Let’s Talk About: Windmills!

In April 2024, I was blessed to spend two weeks in Holland on a Viking riverboat cruise. Besides learning that Gouda cheese is “wunnerful,” I eagerly soaked up lots of Dutch history. Since many family historians find that they have a family line going back to the Netherlands (proper name of that little country), I thought I’d share some of the Dutch history bits that I learned.

I learned that over half of this little flat country, right on the North Atlantic, would be underwater if the windmills (and modern pumping stations) didn’t keep pumping. I was told that with rising ocean levels and glacial melting increasing the rivers’ flow through Holland, it’s a constant battle of man against nature.

I heard this wag more than once:  “God made the world but the Dutch made Holland.” The industrious Dutch constructed dykes and dams and pumped the water out (into the ocean) and the resulting polders provided rich farmland for a growing vegetables (and tulips!) for a growing population. 

The original windmills had a keeper-miller who lived in the base of the tower with his family. He needed to be a good judge of weather. It was his job to keep the blades turning, and the water pumping, but not endanger the structure. The top of the structure rotated as needed by hand to get the blades in best wind-catching position. 

I visited a restored windmill and was amazed at the strength and work it took to move those big wooden blades into position, often several times in a 24-hour period. 

Windmills were not invented until the 1700s and didn’t come into widespread use until into the 1800s……… before this time, when much of Holland was flat, mushy land, the cities were confined to higher points where they could be found. Before windmills, the early inhabitants built dykes to keep the water from their homes. (Amster was the town began on the Amster’s Dyke.) 

Fascinating topic; one could read a big book and not learn all there is to know about Dutch windmills.