A Time To Look Back…..Not so long ago….
The charming symbol of the Dutch windmill belies its vital purpose in the history of The Netherlands. The eminently useful windmill is credited with building the country into a major world player in trade and naval prowess in the 17th and 18th centuries. With windmills, the Dutch harnessed the wind as no people had done before. Ten thousand working windmills dotted the land in the early 20th century but today only around 1,200 remain. They are preserved as important cultural and historic sites and are very popular tourist destinations
Windmills are thought to have made their way to Europe from the Middle East before the 13th century, possibly arriving with returning Crusaders. Their likely first use in The Netherlands was to grind corn. The earliest recorded water drainage mill was at Reijerwaard in 1414. Historian Frederick Stokhuyzen cites laws of “manorial rights” which could determine placement and use of windmills. The 16th and 17th centuries saw the pinnacle of windmill use.
There is no single primary purpose for Dutch windmills but land drainage and control and industrial power were the two primary purposes. In a very literal way, the Dutch built the country with windmill power. Water drainage, reclamation and management were and still are a constant occupation in the small, watery low lying country. Without windmills the water would have won the war. Mills provided power for milling grain and every kind of raw material and running saw mills, the two most important industrial uses.
The variety of products produced by the Dutch with the aid of windmills cannot be over stressed. They allowed the Dutch to use and export grain, tobacco and cocoa– the latter two during the height of their popularity. Spices and dyes, chalk and lime were among the many other purposes for which windmills were used. Some say the American Declaration of Independence was recorded on parchment tanned at a windmill powered Zaanse Schans tannery.
To visit an area where windmills are preserved today, the Kinderdijk, just outside of Rotterdam, is the place. At the crossing of the Lek and Noord rivers, windmills were used here as all over The Netherlands in the constant battle against the water. They pumped water for land reclamation and to prevent flooding beginning in the 13th century.
A good example of windmills used for industry is the Zaan Region. Its proximity to Amsterdam, its river location and good wind made it perhaps the world’s first industrial center serving the country’s trading empire developing in the 16th century. There, sawmills run by the wind provided so much lumber that at the time production in the area rose 3,000 percent.
It could be said that the Dutch found the windmill, maximized its use and exported the refined engineering to the rest of the world. With their trading and naval ships and the emigration of many Dutch citizens, the know-how to use wind power spread internationally. Today, as the need to rid ourselves of reliance on fossil fuels becomes apparent, we are looking to windmills as a low-impact and renewable energy source