Red wax balls of Gouda, tins of Dutch cocoa and packets of Wilhelmina peppermints line grocery store shelves in Holland. Buttery Dutch cookies and rye bread scent the air at local bakeries. Gift shops sell clunky wooden shoes and delicate blue-and-white Delft porcelain, all of it manufactured locally on equipment from the Netherlands. And in springtime the city bursts with 4.5 million tulips in all the shades of the rainbow.
Holland, Mich., likes to tout its European roots.
Founded in 1847 by immigrants from the Netherlands, Holland brims with Dutch details. But none are more impressive than the city’s towering windmill, De Zwaan, the only authentic working Dutch mill in the United States.
OLD WORLD ICON
No one is more intimately familiar with De Zwaan’s history — or its inner workings — than Alisa Crawford, De Zwaan’s miller and event coordinator. Occupying the rare position of a city employee whose chief role is that of managing the town’s 18th century windmill, Crawford has made it her job to master the operation of De Zwaan. Along the way, she has learned an appreciation for how special this landmark really is.
“It’s remarkable, when you think about it,” she says. “The Dutch government had banned the export of its windmills following World War II,” having deemed the mills national treasures. “But here was this windmill in Vinkel, badly damaged during the war. And here was this small town in America, strong supporters of the Netherlands during the war. It was just one of those moments in history where everything came together.”
Holland residents Willard Wichers and Carter Brown made their case to the Dutch government in 1964. And a convincing case it was. With a check for $2,800 and a promise to take good care of De Zwaan, the windmill, constructed in 1761, was sold to the city of Holland.
It was to be the last windmill allowed to leave the Netherlands.
De Zwaan’s 70 tons were disassembled and transported brick by numbered brick across the Atlantic where the windmill was carefully reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. Damages caused by age and the consequences of war were repaired and the mill was made whole by a visiting Dutch millwright. And on April 10, 1965, the newly reconstructed mill was dedicated on Windmill Island, a location that would have made its 18th century Dutch builders smile: On a plot of reclaimed swampland.
NEW WORLD LANDMARK
It’s Alisa Crawford’s job to keep De Zwaan in good working order. Visitors may catch sight of her high atop the mill’s blades, some 125 feet above ground, clinging to the latticework, unwrapping and securing De Zwaan’s fabric sails.
Crawford is also responsible for turning the capstan wheel, a wagon wheelshaped gear that repositions the cap and its attached blades to take advantage of the prevailing winds. Rotating the heavy, slow-moving cap 180 degrees can consume as much as an hour of her time.
De Zwaan looks beautiful when its blades are turning in the wind. But Crawford’s efforts aren’t aimed at appearances alone. She’s interested in grinding grain into flour, a stipulation imposed by the Dutch government when they sold the mill 50 years ago.
“Operating a windmill is a physically demanding job and not for everyone,” she explains. “You must be able to lift at least 50 pounds, climb up the blades, turn the heavy capstan to rotate the cap and enjoy having a built-in stairmaster with seven flights of stairs and ladders.”
Whether the job is difficult, it is indeed a rare one, particularly for an American female. Crawford was the first foreign student allowed entry into the Dutch miller certification program, one organized in the Netherlands solely in Dutch. After learning the language and completing her coursework, she became a member of the Dutch Grain Millers Guild. She remains the only Dutch-certified miller in the Americas and one of only a handful of such millers that is female. Only 15 percent of all certified Dutch millers are women.
TOURIST HOT SPOT
When weather conditions are right, Crawford untethers the blades and De Zwaan swings into action. Visitors can get a close-up look at the working mill on windmill tours. Wooden gears creak, cogs spin and whir, crushing whole grain between two grindstones. A wooden chute funnels the flour into bags for sale in Windmill Island’s shops, online, to local bakeries and even a distillery.
Visitors can also climb De Zwaan’s wooden stairs to a fourth-story observation deck for a close-up look at the windmill’s blades and to admire Windmill Island’s 36 acres of parkland. Manicured gardens cover much of the island, planted with tulips, hyacinths and daffodils in spring, with brightly colored annuals in summer. Narrow canals, dikes and arched bridges add the finishing touches.
Windmill Island’s small shopping district is modeled after a typical Dutch downtown. Brick storefronts bear steeply pitched roofs and traditional stair-step facades. Delicate Dutch lace, locally carved wooden shoes, tulips bulbs and Edam and Gouda cheeses are among a few of the Dutch goodies on sale. Also downtown is the Post House Museum, an exact replica of a 14th century Dutch inn, with displays recounting De Zwaan’s move overseas, an Amsterdam street organ, a hand-painted Dutch carousel and costumed Dutch folk dancers.
In 2014 De Zwaan received extensive repairs following the discovery of a large crack in the windmill’s cap. A $760,000 renovation project entailed hiring a Dutch windmill specialist to rebuild the cap and the mill’s sailframe and turning structures.
Alisa Crawford couldn’t be happier with De Zwaan’s improved workings and with the community’s willingness to pitch in to pay the repairs. “In the Netherlands, a windmill served as the heart of an agricultural community. Everyone had to have their grain ground, and so the windmill was very important. It was the gathering space, like post offices used to be in the U.S.”
If De Zwaan doesn’t quite rank as Holland’s central gathering space, it is at least the city’s most important icon. And the timing of the repairs might be seen as fortuitous. The 18th century windmill celebrates its 50th birthday in style, looking fresh, operating smoothly and continuing to churn out freshly-milled flour. Just as she has since 1761.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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