After paying a modest entry fee for this unusual museum, I went into a room to watch a video about wind and windmills that was clearly made for children attending elementary school. And unless you bring kids of that age with you, I suggest skipping it. The video room is just one part of an historic barn that contains a wide collection of the windmills, model windmills of the sort one puts in one’s front yard, and a number of information signs. There are also buttons that activate select windmills. The vanes of one, for example, move inward at a sharp angle, this being a feature owners used to prevent an exceptionally powerful wind from doing damage. A volunteer gave me a tour of the barn’s contents. A retiree, she herself is a windmill enthusiast, at one point proudly telling me about the time someone wanted to piece together two different manufacturers of windmills for display and how that was just wrong and she put a stop to that! Her passion for windmills was infectious.
This mechanical tool has a surprisingly socio-economic history. In the days before flour was available year round in stores, one had to go either grind their grain by hand (a laborious and time consuming process) or, in areas with lots of rivers, have the local watermill do it. The drawback was that the mills owners had a monopoly that allowed them to charge exorbitant prices. Wind-powered mills began appearing as competition.
The first windmill design appears in the historical record between 400 and 100 c.e. Invented in Iran, the Persian windmill had a horizontal sail wheel that powered a grinding mill. Brought to Europe by Muslims invading Spain as well as returning Crusaders, this design didn’t worked very well in less windy areas, so it was replaced by the post windmill, a type that had vertical sails much higher off the ground to better catch the wind. The Dutch, surely the one people we most associate with windmills (save, perhaps, for Don Quixote), invented the hollow post windmill, or wipmolen, used mainly to drain water. The Dutch also created the Smock Windmill, which had a moving wheel that could catch the wind from any direction. The first windmill in North America was erected about twenty miles away from Jamestown near the mouth of the James River. Built and operated by Sir George Yardley in 1620, it powered a grinding wheel.
The need for windmills wasn’t all that great in the early days of the American colonies and United States because the many rivers in the region made water the power of choice for grinding mills. It wasn’t until Americans began settling beyond the Mississippi that this changed, for here water was much