Windmills 101: De Zwaan

Last week for spring break (the perks of working at a school!) I ventured to Western Michigan to visit my grandmother, attend my cousin’s bridal shower, and get closer to my Dutch immigrant roots.

The town of Holland, in addition to being the home of my Dutch forebears for generations (it was founded in 1847), is also home to De Zwaan—the only authentic working Dutch windmill in the United States.

It was originally built in the Netherlands during the second half of the 18th century. I haven’t been able to sleuth out which year it was exactly—one source says 1761, another 1776.

De Zwaan sits at the edge of downtown Holland on a site aptly named Windmill Island.

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It’s been there since 1964 when it was purchased by two Holland residents who wanted to pay homage to the town’s Dutch heritage. It was also the last windmill to leave the Netherlands, as all remaining mills have since been christened national monuments.

De Zwaan is a grain mill (and you can buy bags of flour ground by the mill in the gift shop!). When you enter the mill on the ground floor you’re introduced to a shaft decked out with a dangling wooden shoe and rigged with a rope elevator. The farmer would come in with his grain and send up a note and/or money to the miller via the wooden shoe. He’d then attach his sacks of grain to the rope elevator so that the miller could hoist them up before sending the finished bags of flower back down. This way, the miller wouldn’t have to waste time scurrying up and down ladders.

Looking down the elevator shaft

Looking down the elevator shaft

During my visit and tour of the mill, I learned that the top part where the blades attach can rotate a full 360 degrees to catch the wind from whichever direction it’s blowing. The miller can also attach sails or shutters to the blades to catch more wind, thus optimizing the speed of the blades for grinding.

The ship's wheel-like mechanism used to rotate the top section of the mill and blades.

The ship’s-wheel-like mechanism used to rotate the top section of the mill.

Up-close look at De Zwaan's blades

An up-close look at De Zwaan’s blades

In the good ol’ olden days in the Netherlands the miller would also set the position of the blades to communicate with his community (ex: The blades set in a stationary X meant that he was gone for a while and not to bring your grain that day.) or decorate them for special events like weddings.

The Dutch used windmills for a variety of tasks in addition to grain grinding, most notably to pump water. It’s thanks in large part to the Netherlands’s windmills that the country was able to develop as it did, reclaiming what would otherwise remain flooded land.

During WWII windmills served yet another purpose: The Dutch resistance used them as lookout towers to observe the location of German troops. The Germans eventually caught on and destroyed many mills as a result. And beams from De Zwaan’s original blades show WWII bullet holes!

De Zwaan original blade with WWII bullet holes

I loved interacting with this piece of living history!

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Bonus bridal shower photo:

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5 comments

  1. I never would have thought there was a windmill in the US. Or a town named Holland. Such regretful ignorance, but in my defense I live in the other side of the world. 🙂 Thanks for this little eye-opener. Best of luck to you, and happy travels!

    1. Thanks for stopping by my blog! I’m happy to have opened your eyes to the delights of small-town Michigan. 😉 Happy travels to you, too!

  2. Jamie · · Reply

    Oh, what a nice description of the windmill in general and its place in the history of the Netherlands! I didn’t even know about the rotation of the whole top part. Did you know De Zwaan means “the swan?” Maybe there were resident swans in the water at its original location. Your pictures are great, as usual, and very artistic! I particularly love the one of you by the canal with the windmill to the side; it could have been taken in the Netherlands!

    1. I did know that “De Zwaan” means “the swan” or “graceful bird.” Every time I go to any of the Dutch culture Holland, MI attractions, I get a burning desire to go to the Netherlands.

  3. Jamie · · Reply

    We do have a tentative date for that at some point in the future!

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