From the S&S archives: The windmills of Holland
January 9, 2006
WHEN A TOURIST visits Holland one of the first things he wants to see is a windmill, for the windmill has been associated with the landscape of the flatlands for centuries.
But to the Dutch the windmills represent much more than a colorful sight. The windmill has helped to feed them, house them, keep them warm, and it has reclaimed thousands of acres of rich land once hidden beneath lakes and the Zuider Zee.
Today, electric power stations have taken over much of the work of windmills in The Netherlands. But many are still in use and serve a variety of functions. They are used as lumber mills, grain mills and are still in operation reclaiming land from beneath the water. Many of the mills serve as homes.
The popular belief that windmills are everywhere in Holland by the thousands is erroneous. Actually, there are only 1,750. Most of them are in use today as they have been for more than seven centuries. Others are idle or have been partly converted into quarters for the farmer-owners.
The country's windmill "population" consists of 700 polder mills and 1,050 industrial mills, mostly corn windmills. But of the total, 1,300 are still in use.
Holland did not originate the principle of the mill, but it did improve upon it. Mithridates the Great, king of Pontus, owned a water mill 132 years before Christ and the Romans also had them. In those days the mills were used both as water mills and for grinding corn.
Slave power, of course, was used generally before the Christian era in grinding corn, for bread has been one of mankind's primary needs. The hand process of grinding grain is still used in some backward countries, but even in the 12th Century, when much of Europe was following the hand process, the Dutch had enslaved the wind and made it perform the task of manual labor with the introduction of the windmill.
Earliest record of timber mills in Europe goes back to about 1250 A.D. These were post mills constructed of oak. They served to grind grist, which had been carried out up to then in portable hand mills. The name "post mill" derived from a beam — a sturdy upright axle shaft made of wood around which the entire mill body pivoted. The body contained the millstones, driven around by sails. High in the mill body was the windshaft with its enlarged head block, the end which was designed to face the wind.
Something like 1,000 years ago, a great portion of the Low Countries was one large lake and marsh area. Behind the seaward ridge of sand dunes lay a wide area of land subject to periodical flood from the sea or of the Rhine and Meuse rivers. The Dutch then, constantly alert for signs of flood, reinforced their banks with dikes. This primitive method of holding back the sea was not often successful.
Then in 1350, someone hit upon the idea of converting one of the existing post windmills to the drainage of low lying land. This idea is being followed in Holland even today.
However, in the course of designing later windmills adaptable for drainage work, many changes were made in their construction. The large and high body of the post mill, frequently containing two floors, was replaced by a smaller, structure, just enough for the transmission, and the pyramidical roundhouse beneath the mill body was expanded into the actual working space. It no longer contained millstones but a vertical scoop-wheel.
A polder mill is one used in the reclamation of land which has been or may be submerged by water. Just outside of the university city of Leyden, there are a score of windmills most of which are used to drain water out of the lowlands. A small canal is usually built in the lowest section and water is drained off into it. In that way the land is reclaimed and becomes usable.
There is a lumber mill just outside of Amsterdam that has been there for 300 years and has been used continually in that time as a sawmill. Every action in cutting lumber, from dragging the log into the mill and its sawing, is done by the windmill. It can saw 11 large logs a day with its 50 horsepower.
Every mill has a name distinctly its own and these are peculiar. The sawmill, for instance, is called Friendship, and others have such names as Birth, Death, and Life.
The windmills of Holland have been responsible for many proverbs, some of which are known to many other countries. Take the expression "That's corn for his mill." The English variation is "That's grist in his mill." The Dutch millers used to say "He who comes first, grinds first." That expression today is "First come, first served"
Dutch windmills possess not only tradition but color. The poll end of a windmill is usually decorated with a star motif, frequently gold, red, blue or white. The timber work of polder mills is often green, with white or some other color added for the framework.
The windmills have a way of telling about things that go on, even as transmitters of news. For hundreds of years millers have used a "sail code" by which they pass on information from mill to mill. Mourning or celebrations of one kind or another are expressed in this manner, although the miller can also show that he is ready to accept more work for his corn mill or that he is angry about the fouling of water.
If the sails are set at a 45 degree angle to the horizontal — or vertical — it means that the windmill is to remain unused for some time. But when the sails of a polder mill are set in that position it is called the "protest position." It means the mill can work, but the flow of water is restricted by surplus vegetation in the drainage channels.
Now if a miller should set his sails just slightly before the vertical and horizontal he is proclaiming that there will be a celebration in his mill because of some pleasant news.
When the sails are set just past the "working position" it is in the mourning state. Someone in the family has died. The miller stops his mill and sets it in that position when a funeral cortege passes and follows the procession through to the churchyard by turning the mill or cap to face it.
Holland's windmills, which have endured for so many centuries, will always dot the landscape. The Dutch won't have it any other way.