The Surprising Personality of a Real Dutch Windmill

Our tour guide was a young woman who was wearing a white bonnet, three skirts, and eleven pairs of socks. Her wooden shoes clunked as she led us out onto the windmill’s gallery deck where she asked, “You know how ships are always girls?” She then pointed up towards a carved white board nestled under the green-shingled roof. It looked strangely like a gnome beard. “Well, windmills are boys,” she declared. So it’s a thing, windmills have whiskers. Until I visited Windmill Island Gardens in Holland, Michigan, I had no idea of the complexity of windmills. There’s no better place to see this than the garden’s 250-year-old De Zwaan windmill, the only authentic, working Dutch windmill in the United States.

Holland, MI, was founded by religious refugees who left the Netherlands in 1847. Since then, they and their descendants never forgot their roots. Every May during tulip season, the town hosts its Tulip Time Festival, an event that draws huge crowds. Even when the tulips aren’t blooming, there are many Dutch-themed attractions to visit, with De Zwaan being the most beautiful and historic.

It was a misty gray Saturday morning when my wife Emily and I visited the gardens, and we practically had the place to ourselves. We walked across a narrow drawbridge to the island where the windmill stood in the mist, overlooking a horse pasture, green lawns and flowering trees along a small canal. De Zwaan, a tower mill whose name means ‘graceful bird’ in Dutch, was imported from the Netherlands in 1964 and rebuilt on a Michigan brick base. It’s weathered a lot of history. You can even see bullet holes from World War Two in the building.

I asked our windmill guide about her wooden clogs. She told us that the Dutch used to wear wooden shoes (called klompen) because they were practical. They float in water, are sturdy on mud, clean up easily, are cheap to make, and are hard enough to protect toes from animal hooves. Klompen with pointy ends were for fishermen because “they could use them to kick up their fishing nets.”

Wooden shoes can be used in other ways, too. There was one hanging from a rope in the windmill’s central elevator shaft. “That’s used to communicate with the miller,” said our guide. Visitors on the ground floor can stuff notes into the shoe. The miller, who usually works upstairs, can reel the note up instead of shouting down the shaft to talk.

Another rope in the elevator shaft is powered by the windmill blades and hoists heavy bags of grain to the top of the windmill to be stone-ground into flour. De Zwaan is still in use, and you can buy its whole wheat/graham flour at the gift shop. While we didn’t see her on our tour, Alisa Crawford is De Zwaan’s miller. She learned Dutch, went to the Netherlands and successfully trained to become a windmiller. She’s unique because only ten percent of women worldwide are windmillers, and Alisa is the only female certified windmiller in the U.S.

As we climbed the stairs circling around the windmill’s five levels, the rooms kept getting smaller. Each room has a specific function to mill the grain. I’m still impressed at how much a windmill is like a sailing ship, with all its gears, ropes and pulleys. To harness the wind power, miller Crawford has to haul up and fasten a set of 50-pound canvas sails to each of the four huge blades. Each blade is 80 feet tall. By treading the spokes of what looks like a ship’s steering wheel, the miller can slowly aim the blades to face whatever direction the wind is coming from.

Along with providing the mill with power, windmill blades have a symbolic power. Depending on how they’re positioned, or what kind of canvas is used, they can represent the community’s mourning or joy.

There are other attractions at the gardens, such as a klompen dance demonstration, an Amsterdam street organ, a vintage carousel, a greenhouse and a small recreation of a Dutch village. However, the windmill tour is easily the highlight. Here you learn about the multiple uses of wooden shoes (including two-way communication), see some real Dutch history, and discover the ingenuity of windmills

Windmill Island Gardens
1 Lincoln Ave., Holland MI 49423
open from April to October
admission is $8