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The Page Begins Here

Little Old Mills,
by Marion Nicholl Rawson, 1935.



Flag on the mill, ship on the bay.

Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York.

Catching the Wind

It was the winds and the tides which bought the Friends to New Jersey, the Walloons to Manna-hatta, and the New World lords of the manor to far-flung Virginia, and it was these same winds and tides to which the newcomers looked for the grinding of the newly discovered maize and the sawing of a vast supply of forest trees, as soon as might be. There were various ways in which these two elements might be applied to labor, and the cleverer the man the more fruitful the element. To use the tides to advantage we have already found was early done. To use the winds through the weeks and months of crossing the Atlantic, great sheets or sails had been raised upon mast and spar, and so, when it was decided to use the wind again for grinding and sawing, the same plan was followed for catching it; upon what the user's birthright had been in the matter of national background, depended just how his mill should be built.

Sails were sewed and fitted to be hung upon frames which would catch the wind and turn wooden wheels, and give power to the saw or run of stones down below. With the use of these air-slaves, the sky must have seemed much nearer than the earth to the miller, and the sky is always a friendly companion. In spite of the fact that a windmill is built upon the simple principle of the wheel and axle, or interlocking cogs or pegs working upon each other in revolution, there were several types of windmills.


The oldest type is the "post mill." The old post mill below Church Creek in Dorchester Country, Maryland,, is a perfect example of this type and is still standing. This type of mill has a unique great oaken post which measured some two feet in diameter. This stood upon a support of stone or timbers crossing beneath its base and called "cross trees." Upon the post a small one-room house was built, which resembled a tidy corn-crib, but was often covered with neat clapboards - and shingled above like any earthbound home. The post's size made it a standard of hugeness and gave rise to various old "saws" or "sourdoughs," some of them a bit rude in their great expressiveness" In 1592 some one remarked of an acquaintance: "He hath thwittled the milepost of his huge conceit to a pudding-pricke." In 1702: "His mill-post Legs are well adopted for the Load of his Body." In 1739:

"Let dangling Stockings, with becoming Air,
Leave to the Sight your brace of Mill-posts bare."

From these we gather that mill posts were sturdy affairs.

Naturally with such a load upon its head the post was well propped and steadied by slanting timbers called "quarter boards" which gave a spider-like appearance to the top-heavy structure. Then there were ladder-like steps from the ground to the mill door on high. The reason for this strange formation was that the whole upper part, or the house itself, was to turn upon the top of the post in a great wooden collar, so that whichever way the wind listed the sails were facing it and ready to catch it in their arms, to their own turning. Attached firmly to the bottom of the building a great "tail pole" extended downward at an angle, generally passing between the rungs of the ladder, and it was with this tail-pole or "tail-beam" that the house was turned. This pole measuring from one to two feet through was sometimes made of a conveniently salvaged mast from a wrecked ship. To lighten labor in the turning of the tail-pole, a high standing cart wheel was usually fastened to its lower end, or a horse set to drag ii into place. To worn track which in time came to encircle the mill from this tramping and wheeling around, was called the "mill round" and was often marked off with occasional rocks which could be used when a block and tackle were made to substitute for a horse.

Later years wove a modest skirt or "round house" about the hitherto exposed lower limbs of these old post mills for the procuring of more working space in the mill, but their general scheme of arrangement was not changed thereby, for the upper part still swung about independently of its downstairs neighbor.

The "smock mill" took its name from its resemblance to the old "smock" or "frock" - that loose garment of our forefathers during week days - and was more popular than the post mill. It was also the petticoat mill. With this type the mill-house sat squarely upon the ground, and might be of a cylindrical form or many-sided with a generous amount of covered mill space upon its two or three floors. It had a cap-like headpiece, which was the only part which revolved to meet the wind, and was naturally a much easier process than turning the whole mill, especially since it traveled upon a wooden track well greased with mutton tallow.

As with the smock mill so it was with the mill built of stone in the form of a tower - only its headpiece revolved. Several of these tower-like mills have come down to us more or less well preserved, at last as to contour. They are very lovely landmarks, reaching a height of from thirty to forty feet, perhaps covered with vines, and with varying caps, usually the gable, the gambrel, the conical or dome-like roofs. The pity is that so many have been allowed to pass from under our eyes after their practical usefulness was over.

Taken by and large there is no finer sight than the old Dutch windmill standing boldly against the skies of the North Sea. As though it hastened to bring us its grace and beauty, this type of mill came early to our shores, somewhat shortened in height perhaps, but surrounded with the same wide-swung balcony a man's height above the ground and braced with long slanting underpinning, and tapering gently from a broad base to a small revolving top where the monstrous widespread sails glinted their four-strong canvases. In the very earliest records and pictures of Manhattan, the great old windmill of Dutch build shows above the rest of the settlement, the only rival in height being the gallows neat the shore - or was it for hoisting cargoes? The Dutch loved their windmills and gave them the preference on Manhattan as well as on Long Island. Even before the first gristmill was erected in Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1633 - the first mill in the country to be run by water-power - there was a windmill standing in the same settlement, placed there before 1632 but moved to Copp's Hill in Boston, for a likelier wind.

While the vanes of the other types of windmills often reached so low that their sales could be adjusted by the miller as he stood upon the ground, the Dutch type from Holland had its vanes sweep no lower than the circular balcony. Both above and below this balcony was abundance of mill space. To the man on the outside of one of these old mills there seems to be no activity anywhere about, except up against the sky where the sails are sailing. Although these remarks of an early Indian have become trite through quoting and requoting, they must surely be repeated once more here. From the writings of William Wood, who was casting a speculative eye over future Boston in the year 1634, we have this: "They" -the Indians -"do much extoll & wonder at the English for their strange Inventions, especially for a Wind mill, which in their exteeme was little less than the world's wonder for the strange-ness of his whisking motion, and the sharpe teeth biting the corne (as they terme it) into such small pieces; they were loathe at the first to come neere to his long arms, or to abide in so tottering a structure........."

Vanes and Sails

The accompanying drawings of the workings of an old and a modern windmills, which their slightly inclined wind-shafts carrying the sails, their shafts and cogged wheels, give an idea of how the wind reaches the central shafts and travels down it to make the stones go round. From the standpoint of artistic interest there is little comparison between the old and the new machinery devices used, for the old -make of the trees of the forest felled and broad axed into shape, adzed for a modicum of smoothness, cogged to fit wheel into wheel, all left in their pristine state and therefore retaining the beauty of natural wood naturally weathered and aged - win the race against machine steel. Wheels so heavy that only oxen could draw them into place, and whittled cogs and pegs, were first-hand material, made at home where the builder knew that his material was all ready for fitting together, without waiting for broken-down trucks to be sidetracked with important parts, or express and freight to go astray for several weeks. The plumber did not have to go back home for his tools, they were on the spot from the beginning.

There were but three or four steps from the blowing of the wind to the grinding of the corn or the sawing of the wood or the pumping of water, for all the height of the mill and its rude and yet intricate equipment. The wind hit the sails which were fastened upon their latticed stocks or vanes, making them revolve and turn the neatly horizontal shaft to which they were attached. At the end of this shaft was a great vertical wooden wheel edged with roughly hewn cogs or sturdy wooden pegs which, in turning, engaged the pegs or cogs of another wheel, or caught within the bars of a horizontally slatted drum fastened around the main upright shaft, or "mill spindle." This spindle ran down through the mill and was connected with the "eye" of the runner millstone. It was almost as if the very wind itself went along this devious track to turn the stones by hand, so automatic were the results of its tossing against the sails.

Windmill sails hung upon long wooden stocks or vanes, which moved in reverse clock direction and were made of various but always light and strong woods. These stocks were really immense pieces of lattice work, made strong enough to hold the sailcloth against a heavy wind, and generally four in number, although some types carried six or even eight. Running lengthwise within the outer frames, were the wooden "whips," and meeting these at right angles the "sail bars," of more slender lines. Sails for these stocks were made of heavy duck and sewed together by hand just as the sailors of sailing vessels still sew them today. Some were stored within the mill when the mill was idle, but there was also a way to reef them on the stocks. These "biting" sails turning against a windy sky became landmarks and weather vanes. In the 1680's there was a law that no person might cross from New York to Brooklyn in the little rowboat ferry "when the sails of the windmill are taken in.: For this meant storm. "To tell him tydynges how the wind was went."

The sails might measure seven or eight feet in width, but whatever their width and their spread they must be kept solid and untorn. Some of the tallest mills carried sails of immense length. Those on one stock might be twenty-five feet long, and because the sails stopped short of the length of the stock when it approached the mill building, the total span of two opposite sails would run up somewhere around sixty feet. This made an "oncommon wonderful pi'tyer" against the clouds, and there were generally clouds, since the high open spaces were sought for, with their wide unbroken sweep of winds. All of these meant great weight to be borne by the mill, but the "journal" turning in its "journal box," the "rode balk" and the "tail balk," great front and rear timbers, combined to hold the great stocks in place, while there was an inter-bracing of forward sails which rearward stocks, and a mortising with the windshaft which made for safety.

Mathews County, Virginia, hand an old smock mill with four sails shaped like those used to rig a small catboat, all fastened upon an octagonal frame. (must like a Greek or Spanish windmill)

Windmills had much work to do, for they ground corn, sawed wood, ground bark for the tanner, pumped sea water in the making of salt, ground bolted flour, chocolate, snuff, hair-powder and mustard, and were especially handy about turning the grindstone. It was said that "a Dutch-built mill to saw timber would do more work in an hour than fifty men in two days." No wonder then that around the early 1700's windmills were still turning in many places, and modern ones turning today. like other things windmills were not utter perfection, and often they were built at great expense only to be found standing in a place where the winds did not reach them sufficiently, or turned them well only when they were "in the west," which necessitated taking them all apart for reassembling in some windier spot. The management of the heavy sails in bad weather when they had to be reefed, sometimes took the miller's life; and because of the wide circle needed for the running of the tail-beam, much land was wasted. It was found too that not more than five per cent of the energy reckoned on paper was actually obtainable from the wind on the sail surfaces, and that the variability of wind power might be well enough for a mill that was merely pumping slowly along, but was not sufficient for doing continuous or commercial work. Again, when the wind was at its best, as in a storm, the speed of the sails at the circumference was greater than the speed of the wind, so that only the reefing of the sails could prevent the reaching of the disrupting point.

Fortunately there are still windmills standing for us to enjoy, some from the 1600's but more from the next tow centuries. Cape Cod has a generous supply, and Rhode Island has some, while Long Island and Nantucket and Virginia and Maryland have their own to add to the list, some running, some quiet. It was not an unusual sight to see a whole fleet of windmills in the earlier days, where salt was made near the sea, especially in New England, just as they have stood along the canals of Holland through the years. These fleets have caught the winds differently in their sails through the centuries and some had sailed away in smoke and some through neglect and some through the very power which they were built to catch and hold. Apropos" "The same water that drives the mill, decayeth it."

On eastern Long Island alone there remain several of the old windmills, some on their original locations and others which have been moved for their betterment or preservation. Through the kindness of E. C. Hedges, the librarian of the East Hampton Free Library, the following valuable list is given, and from it we may see to what uses our little old mills may still be put. Apropos of their use, is the subject of the newly abandoned lighthouses all along our Atlantic coast, which may or should be preserved by local support.

Some Windmills on Eastern Long Island

1. Shinnecock Hills Mill known as "The Claflin Mill." Built in Southampton by Jeremiah Jagger, Mannaseh Kempton and Thomas Stephens 1713. Stood on Wind Mill Hill corner Windmill Lane and Hill Street, where is now the Irving garage. Moved to Shinnecock Hills 1889 -Now stands on the Claflin Garden.

2. The Betts mill. Moved from Good Ground (now Hampton Bays) 1890, for a summer cottage.

3. Wind Mill at Watermill. Built on North Haven 1800, moved by ox-teams 1813 to Green at Watermill by James Corwith, operated until 1887. Machinery still intact.

4. Water Mill. Tide mill at Water Mill, established 1644 by Edward Howell, leader of the Southampton Colony. Used until 1900. Now a Community Center, used in summer by the Association for the Blind (New York State) as a shop and tea room (1932).

5. Hayground Mill. Built 1801, operated until now an artists' studio (1932). At Hayground.

6. Berwind Mill -Bridgehampton. Built 1820 in Sag Harbor on Beacon or Beebe's Hill. When a whale ship entered the Harbor a flag was raised on the Mill. So came the adage "Flag on the Mill, ship in the Bay." Moved to Bridgehampton 1837. Stood near lumberyard, then on Ocean Road. Purchased by John E. Berwind and removed to his property (1932).

7. The Wainscott Mill -Built in Southampton on Wind Mill Lane on Wind Mill Hill (there were tow mills there for some time). Moved to Wainscott and later became the summer home of Lathrop Brown on the bluff of Montauk near the lighthouse.

8. Hook Mill. East Hampton. Built 1796 by Nathaniel Downing, operated until 1907. Purchased by the village for a Memorial to Soldiers of World War 1920.

9. Home Sweet Home Mill or Pantigo Mill. East Hampton. Built 1771 by Abram Gardiner, stood on Mill Hill, west side of the Green, where is now a tree. Moved to Pantigo (Amagansett Road, 1850). Purchased by Gus. N. Bueck 1915 and moved to John Howard Payne Garden (1932).

10. Gardiner Mill. Built by Abraham Gardiner 1771 (after selling his share in the other mill same year). Stands on place where it was built, east side of Main Street Burying ground. Machinery still intact. East Hampton.

11. Mill on Gardiner Island. Owned by Lion Gardiner, built in 1803, distinguished by being painted white, is a landmark for sailors.

12. Sylvester Manor Mill- Shelter Island. Owned by Miss Cornelia Horsford, built in 1795, raised May 23rd in Southold according to original miller's book. Nathaniel Dominy Jr. Master workman (with father Nathaniel Sr.) present. Built to replace the old Petticoat Mill which was built by R. Homan for David Gardiner in the year (?). "was crazy and gone to decay." Moved from Southold to Shelter Island and set up at Shelter Island Center where it stood until (?). Then moved to highest point on Sylvester Manor Estate. The mill was operated during the World War by Miss Horsford who keeps it repaired, reshingling it in 1929.

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