten children, had to create sleeping places everywhere. Sometimes, the youngest child would sleep underneath the parents’ bed, while the other children slept either in the living room, on the second floor, or on the third floor—right under the clamoring cogwheels!
Some mills served as pumps for draining polders—tracts of lowland that may formerly have been the floor of a lake or of the sea. The mill had to pump day and night. Standing in open pasture, the mill would catch a great deal of wind—making the inside drafty and cold. Add to that the dangers of gales and electrical storms, and it is clear that windmill residents led a harsh existence. Currently, some 150 windmills in the Netherlands are still inhabited, often by qualified millers.
While the windmill is scooping water, we go outside and sit on a bench. Jan tells us about the different purposes windmills have served—gristmills for grinding grain, polder mills for pumping water into a river or a reservoir, oil mills for extracting oil from seeds, paper mills for producing paper, sawmills for cutting timber, and so on. He also explains that the first windmill for drainage was built early in the 15th century. Later, such mills were used to drain several lakes, such as the Schermer, Beemster, and Wormer lakes, located near Amsterdam.
Today hundreds of thousands of Dutch live and work on land that was formerly the bottom of these and other lakes. In fact, the Netherlands’ main airport near Amsterdam is built on the bottom of a reclaimed lake. Passengers strolling through the airport are walking 13 feet [4 m] below sea level! But you need not worry that your airplane trip will turn into a sea voyage. Pumping stations powered by diesel or electric engines (the successors of windmills) work around the clock to keep your feet dry.
As the vanes are swooshing by us, Jan asks whether we have heard of talking mills. “Talking mills? No,” we say. He explains that on the flat Dutch landscape, windmills could often be seen for miles, enabling the miller to send a message to far-off neighbors by positioning the vanes in certain ways. For instance, when the miller took a short break, the vanes would be positioned horizontally and vertically (A). Vanes in a diagonal position signaled that he was off duty (B). This position would also be chosen during bad weather to keep the vanes as low as possible, thereby reducing the risk of their being struck by lightning. By locking the coming vane just before it reached its highest point, the miller expressed joy and expectation (C). Sorrow and mourning were expressed by locking the passing vane just after it had passed its highest point (D).
There were many local customs too. North of Amsterdam, mills were sometimes decorated for happy occasions, such as weddings. Then the vanes were positioned diagonally, off duty, with ornaments and trimmings strung between them. During World War II, when the country was occupied by the German army, local people used the vane positions to warn those in hiding that an army raid was imminent. Hearing all these and other fascinating facts about mills made our visit with miller Jan a memorable experience.
Some years ago windmill preservation efforts received a boost when a group of 19 mills in Kinderdijk, near the harbor city of Rotterdam, were placed on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. As a result, what were at one time little more than ordinary factories have now become cultural monuments. Moreover, numerous dedicated volunteers maintain and protect the mills throughout the country. Through their efforts, today tourists from around the world can still enjoy some of the same windmills that inspired famous painters in the past.
[Box/Pictures on page 23]
Export Ban on Windmills
Some 300 years ago, windmill technology was in demand. Parts of mills were leaving the Netherlands by the boatload. On top of that, foreigners spied out the country in search of millwrights, luring them to jobs abroad. Before long, Dutch windmill technology was seen at work in the Baltics, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. In fact, by the middle of the 18th century, the windmill technology drain had become so critical that the government of the Netherlands decided to step in. In February 1752 the authorities imposed a ban on the export of windmills. From then on, according to Dutch historian Karel Davids, no one was allowed to help a foreigner buy, construct, or transport “any part of a Dutch windmill” or “to export any tool that could be used to build them.” Who said that trade barriers and industrial espionage are modern-day phenomena?
Below: Jan turns the cap of the mill to face the wind; wooden cogs and toothed wheels; the living room
All photos: Stichting De Utrechtse Molens
[Diagram/Pictures on page 22]
[Picture Credit Line on page 21]
De Saen painting by Peter Sterkenburg, 1850: Kooijman Souvenirs & Gifts (Zaanse Schans Holland)