Taking a windmill to the USA from Netherlands

photo by alisa crawford - flour at brixton windmill

Jean Kerrigan reports on the fascinating story of a windmill in Holland, USA

Recently we had a very special request at Brixton Windmill. Alisa Crawford, miller at De Zwaan (the Swan) windmill in Holland, Michigan, USA, had Brixton Windmill on her bucket list and wanted to visit en route to a meeting of professional millers in the Netherlands. She was given a tour by Timo and Dan, two of our volunteer millers, and was extremely complimentary about the quality of the stoneground wholemeal flour that we produce at Brixton from organic English wheat grain.

The 18th-century De Zwaan windmill where Alisa works was installed in the USA in 1965 and was the last historic windmill permitted to leave the Netherlands. It now forms part of Windmill Island, the main tourist attraction in Holland. How it got there is a fascinating story.

Tulip time in America

The town of Holland in Michigan was founded in 1846 by Dutch emigrés fleeing from persecution and economic hardship in the Netherlands. At that time the country they left behind was home to an estimated 9,000 windmills.

By 1849, Holland had four sawmills, but only one was powered by wind. It stood 70ft tall, was built in the traditional Dutch eight-sided style, and had a sail span of 64 feet. It was not the first Dutch-style windmill in the USA. That had been built in 1625 to grind grain on Governors Island – today’s Manhattan Island.

The desire to import a genuine traditional windmill from the Netherlands to install in Holland dates back to the early 20th century. First discussed in 1929, it was driven by a wish to make Holland, Michigan, a better place.

Before deciding to purchase a windmill from the Netherlands, Holland City Council had supported a plan to plant thousands of tulip bulbs to celebrate the first Dutch settlers. In 1928, 100,000 Dutch tulip bulbs were imported and planted in city parks.

The following year a “Tulip Day” was organised, and every year since, the May Tulip Festival has attracted thousands of visitors to the city. A replica Dutch windmill was built in 1934 in Lakeview Park – later renamed Windmill Park – and by 1939 “Tulip Time” had become a nationally known event that lasted nine days.

When the German army occupied the Netherlands in 1940 the city set up a relief committee to help the people of the Netherlands, and the Queen Wilhelmina Fund provided relief for those living under occupation. The Tulip Festival was suspended for the rest of the war and only renewed in 1946.

Operation Windmill

By the start of the 1960s, with almost 30 years of Tulip Time celebrations and the construction of several replica windmills, the idea for an authentic Dutch windmill to be established in Holland as a symbol of its Dutch settler origins resurfaced.

But things had changed in the Netherlands. Where there had once been 9,000 windmills only 990 remained, and they had become significant tourist attractions. The Netherlands’ Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences and the Dutch Mill Society wanted to protect the remaining mills as important monuments.

So in 1961 the federal government of the Netherlands passed the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act prohibiting the export of windmills and other historic buildings. It appeared that Holland’s desire to import an authentic Dutch windmill to the USA was thwarted.

Nevertheless, the plan was kept alive, and in October 1961 “Operation Windmill” was discussed by the mayor, local businessmen and leading Holland citizens. Their plan was to open up nearby swamplands and turn them into a park featuring an authentic Dutch windmill.

An anonymous $1,000 donation to the Greater Holland Community Foundation for Project Windmill gave the plan a boost, and a representative flew to the Netherlands in 1962 to begin negotiations. The Dutch Mill Society was brought on board to support the application to government officials, emphasising the significance of Holland, Michigan, as a home for the early Dutch settlers in north America.

The preference was for a grain mill rather than a water-pumping windmill. Following lengthy discussions permission was granted, and the search was on for a suitable windmill. It was estimated that it would cost between 1,000 and 3,000 guilders.

Holland’s negotiator Willard Wichers worked closely with Dr David Hofmeijer, commissioner of the Netherlands Immigration Service, in the hunt for a suitable windmill that already had government permission to be demolished.

In Michigan, Wichers and the Holland City Council invited Arie de Koning of the Dutch Mill Society to visit to determine if the city had a suitable site for a mill that would not just be a visitor attraction but would also be a working windmill. De Koning recommended an area only half a mile from where the very first windmill was built in 1848 by the first Dutch settlers.

With de Koning’s approval, Project Windmill moved forward speedily. A financial plan was drawn up to cover purchasing the authentic Dutch windmill, securing the land and laying out a garden and other infrastructure necessary for “Windmill Island”.

In December 1962 Dr Hofmeijer visited Holland to tour the proposed site. A month later Wichers received a letter from the Dutch Mill Society telling him that the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences had approved the export of a Dutch windmill to Holland, Michigan. The decision to make an exception to their existing regulations was explained as “thanks to the sympathetic relations between our mutual governments as well as between your and our people, especially between you and your committee and our Society”.

Fifteen months after the decision of the Netherlands government and with enough money secured, the large De Zwaan grain mill in Vinkel, North Brabant, southern Netherlands, was identified as suitable. De Zwaan had a wingspan of 25.5 metres (c.80ft) and a stellingmolen – it stood on a raised base with a gallery.

Built in 1761 near Amsterdam in north Holland, it was originally a hemp mill. When steam power began replacing wind power in that area in the 1880s, it was sold to the more rural community of Vinkel in the south, where it was erected as a bergmolen (a mound mill). Wichers was particularly pleased that it could be restored in Michigan in its original configuration as a stellingmolen making it more visually attractive to tourists.

Importing the windmill

The complex process of dismantling the windmill began in June 1964. The process was difficult because some of the beams were so decayed they had to be replaced. The spur wheel was in poor condition, as were the gears driving the runner stone. Some parts were put in storage while repairs and replacements were made.

Working against the clock, everything was ready to be crated up and loaded on to the Prins Willem van Orange to be shipped from Rotterdam to the USA in early September. It was unloaded on 5 October in Muskegon (the Holland harbour was not big enough) and loaded on to five flat-bed trucks, one trailer and a rig for the 80-foot sail stocks to be taken by road to Holland.

The reconstruction of the De Zwaan windmill in its new home in Holland took place over the winter months. On 10 April 1965, 600 people gathered to see Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who had travelled to the USA dedicate the relocation of the mill in Holland, Michigan. He presented a bottle of water from the Zaan river, so that “De Zwaan would always be near some part of its homeland”.

Windmill Island opened officially on Saturday 8 May 1965. Despite a technical hitch, visitors were able to see De Zwaan’s sails turning. More than 4,000 people visited on the first weekend.

Over the summer Diek Medendorp served as the first miller at DeZwaan while the search was on for an American miller to regularly produce flour. During the first year, 117,000 visitors from 46 USA states and many other countries visited Windmill Island and the historic De Zwaan windmill.

One of the first women millers in the USA

For the past 10 years Alisa Crawford has been the miller and manager of this historic building. She is also the only Dutch certified miller in the Americas and the only woman miller in the Ambachtelijk Korenmolenaars Gilde (the professional and traditional grain-millers guild of the Netherlands).

When she visited us at Brixton, Alisa told us how she got her job.

Alisa’s love of history and traditional crafts began at age 13 and was inspired by a visit made to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Two years later she started an apprenticeship at Crossroads, Michigan, a late 19th-century historical village.

Her milling career began when she was 17 and was apprenticed at the village’s water mill. Later she took over running the mill, becoming one of the first women millers in the USA. That year she also began degree studies in history.

After gaining her master’s degree in history museum studies she was prepared for a career in open-air museums. She joined the Holland Museum in 1997 as education director, and five years later after leaving to start a family she began to work part time at De Zwaan.

Her previous experience was at a water mill and when she applied to be miller at De Zwaan she had to overcome the fact that not only was she a young woman but she had no windmill experience. For her first few years she mainly worked sifting and packaging flour while she was introduced to handling De Zwaan’s machinery.

Determined to take on milling, in 2006 she applied to join the training programme of the Netherlands Guild of Millers. The Guild had never had such a request from an overseas student but, as she was working at an authentic Dutch windmill, they finally agreed.

Alisa had to complete 150 hours of training under Dutch-certified millers, and in preparation for this she learned to speak Dutch. She had to pass an exam proving her fluency before being accepted on the miller training programme.

After working with several Dutch millers, including the only two female millers in the Netherlands, Alisa was accepted as a journeyman level member of the Professional Grain Millers Guild of the Netherlands, becoming the first Dutch-certified miller in the Americas. She can be reviewed for promotion to the master miller level after 10 years.

Today, Alisa not only mills flour regularly at De Zwaan but is also the event coordinator for the entire Windmill Island project. On average 55,000 people visit the windmill in Holland each year.

It was fascinating to meet Alisa at Brixton Windmill and we were very pleased that such a highly qualified traditional miller found Timo and Dan, our volunteer millers, competent, and the quality of the wholemeal stoneground flour we mill at Brixton “excellent”.

To find out where you can purchase Brixton Windmill Flour click here.

Photos below show De Zwaan Windmill (Discover Holland) and Alisa Crawford (Alisa Crawford)

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